Tuesday, April 4, 2017

John Jacobs and The Power Team Touches The World! (1991)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of evangelical Christians toured the world to spread the gospel as God truly intended: with a bunch of dudes on steroids breaking cement blocks with karate chops.

By: Jimbo X

I really can't tell you why, but there's something about old school TBN pro-Christianity propaganda pieces that I find so oddly comforting. Of course, growing up in some sort of weird, half-assed, apocalyptic Southern Baptist family, I watched a ton of alarmist evangelical programs, but even then, I never really believed their far-flung claims about grocery store checkout counter heralding the arrival of "the mark of the beast" and He-Man toys being secret vessels for Satan worship. So I guess even then, I was picking up on the already retroactive appeal of the hysterical religious agitprop, which - despite the absurdity of their claims - nonetheless conveyed such a commendable air of certainty. Sure, everything they were saying was utter and complete horse shit, but at least you could tell the people who made it kinda sorta believed what they were saying. Grade-A batshit propaganda made by charlatans is one thing, but grade-A batshit propaganda made by sincere assholes is a million times more enjoyable.

The really, really interesting thing about most of these anti-pop-culture Christian propaganda pieces from the late '80s and early '90s is that - despite their worst intentions - for better or for worse, their arguments about then-contemporary entertainment turning kids into godless heathens was pretty much on the money. Of course, board games like Dungeons & Dragons and TV show/action figure complexes like G.I. Joe may not have turned Millennials into child-sacrificing devil worshipers, but it DID put them on the fast track to a materialism-uber-alles cultural Tao that displaced not only Christianity, but in many ways, the formative Christian mores of their parents' America.

So in that, I've always viewed all of the TBN and CBN anti-zeitgeist agitprop as some sort of biazarro countercultural art. Really, the same way all of those dirty and nasty hardcore punks of the late 1970s and 1980s wallowed in self-righteous disgust of the mainstream, guys like Pat Robertson and Jack Van Impe were - nobly or ignobly - raging against the pop cultural machinery all the same throughout the 1990s. What GG Allin and The Mentors were to reactionary Reagan Christian conservatism, I suppose fellows like John Stanley and John Hagee could be considered their pukola punk rock against-the-grain equivalents during the oh-so-politically correct, identity politics-obsessed, globalism-worshiping Clinton era. 

But then, there were some evangelical appeals to the Gen Y ankle biter set that were just a wee bit more ... flummoxing. Granted, they were Christian-tinged propaganda, through and through, but rather than demonize popular contemporary media, they sought to get kids hip to Jesus through less conventional means. And there may be no better example of this than the one, the only ... Power Team.

There's no way to properly introduce people to the core idea of what the Power Team was without it sounding like either the stupidest idea ever or the most awesome. Or maybe both, at the same time. Basically, the Power Team were a bunch of evangelical Christian motivational speakers who also happened to be jacked up bodybuilders and weightlifters. So, naturally, to extol the gospels they would praise Jesus by doing all sorts of out-there stunts, like karate chopping burning cement blocks and blowing up hot water balloons until they exploded. And since the evangelical counterculture almost never got any objective coverage in the mainstream ink, pretty much nobody outside the Trinity Broadcasting Networking sphere of influence ever heard of them (or so, it would seem.) The catch there is that, apparently, TBN and all those other Christian channels back in the day had a pretty expansive reach; not only was the Power Team lucrative enough to travel around the world elbow dropping giant ice blocks for God's love, they were actually selling out national stadiums in South Africa and the Soviet Union.

Fun Fact: the jaw actually is the strongest bone in the human body. Nah, I'm just bullshitting you, it's actually the femur, you gullible motherfucker.

Which brings us to the 1991 video cassette release John Jacobs and the Power Team Touches The World, which - yeah, prolly could've used a better title. Anyhoo, the hour-long tape takes a look at the Power Team's global sojourns in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a particular emphasis on their adventures and exploits in post-Perestroika Russia.

This really is a fascinating tape, for a lot of reasons. Yes, you do have the innate appeal of watching dudes on steroids with mullets breaking baseball bats over their knees like number two pencils, but you also get a healthy dose of gloriously exaggerated anti-modernity Christian propaganda in the form of Jacobs' meandering sermons about drug abuse and devil worship. But you also get a surprisingly in-depth snapshot of what life was like in Russia and South Africa right after the end of communism and apartheid, so it's not like this thing doesn't have some legitimate historical value.

But yeah, it's mostly about dudes with giant he-titties breaking shit for Jesus and saying all kinds of outlandish things about the impact of devil worship on our gilded youth, which is really the kind of out-there stuff I just can't get enough of

Our opening segment has a black dude (you can tell he's prolly black because his hands are black) shattering a pair of handcuffs in slo-mo and a whole bunch of other dudes karate chopping cement blocks while another dude prays for Jesus to make him a "good fisherman" and "honor his dream." Now, as to whether that's the guy's dream or Jesus' dream, of course, is up for interpretation.

