Ripping Up Phonebooks for Jesus

by Jeff Martin



I remember the tension, the edge-of-the-seat nervousness. I remember wondering which would explode first—the lungs of the pumped-up, corn-fed man before me, or the hot water bottle containing his gale force exhalations? But I don’t remember anything about Jesus.

I must have been in the fourth or possibly fifth grade the first time I encountered the Power Team. It was the mid-to-late 1980s. The death rattle of the Cold War was just beginning to register, however softly it may have been. Growing up in a mostly religion-free household, my mother a reformed Catholic and my father a hybrid agnostic/ secular humanist, I honestly wasn’t aware of anything going on in the Christian world. However, the same could not be said for many of my classmates. From appearances on Christian television, mentions at various church services, and a good amount of word-of-mouth circulation in the fundamentalist community, the exploits of the Power Team were all the rage.

When the assembly was announced, the rumors began to swirl. One boy in my homeroom class told me that the guys in the Power Team could tear phonebooks in half “with their bare hands.” Phonebooks? I wasn’t exactly the tallest kid, and the memory of having to use a phonebook as a makeshift booster seat was still quite clear. This was not an insignificant object. There was also talk of bending pieces of rebar and crushing stacks of bricks, but for some reason the phonebook gimmick piqued my interest.

Formed in the late 1970s by Oral Roberts University graduate John Jacobs, the Power Team mixed one part Rambo, one part Ron Popeil, and a splash of Mr. Roberts himself to form a fresh, testosterone-filled cocktail of American evangelism. The idea began in Tulsa, when Jacobs, still enrolled at ORU, attended a martial arts event. The presence and charisma of one karate expert caught Jacobs’ eye. “I noticed that Christians weren’t the only ones who watched him,” says Jacobs, recounting the moment in a 1988 interview with People. “I liked that. I had gotten tired of those all-Christian events, and I wanted to bring the sinners in.” It worked. According to the Power Team’s website, the group reaches “nearly one million youth annually” and have performed at “over 30,000 school assemblies in their 30 year history.”

I don’t remember the music that introduced the Power Team on that day in the gymnasium, but a popular and often-used piece in their repertoire is the theme music from Rocky. That sounds about right. The nation’s moviegoers were at the height of the “Action Hero” phase that lasted throughout most of the ’80s. Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Willis … these weren’t actors, they were human personifications of Reaganomics. Did John McClane call on the government for help when Hans Gruber and his group of terrorists took over Nakatomi Tower? Nope. He just pulled himself up by his bootstraps (actually, he wasn’t wearing shoes) and took care of the job himself.

Due to the separation of church and state, and the fact that this was a public school, no talk of religion or anything related to Christianity were allowed in the presentation. In fact, on the same website that boasts such a large impact and wide reach, there isn’t a single mention of God, Jesus, or anything that might lead one to believe that the Power Team is a faith-based organization. From what I remember, the basic outline of our presentation was much more in line with McGruff the Crime Dog—a competing school assembly attraction at the time—than John the Baptist. Don’t do drugs, stay away from alcohol, basically don’t get into trouble. That was the message. According to their standard boilerplate, “Power Team Members are mandated to be steroid-free; being randomly drug-tested by an independent agency according to stringent Olympic standards.”

This coming from men whose pectoral muscles were so large that a curly blonde wig was the only thing missing from a dead-on Dolly Parton impersonation. But I must admit that I was impressed. The rumors, crazy as they sounded at first, were completely true. Among the exploits of power: Giant rods of rebar were wrapped with a towel, placed between the teeth and twisted like pretzel dough. Hot water bottles inflated and burst like soft Hubba Bubba. And the phonebooks? Wow.

Near the end of the assembly, with all of our minds properly blown, a brief invitation was made to a supplemental event at a church that evening. Outreach to preach was standard practice. What the school presentation lacked in religiosity, the evening performance would make up for. If I’d been old enough to drive, I am certain that I would have gone. The idea of asking my parents seemed silly, so I didn’t. But there is no denying that on that day, I drank the Kool-Aid. These guys were hot shit. They knew it. We knew it. Time, politics, and the popular culture lined up just so to create a moment when the Power Team mattered. But Reagan was on his way out, the Berlin Wall was about to fall, and Arnold Schwarzenegger would soon star in the horrible yet prophetic Last Action Hero.


