This is one busy man! David Stokes is in his eleventh year as senior pastor of Fair Oaks Church in Fairfax, Virginia, hosts a radio talk show, writes a weekly feature for several online sites, and has found time to publish a book about a famous Texas preacher. Apparent Danger, according to its billing, "may be the most famous story and courtroom drama you have never heard." From the book's website: "His weekly talks are broadcast around the world via the Internet at www.loudonpurpose.com. Along with his early ministry education in theology and divinity, he holds degrees in history and political science.
David has been married to his wife Karen for more than 33 years. They have three married daughters and six grandchildren, and divide their time between homes in Northern Virginia and Florida’s Treasure Coast." Between his various personal and work demands along with travel promoting the book, we were able to catch up with him by phone for this interview last week. We talked about politics, religion, saints and sinners, the media, popular evangelists, and his book.
Was working on Apparent Danger a "labor of love" for you? — or more of a mission to spread the message of the cautionary tale?
I think it's much more of a labor of love, ironically and interestingly, considering the subject matter. The cautionary tale is part of what the book speaks to, but this is not an "agenda" book. It's interesting, some of the feedback I've gotten; there are still a lot of people who very much revere the memory of J. Frank Norris because of his influence. They sort of overlooked his quite obvious flaws [he chuckles] and they think that I must have had an agenda to write an expose'. An expose' 84 years after is kinda, well, I'm just trying to tell a story. A "labor of love," yeah, because I think it's a fascinating story and I'm imminently surprised that no one, other than this amateur author here has figured out to write the story in that kind of way.
Was this your first book?
Yep. I've been writing magazine articles and columns for various magazines and periodicals online and in print, whether in ministry or history. So this is my first book-length. Most of my stuff has been from 1,500 to 3,000 words, so 130,000 words is a bigger deal.
Why were there no photos in your book?
Very good question, and probably my biggest regret. I suspect that if this does well and there's another edition, it will include some artwork. I'm working with a reporter from the Fort Worth Star Telegram.They're running a feature on it the week I'm there doing a book signing and the same question came up. It came from the fact that I wanted the book to be a book that read like a novel, sorta like the In Cold Blood kind of thing. Eric Larson, who's the master of the narrative in non-fiction genre (The Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck), has said that he prefers not to use art in his books because he wants people to get the picture in their minds. Admittedly he is better at describing things; they'd get a better picture. In retrospect, it's my biggest regret in this edition of the book and in subsequent editions there will be some photos in there. [Some photos are available now at the book's website:apparentdanger.com.]
Did you meet with/interview any of the current church officials of FBC?
No. They're so far removed. The church has moved to the outskirts of Fort Worth. I vaguely know the pastor, his name is Don Wills. His uncle is a very good friend of mine and we just haven't connected. When I get to Fort Worth again, I'll probably stop by and see him. The pastor that followed Norris, was a guy by the name of Ritchie, Homer Ritchie. I actually had several sit-down conversations with him about Norris. But from what I understand he is not terribly happy with the book — how I treat Norris. An interesting point here is that about ten or fifteen years ago, the church [FBC of Ft. W.] went back into the Southern Baptist Convention. Norris would probably flip in his grave, because they (the SBC) voted him out.
Are you Baptist?
I grew up as an independent Baptist. We're non-denominational now.
What was the most interesting "Norris" story for you?
Norris shifted away from his rabid anti-Catholicism, particularly after the Second World War. Then the Cold War started and he shifted his gears, he always had to have an enemy. He was big into conspiracies and he looked at communism. In the course of that, he became an ally of the Roman Catholic Church to the extent that in September of 1947, he had an audience with Pope Pius XII in Rome, and got a papal blessing. I think its fascinating considering his past. It's terrible irony!
What was the most significant or telling story about Norris' character?
The fire in 1912. I went over this pretty quickly because it wasn't the focus of my book. But I tried to drop hints where I could. I read the coverage of that and the transcripts and it was an amazing thing that Norris got away with acquittal, particularly on the perjury charge. Because of course, if he was guilty of perjury, then he was probably guilty of arson. Even though it's not conclusive, even historians don't think it is, I don't see any way around it that Norris was somehow involved with a coverup there, and perjured himself.
You said about Norris, that "No one is neutral." You made your views clear, but managed to write in such a way that readers weren't overly influenced by your opinions — they can make up their own minds. Was maintaining the voice of a neutral narrator a difficult task?
Yeah, it was, because if anything, I think I was harder on him than I had originally planned to be simply because of where the facts took me, I got more into the story. Also, knowing of my background and upbringing, how this would be such a hard pill to swallow for some of the people that admire Norris. For example, the remnants of Norris's old empire are in a little college in Arlington, Texas. They have about a hundred students and a little museum there with a lot of Norris memorabilia including some old papers and stuff. The curator is a wonderful lady and she actually helped me by lending me some valuable research materials. I made a donation and I processed some microfilm into printed form and made it available to that school and gave them a copy for their own research. It was a good deal for them. But I know that that school isn't terribly happy with the outcome of the book. So I felt that I was trying to be sensitive to that. Now, having said that, from what I've been able to hear from that side of the camp, they don't see any mercy in what I wrote. If anything, they say that I demonized this man. I don't think I did. You can't read a story of this guy, even with all his flaws, without coming away saying, "The guy certainly had some gifts."
I thought you were very neutral.