We segue to another cement block montage, this time set to ominous Tetris sounding music and coupled with stock footage of the Soviet Union in 1989. The narrator asks us if Russia is our friend or our enemy and says people in this much economic despair need them some Jesus more than ever. Cut to some musclebound fat dude in May 1991 talking about people sneaking bibles into Russia, accompanied by footage of the Power Team doing shows in England, South Africa, Israel, the West Indies and ... Orlando. Basically, they just keep breaking baseball bats in half and blowing up hot water balloons. Then John Jacobs, who's kinda the leader of this whole outfit, breaks a pair of handcuffs in super-duper slow-motion. He admits the approach of the Power Team is a bit, uh, unorthodox, but he rationalizes it by say that God often uses "foolish things of this world to confound the wise." A total aside, but this John Jacobs (Jingleheimer Schmidt?) guy looks a lot like a swollen Alex Jones. He even sounds like him, for crying aloud.

In the next scene, he's standing inn front of a huge stadium crowd in Kiev while this one guy in blue jeans and a white t-shirt tells them to not worry about having enough food or money, with all the tactfulness of Kenny goddamn Powers. Enter Ruthanne Jacobs, who has all the huge hair and neon purple lipstick you'd expect a middle aged evangelical woman in the early 1990s to have. She talks about how amazing it is to watch the audience soak up her husband's words like a sponge. A sampling of those profound words? John Jacobs observes that there aren't that many musclebound dudes in Russia, prolly because there's not a whole lot of food around to eat. But that's OK, because thoughts of righteousness will feed their spirits. It's even better because he's in a shitty weight room during the interview, and he's all out of breath, too.

Although the Soviet people may have lost their "personal identity," Jacobs reassures the Ruskies that as long as they do what they can with what they have where they are, God will take care of them. Then he reflects on that lamentable part of his life when he couldn't dead lift 500 pounds or break handcuffs apart like a slap bracelet.

Now we're in South Africa (the Power Team hails from Dallas, in case you were wondering where their headquarters were located.) Jacobs says the people here are "some of the most exciting people in the world." We get some slow-motion scenes of the Power Team walking through African villages in jumpsuits. Jacobs talks about apartheid and civil war. "I found people who needed the Lord," he says. "Jesus Christ is the only thing that will break down racial prejudice." He then makes a reference to being "behind enemy lines" the very next sentence

Yeah, something tells me these people would have preferred a visit from the power company as opposed to the Power Team

He's still yammering about the time government helicopters took them to visit remote villages so they could pick up starving black kids with one pinkie and do push-ups with three malnourished children sitting on their backs. He calls the South African President at the time "a great President" who personally shipped in thousands of remote villagers to see the Power Team demonstration. Then, he breaks five blocks of ice with his elbow.

Now Jacobs talks about a WITCH DOCTOR coming in and trying to put a spell on the show. Thankfully, however, all that JESUS POWER he brought with him surmounted all that voodoo and thousands of people came to the show anyway. "It doesn't matter where people are," he says, "all people have a desire and need to love God." 

The number one question asked in America, Jacobs poses? "Who can stop the pain?" This leads to a story about this time he met a young girl who rolled up her sleeves and showed him her grated wrists. "I tried to erase myself," the girl told him. No, I mean literally - she tried to sand her fucking flesh off with one of those giant rubber erasers you used to play around with in elementary school. Jacobs claims he gets dozens of letters per month from kids who do that, which makes me wonder why the act of self-erasure never become a moral pandemic back in the day.

After trudging up a story about a dude who wanted to kill himself after his wife left him, we get a slowmo transition to a bunch of concrete blocks being doused with gasoline and then being set ablaze. You see, the blazing walls of concrete are metaphors for the barriers in your own life, Jacobs says, be they drugs, alcohol or suicidal ideation. Cue the upbeat music as dudes with mullets shatter more cement blocks and ice sculptures with elbow strikes. And strangely enough, the guy singing the song sounds just like that dude from The Clash.

Next, we meet Make Hagen, who incidentally, looks just like former ECW 'rassler Mike Awesome. He talks about dudes in Russia being tortured for having bible study lessons. "As Americans we don't really understand true persecution," he says, adding that here in the States, we think being made fun of is the same thing as being locked in prison and having our nipples twisted off by the KGB.

Time for more cement block smashing. Some of the dudes use traditional double elbow strikes while others use a solo karate chop. And some have towels wrapped around their hands, so I'm not sure if that should really count. Then this one guy shows the power of Jesus by picking up a giant log and putting it down five feet to his right, which yeah, I guess is still kinda' impressive.