“Jesus Christ was no skinny little man. Jesus was a man’s man.”— John Jacobs

My parents separated the summer before I began 6th grade. I briefly attended middle school in Tulsa, but my mother wanted to move closer to her job at a little clinic in Bixby. So in a move that seemed much bigger than the actual miles, we packed up our things and headed south. Sod farms, churches, and one Taco Bueno—that was my impression of Bixby, Oklahoma at the time. It seemed as if every kid in school not only went to church, but it was a regular and ever-present feature in their day-to-day lives.

With my interest in the opposite sex beginning to seriously take hold, my range of interests began to expand. At 15 and 16, I would make the occasional visit to a small Methodist church in downtown Bixby. Several of my friends and their families were part of the congregation. For the most part all we did was hang out, eat pizza, and pretend to care about whatever scripture was being read or discussed (maybe that was just me, but I doubt it). I hadn’t given much thought to the Power Team in years. Since I’d last seen them, a lot had happened. Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Reality Bites; I was no longer easily smitten by feats of strength. Where was the irony? I was drawn to it like Dracula to an arterial spray.

But you see, there was this girl. There always is. Someone brought up the fact that the Power Team was doing one of its evening performances at a church in Tulsa. The name of the church escapes me, but it was located in northeast Tulsa, a place that, after living in Bixby for years, seemed foreign to me in a way that induced immediate guilt. One of the youth group leaders, a “hip” older (but not too old to be cool) guy drove us that evening.

My walls of teen angst were fairly thick, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t start getting that familiar tingle of anticipation. Try as I might to deny my interest, I wanted to see some phonebooks get shredded. But this was not that. The talk about sex, drugs, and bad behavior was there just like before, but this time, it was all about SATAN! In my previous experience with the Power Team, the secular public school version, the view of children and their tendencies toward mischief and experimentation gave off more of a Lord of the Flies view of instinct and human nature. That is a world I understood then, and still do.

The spectacle of the show was the same as before, if bigger. Men breaking out of handcuffs, pyrotechnics, the works. But in that moment I finally realized what I was witnessing: a sales pitch. It could have been steak knives, used cars, or OxiClean; the product was almost irrelevant. No money down, 0% interest, two for the price of one. Sound familiar? In that same 1988 interview with People, Jacobs boiled the entire concept down to one succinct word: “bait.”

A few years later, in the spring of 2000, John Jacobs divorced his wife Ruthanne after 16 years of marriage. The group, a tight knit unit for nearly two decades, began to splinter, with some members forming separate but similar organizations. In 2002, the Power Team filed for bankruptcy protection and by 2003 Jacobs was out. In case you’re wondering, the Power Team is still out there, doing what they’ve always done, kind of like Gallagher or what’s left of Lynyrd Skynyrd. In an effort to stay current and in the moment, Power Team 2.0 appeared on the popular NBC reality program, America’s Got Talent on July 22, 2008. Unfortunately, Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne, and resident expert David Hasselhoff didn’t find much talent involved in smashing headfirst through a giant block of ice. The team did not advance.


When I got home from my second and final Power Team experience, I was jaded and disillusioned to be sure, but still enamored with the phonebook trick. I knew there was no possible way that I would be able to rip the Tulsa phonebook in half, but I began to wonder about the modest Bixby phonebook. At the time it couldn’t have been more than an inch or so in thickness. But after twisting and writhing unsuccessfully for a few minutes, even this seemed an insurmountable feat. A thought came to me. What if I could just get it started? With a small hacksaw from the garage, I cut a “starter” slit into the phonebook no more than a half-inch down. Moments later, like some bastard child of Hulk Hogan and Hercules, I ripped that phonebook in half like a movie ticket. However divine the feeling, I knew it wasn’t God that helped me achieve this goal. Just a rusty tool and a cheap trick.

“Man made the electric light to take us out of the dark.”— James Brown.

Originally published in This Land, Vol. 3 Issue 2. Jan. 15, 2012.