I did, too, but neutrality depends on where you are. I've had some people respond saying they were almost cheering for him, hoping he'd get away with it [which he did]. I tried my best to do that [be neutral] and give the guy credit where credit was due. It's a remarkable story. An interesting thing happened with a potential agent. He was ready to take it on after seeing a proposal that didn't include the outcome. He Googled it, and discovered that Norris was acquitted. He said, "The guy should have fried, so I don't want to mess with this." The O.J. story is very interesting, it's a terrible travesty of justice, in my opinion, but it's more interesting because he got acquitted, but then that's the story.
Were you able to speak with any of Norris' descendants?
No. I did get a comment posted on a blog somewhere from a guy who said he's married to one of J. Frank Norris's last living granddaughters. He had planned to read the book and get back to me, but I never heard anything. My first pastorate was in Lubbock, Texas back in 1978. One of Norris's nephews, Homer Duncan, lived in Lubbock, and I got acquainted with him. He gave me some of the originals of his uncle's material. I spent a lot of time with him. He was in the ministry, too, and had left the Baptist Church because of his Uncle Frank and the mean treatment of him. He didn't want to tell them who he was related to.
Tell us how Norris influenced your use of the media — other than paving the way.
Well, Norris was a pioneer broadcaster. But if you actually study the history of national religious broadcasters,the NRB, they don't mention his name even though he was one of the first, and certainly the biggest at the time. He was written out of it, because after the murder trial, he became a pariah, and they didn't want him. That's part of why this story's not known. A lot of the people, a lot of the fundamentalists, the very conservative evangelicals, they were embarrassed, so they wrote him out. He was a pioneer broadcaster, he was "state-of-the-art," he was somebody who knew how to use the media. If he were alive today, he'd be on Facebook, Twitter, he'd have a blog. He'd be doing all those things because he was always looking for a new method. He exploited the tabloid, which was a big deal back in the twenties. He exploited the radio, and he knew how to work it. Norris was campaigning for some politician and made a whistle-stop appearance in Abilene, TX. Thousands showed up to hear him like they would the President. So he was a very interesting and charismatic individual.
Name your top current media evangelists/preachers.
Joel Olsteen, certainly one of the top ones. Rick Warren, although he doesn't use television, he's near the top. I would suggest T.D. Jakes of Fort Worth. He's used the media quite well. Also, Charles Stanley of Atlanta, Georgia.
Your opinion of Jimmy Swaggart.
I would put the word, charlatan, by him. I'm not saying that even charlatans cannot — you know a broken clock is right twice a day. Even charlatans can be right. There's a great passage in scripture, Phillipians, Chapter One, where the Apostle Paul rejoiced when Christ was preached, even if he was preached "in pretense". In other words, if the preacher didn't mean it, at least the message gets out. So to the extent that Swaggart preached anything from the scripture … but his obvious flaws. I mean, he should have gone away, and hid his head and never come back after he did what he did. Especially because he was part of the process of bringing down others, and judge not that ye should be judged, with everything that was going on in his life. I would say charlatan. He was a man of great flaws. I think he rationalized his own sin and it was all about him.
Do you attempt to separate politics and religion in the pulpit?
I do actually write a lot about politics. I'm a columnist for Townhall.com. I write on that. I make an absolute conscious effort, people know where I stand as a citizen, to the extent that my name is associated with my church. But I would say that even though I come down as a conservative Republican, 30 per cent of my congregation is Democrat. I have a culturally diverse congregation. So yeah, I separate it. I talk about issues when they need to be talked about. Especially if they are issues that have a biblical connection, the most important would be the pro-life issue which I'm very strong on. Our church is one of the few that celebrate both the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday and Martin Luther King Day at the same time, because most churches do one or the other. We put them together and I see them as a natural affinity. The Washington Post picked it up and did a piece about that. I try to separate out partisan politics. People know where I stand from my writing and my blog. But I don't campaign. If someone comes in our parking lot and puts flyers on cars, our ushers rip them off and I write an angry letter to the campaign. People are shocked and say, "Aren't you conservative?" Yeah, but this is a church. Our job is the gospel, not that stuff.
I've always been a fan of the "thief in the night" scriptures… many people hear the word "near" and like the disciples, hear "in my lifetime." What's your take on the "end times" and the calendar?
I ceased a long time ago trying to figure all that out. The schematic that I follow, what I believe, is very similar to what Billy Graham's is. As far as I see the book of Revelations for instance. I interpret it in a futurist way, as he did. These are things that are yet to come. People who believe in the literal return of Christ, as do I, believe in the imminence of His return. Some have been mistaken — they believed in the first century that He was coming. And His coming was "near" or "nigh," but they misunderstood. It doesn't necessarily mean that it has to be right now. God's timetable is far different. Also, in those passages, what some of those things mean, is that there are certain things that start. Once those things start, other things are near, but they have to be triggered by it — things that haven't happened yet.
Your thoughts on Billy Graham.
The genuine article — the real deal. A man who has spent his entire life without his integrity being questioned. He has stayed "on message." I think he's the twentieth century's greatest living evangelist.
Are you planning another book?
Yeah, I'm writing a book right now based on the 1952 speech by Richard Nixon called "The Checkers Speech." It was a big media event and I do some writing for the Nixon Foundation. What I'm going to do with this book is similar to Apparent Danger, tell it in a narrative style, as a story. It was the beginning of the television age in politics and the first modern feeding frenzy [by the media]. We saw it with Dan Quayle, we saw it with Palin, and Thomas Eagleton in 1972. The press goes after someone like that for good or for ill. Nixon's speech was really the first time that happened in the modern age of politics. They bought more time on radio than television, because radio was still the big thing then. That was the moment when things began to shift from radio to TV. This was probably the most watched event in history for about ten years at least. So it was a watershed moment. I'm telling the story not as a dry history, but in a narrative page-turning kind of way. My agent is working on it now.