Where the fuck was that elective at my high school?

Now we're in England. We get a crotch-level shot of a dude snapping handcuffs in half while a shitty wailing guitar solo plays in the background. It totally sounds like something you'd hear in Captain Planet or something. For some reason, they play Cossack music over footage of one Power Team member being interviewed by the BBC.

At Orchard County Secondary School, guys blow hot air balloons up and all the kids act freaked out because they think they are going to explode in their faces. Then a dude bends an iron bar in half. There sure are a lot of Indian-looking kids in the crowd - just an observation. Come to think of it - do you really have to be THAT strong to blow up a hot water balloon? Isn't that more about lung power than muscle mass? And on that note, Jacobs lets us know that if all that air in the balloon went back into your body, it would rupture your lungs like a motherfucker. Then he makes a crack about the World's Strongest Man Competition, saying his dudes can do all sorts of shit they can't, like bend iron bars behind their neck and blow up TWO hot water balloons back to back like it was fuckin' nothin'. 

Oh, and the slogan on the official Power Team shirts? "God made you to win." Look at all that humility, why don't 'ya?

We've got even more guys breaking baseball bats over their knees like an assembly line, with this one dude bending a metal bar with his fucking teeth while music with the refrain "oooo, I'm a radical" blares over the footage. Then they power lift like 300 pounds like that's impressive when John Cena can power slam The Big Show, and he weighs like, 600 or 700 something pounds.

Then a dude named Berry Handley - yep, fuckin' "Berry" - talks about coming to Russia and how it's exciting to see all the former commies get excited about meeting the Power Team. We're at the Leningrad Sports Complex, and Berry says about 50 percent of the audience attended their altar call at the end of the show. Then we watch Berry and pal lifting kids outside those ultra-Russian-looking buildings you see in Tetris. He continues, stating he enjoys being able to see what Soviet bloc lives are really like. "They went through a lot of struggles," he says nonchalantly. Meanwhile, I kinda' laugh because even though the dude is super muscular, he still has the most baby fat face of all-time. You know, you have to give these evangelicals some credit when it comes to innovative marketing for their religion. I mean, can anybody possibly imagine a Jewish or Muslim incarnation of the Power Team ever existing, at any point in human history?

And Jacobs is still flapping his gums about the number one asked question in America again (five bucks to anybody who can still remember what it is.) Per psychiatrists, Jacobs said that the U.S. is now ranked first or second for having the worst behaved children in the world. And if you expect sources on that, you're going to hell for being a non-believer

He tells a story about this old high school football star having sex with a sophomore skank and how by the end of the school year she had become hooked on drugs and had to drop out of school. He could tell all this because her hair was stringy, which next to needle punctures all over someone's arm, is the numbero uno tell-tale sign that somebody's abusin' the smack. More (uncited) stats from the John Jacobs Department of Youth Development Research: 30,000 Americans in the USA get an STD everyday. One out of three girls in the U.S. are molested. And hey, there was this one dude who was accused of molesting over 50 boys ... somewhere, and at some time, in some place. Probably.

Jacobs is in Jerusalem for our next scene. He says that if he wore a shirt and tie nobody would listen to him so he has to smash shit for Jesus. He lets the viewing audience at home know that while not everybody has muscles, EVERYBODY has something they can be excellent with and/or about. And, naturally, this results in yet another montage of shit getting busted up real good for God.

Jacobs tells us a story about that one time Jesus told a woman that doing the best she could with what she had was good enough (I think her name was Roberta, but I could be wrong.) Then he tells a story about a dope addict murdering his next door neighbor when he was five, and how he had to testify in court at nine when his parents got divorced. He didn't see his daddy again for another 10 years. And he stuttered. And had stomach cramps at night.

Alright everybody, let's pray in public in Leningrad! Because it's not like there is a bible verse in the New Testament telling you to not do that. Anywhere. The disembodied announcer suddenly takes on a super spooky tone: remember, this IS communist, atheist Russia. Will people actually give it up for the man upstairs?

Yep. This motherfucker looks just like he spotted a normie in Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Jacobs' wife talks about the altar call and dudes wanting them to sign their bibles. She says how fortunate we are to have Christian TV stations in the states and people literally screaming the gospels on the street corners. Her husband says he's been to 22 countries and literally seen a million people come to Christ, sneaking in something about God honoring the people who honor him, which I think is a stealthy attempt from Jacobs to get a pay raise from the Almighty.

And MORE BASEBALL BAT BREAKING. Satan is trying to steal this generation, Jacobs says, and time is running out. Cue an ominous onscreen caption reading TODAY IN AMERICA, which lists the number of teens who kill themselves and attempt suicide (complete with a nasty looking bloody razor as a visual aide). Then the video tells us that MOST America teens attend high schools where devil worship is RAMPANT. Teens are lost and looking for something and we have something for them to see, Jacobs says. Honest to God, "Eye of the Tiger" starts playing and the announcer yells "YOU'VE BEEN DRAFTED TO THE POWER TEAM" and a montage of ice block smashing and Hulk Hogan posing competitions starts rolling.

