Goofin' on God

Most non-profit agencies do not employ private investigators, scrounge through people's trash, or use hidden cameras to pursue their quarry. But the Trinity Foundation has never been typical.

A small, religious enclave in East Dallas that runs a ministry for the homeless, Trinity has also forged a formidable reputation over the years by tracking greed and excess perpetrated in the name of religion.

The foundation monitors religious broadcasters, maintaining a massive videotape library of those peddling salvation on the airwaves. It also runs a telephone hotline for anyone who feels victimized by religious frauds.

By feeding the results of its investigations to reporters, the foundation has helped bring down prominent television evangelists--most notably Dallas' own Robert Tilton. Trinity's zealous watchdog efforts have also drawn frequent lawsuits, although none has been successful to date.

Beginning next month, the foundation will add an awesome new weapon to its arsenal: satire.

The foundation is finalizing plans to take over publication of The Door, a nationally known magazine that employs irreverence and pointed humor to shine light on the idiocy and arrogance that sometimes surface in the religion business. Trinity has big plans for The Door, including a religious send-up role for Texas drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs.

Since it was founded in California 25 years ago, The Door, published six times a year, has built a small but loyal following among believers with a sense of humor. Each issue of the slick magazine features unconventional interviews and standing barbs--such as naming a Loser of the Month--which highlight the unholy aspects of Christianity's pursuit.

Circulation has wavered over the years, and the magazine has never made money, but it has grown into a rarity--a sophisticated humor magazine dealing exclusively with religious matters. And The Door's clout has been multiplied through the broader mass media, which loves to reprint and report on its irreverent send-ups.

Most Christian journalism is "more like public relations," says Mike Yaconelli, one of The Door's founders. But his magazine was started to push the envelope. Its name harkens to the cathedral door in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses and kicked off the Protestant Reformation.

"We were the first for a lot of things in Christian journalism," says Yaconelli, who serves as the magazine's senior editor. "The first to use humor as a kind of weapon, and the first to do adversarial interviews where we confronted people and asked them questions they didn't want to answer."

Starting the magazine was an act of rebellion by Yaconelli and his original partner, a backlash against problems they saw in the organized church. The idea, he says, was not to challenge spirituality itself, but the obscene and bizarre ways in which some chose to pursue it.

"We were sort of angry, cynical young men who were basically fueled by passion," he says.

Since then, The Door has gone on to spare few targets, and frequently offends large blocs of readers en masse. It has, for instance, named Jim Bakker paramour and Playboy foldout Jessica Hahn and the A Team's Mr. T as Theologians of the Year. It runs a regular page reprinting advertisements for the most audacious products marketed in God's name. (One example: the Cross Knife Necklace, a crucifix with a built-in knife blade that is both "inspirational" and "useful," according to its maker.)

The magazine drew the ire of the American Express Company (and got publicity around the world) several years ago when it ran a mock photo of the Pope holding up a credit card and saying, "American Express: Don't Leave Rome Without It." Under threat of lawsuit, Yaconelli says, The Door printed an apology.

"If we don't lose a few readers every issue, we're doing something wrong," says Bob Darden, the current editor of the magazine.

As the magazine grew, Yaconelli himself has gone on to some success. His California company, Youth Specialties, now makes real money selling literature and training programs to religious youth counselors around the world.

Eight years ago, the heart and soul of The Door moved from California to Waco, staunch Baptist turf, which is sometimes referred to as Jerusalem on the Brazos.

Waco author and Baptist deacon Darden took over as editor of the magazine in 1987. While Yaconelli has continued to write columns and consult, Darden has largely shepherded the magazine.

Yaconelli's company has continued to subsidize The Door. The magazine has a paid circulation of about 10,000, but still costs his company between $30,000 and $50,000 a year to publish, Yaconelli says. The Door does not accept advertising, counting on subscription fees and subsidies from Youth Specialties to survive.

But now Yaconelli has decided it is time to pass the publication on. His company no longer wants to spend the money, and he is unsure if he still has the fire in the belly to keep The Door true to its mission.

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David Pazstor