Then this dude starts beating ice blocks with a sledgehammer while a song with the lyrics "give it back in the name of the lord" plays in the background. Granted, that's not as impressive as breaking it with a well-timed kung-fu chop, but I guess it still requires some strength. I mean, shoveling snow does wind you, after all. 

Jacobs, rather humbly, says he considers the Power Team ambassadors of Jesus himself. Now watch this one motherfucker run through a fucking wooden plank these other two guys are holding up. Then a dude with a HUGE bulge in his pants rips up a phone book and I laugh heartily/get aroused a little. "They are a spiritual blank," Jacobs says. "Just give them the gospel." Uh ... isn't that the exact opposite of what he's doing, though?

Hey, it's Paul Crouch (Trinity Broadcasting Network co-founder/mustache-enthusiast, in case you weren't aware of it) and he's trying to goad this one Russian kid into giving his life to Jesus. Then he reads a letter supposedly written by some Russian teenager. Cue a montage of Russian people waving peace signs in slow-motion. "Communist ideology doesn't come out in one day," Crouch says while reciting the letter, "maybe some day, I will come closer to God."

This one guy in the crowd holds a bible upside down so it has an inverted cross on it. Then Jacobs talks about how generations have been waiting to hear the gospels over here in the Second World. Paul Crouch reads a bible in Red Square. "Russia, repent, Russia turn to God, Russia, God is your SAVIOR!" he emphatically, uh, pleas.

Jacobs snaps some handcuffs, he says, "in your honor" of a Russian crowd. Get it? Because it is all symbolic and shit. He asks everybody to stand. He says 70,000 people attended over six nights of the Russian tour. But it wasn't his show, he says. It was GOD'S SHOW, as evident by the time he tore the Berlin Wall down. Jeez, way to oversell Ronnie Reagan, guy.

And to wrap up the whole hootenanny, we get ourselves a montage of people lighting candles overlaid corpses in the street, as people celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall and cry while "My God is an Awesome God" plays over the footage ... which, as much as I hate to say it, is strangely moving. And here's one more slow-motion cinder block tower smash to send us home on the best note possible, kids ... the kind of note covered in shattered cinder block fragments, for Jesus.

I went on ahead and did the research for you - today, it's just a real estate brokerage firm. Whether they real estate broker for Jesus, however, is unknown.

Believe it or not, there are more than one Power Team VHS videos floating around out there, in addition to a ton of one-and-done appearances on TBN. Indeed, the operation keep chugging along all the way up until the early 2000s, when John Jacobs divorced his wife and allegedly tried to beat up a fellow Power Team member. Eventually, the Power Team filed for bankruptcy protection in 2002, but then some guy named Todd Keene took it over and rebranded it as Power Team 2.0 and - amazingly - they're still doing tours today. But that's not the really crazy thing; as it turns out, several former members of the old school Power Team have started their own "let's rip shit up for Jesus" stunt shows, so we actually have about four or five competing Power Teams out there nowadays, including outfits with names like Team Impact, Strength Team and even Jacobs' very own Power Team successor, the clumsily titled The Next Generation Power Force Team.

Although the Power Team mostly remains a nostalgic vestige of the heyday of cable TV evangelism, they did appear to have something of an impact on mainstream pop culture. I mean, they did guest star on an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger and the Wikipedia tells me they showed up on an episode of America's Got Talent, so that's gotta' account for something, right? The fact they were parodied on an episode of Mad TV - I couldn't find the clip on YouTube, but I do vividly recall David Arquette turning in a tremendous John Jacobs impersonation - lets us know they were at least popular enough outside the charismatic Christian community to be made fun of on late-night national television.

Even now, I'm not entirely sure how to categorize what the Power Team was. I guess you could write it off as one of the more inspired Christian propaganda acts of the 1990s, but it almost seems like they kinda' transcended that label and become something of a legit mini-pop cultural phenomenon. I still remember kids talking about watching "these bodybuilders who broke shit with their skulls on Christian TV" in elementary school, which is assuredly the only time anybody at school talked about what TBN was airing. Yes, the target was the already-converted evangelical set, but really, you don't need to believe in any kind of higher power to get the intrinsic appeal of pro 'rasslers ripping up phone books and elbow dropping cement blocks into piles of dust.

Thirty fucking years later and I still can't make up my mind. The Power Team is either the absolute stupidest thing to come out of the 1990s or it's the absolute most brilliant. And the fact I'm writing about this shit three decades later has me slightly erring on the side of the latter as opposed to the former.


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