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فصل 08

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Shuffle Off to Bethlehem

There is an evangelical preacher on television who goes by the name of Reverend Terry. She appears to be in her early fifties, and features a coiffure of which it has been said that it cannot be mussed, only broken. Reverend Terry is energetic and folksy, and uses a style of preaching modeled on early Milton Berle. When her audiences are shown in reaction shots, they are almost always laughing. As a consequence, it would be difficult to distinguish them from audiences, say, at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, except for the fact that they have a slightly cleaner, more wholesome look. Reverend Terry tries to persuade them, as well as those “at home,” to change their ways by finding Jesus Christ. To help her do this, she offers a “prosperity Campaign Kit,” which appears to have a dual purpose: As it brings one nearer to Jesus, it also provides advice on how to increase one’s bank account. This makes her followers extremely happy and confirms their predisposition to believe that prosperity is the true aim of religion. Perhaps God disagrees. As of this writing, Reverend Terry has been obliged to declare bankruptcy and temporarily halt her ministrations.

Pat Robertson is the master of ceremonies of the highly successful “700 Club,” a television show and religious organization of sorts to which you can belong by paying fifteen dollars per month. (Of course, anyone with cable television can watch the show free of charge.) Reverend Robertson does his act in a much lower register than Reverend Terry. He is modest, intelligent, and has the kind of charm television viewers would associate with a cool-headed talk-show host. His appeal to godliness is considerably more sophisticated than Reverend Terry’s, at least from the standpoint of television. Indeed, he appears to use as his model of communication “Entertainment Tonight.” His program includes interviews, singers and taped segments with entertainers who are born-again Christians. For example, all of the chorus girls in Don Ho’s Hawaiian act are born-again, and in one segment, we are shown them both at prayer and on stage (although not at the same time). The program also includes taped reenactments of people who, having been driven to the edge of despair, are saved by the 700 Club. Such people play themselves in these finely crafted docu-dramas. In one, we are shown a woman racked with anxiety. She cannot concentrate on her wifely duties. The television shows and movies she sees induce a generalized fear of the world. Paranoia closes in. She even begins to believe that her own children are trying to kill her. As the play proceeds, we see her in front of her television set chancing upon the 700 Club. She becomes interested in its message. She allows Jesus to enter her heart. She is saved. At the end of the play, we see her going about her business, calmly and cheerfully, her eyes illuminated with peace. And so, we may say that the 700 Club has twice elevated her to a state of transcendence: first, by putting her in the presence of Jesus; second, by making her into a television star. To the uninitiated, it is not entirely clear which is the higher estate.

Toward the end of each 700 Club show, the following day’s acts are announced. They are many and various. The program concludes with someone’s saying, “All this and more … tomorrow on the 700 Club.”

Jimmy Swaggart is a somewhat older-style evangelist. Though he plays the piano quite well, sings sweetly, and uses the full range of television’s resources, when he gets going he favors a kind of fire-and-brimstone approach. But because this is television, he often moderates his message with a dollop of ecumenism. For example, his sermon on the question, Are the Jews practicing blasphemy? begins by assuring his audience that they are not, by recalling Jesus’ bar mitzvah, and by insisting that Christians owe the Jews a considerable debt. It ends with his indicating that with the loss of their Temple in Biblical times, the Jews have somehow lost their way. His message suggests that they are rather to be pitied than despised but that, in any case, many of them are pretty nice people.

It is the perfect television sermon—theatrical, emotional, and in a curious way comforting, even to a Jewish viewer. For television—bless its heart—is not congenial to messages of naked hate. For one thing, you never know who is watching, so it is best not to be wildly offensive. For another, haters with reddened faces and demonic gestures merely look foolish on television, as Marshall McLuhan observed years ago and Senator Joseph McCarthy learned to his dismay. Television favors moods of conciliation and is at its best when substance of any kind is muted. (One must make an exception here for those instances when preachers, like Swaggart, turn to the subject of the Devil and secular humanism. Then they are quite uncompromising in the ferocity of their assaults, partly, one may assume, because neither the Devil nor secular humanists are included in the Nielsen Ratings. Neither are they inclined to watch.)

There are at present thirty-five television stations owned and operated by religious organizations, but every television station features religious programming of one sort or another. To prepare myself for writing this chapter, I watched forty-two hours of television’s version of religion, mostly the shows of Robert Schuller, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson. Forty-two hours were entirely unnecessary. Five would have provided me with all the conclusions, of which there are two, that are fairly to be drawn.

The first is that on television, religion, like everything else, is presented, quite simply and without apology, as an entertainment. Everything that makes religion an historic, profound and sacred human activity is stripped away; there is no ritual, no dogma, no tradition, no theology, and above all, no sense of spiritual transcendence. On these shows, the preacher is tops. God comes out as second banana.

The second conclusion is that this fact has more to do with the bias of television than with the deficiencies of these electronic preachers, as they are called. It is true enough that some of these men are uneducated, provincial and even bigoted. They certainly do not compare favorably with well-known evangelicals of an earlier period, such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and Charles Finney, who were men of great learning, theological subtlety and powerful expositional skills. Nonetheless, today’s television preachers are probably not greatly different in their limitations from most earlier evangelicals or from many ministers today whose activities are confined to churches and synagogues. What makes these television preachers the enemy of religious experience is not so much their weaknesses but the weaknesses of the medium in which they work.

Most Americans, including preachers, have difficulty accepting the truth, if they think about it at all, that not all forms of discourse can be converted from one medium to another. It is naive to suppose that something that has been expressed in one form can be expressed in another without significantly changing its meaning, texture or value. Much prose translates fairly well from one language to another, but we know that poetry does not; we may get a rough idea of the sense of a translated poem but usually everything else is lost, especially that which makes it an object of beauty. The translation makes it into something it was not. To take another example: We may find it convenient to send a condolence card to a bereaved friend, but we delude ourselves if we believe that our card conveys the same meaning as our broken and whispered words when we are present. The card not only changes the words but eliminates the context from which the words take their meaning. Similarly, we delude ourselves if we believe that most everything a teacher normally does can be replicated with greater efficiency by a micro-computer. Perhaps some things can, but there is always the question, What is lost in the translation? The answer may even be: Everything that is significant about education.

Though it may be un-American to say it, not everything istelevisible . Or to put it more precisely, what is televised is transformed from what it was to something else, which may or may not preserve its former essence. For the most part, television preachers have not seriously addressed this matter. They have assumed that what had formerly been done in a church or a tent, and face-to-face, can be done on television without loss of meaning, without changing the quality of the religious experience. Perhaps their failure to address the translation issue has its origin in the hubris engendered by the dazzling number of people to whom television gives them access.

“Television,” Billy Graham has written, “is the most powerful tool of communication ever devised by man. Each of my prime-time ‘specials’ is now carried by nearly 300 stations across the U.S. and Canada, so that in a single telecast I preach to millions more than Christ did in his lifetime.” 1 To this, Pat Robertson adds: “To say that the church shouldn’t be involved with television is utter folly. The needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery can change…. It would be folly for the church not to get involved with the most formative force in America.” 2

This is gross technological naivete. If the delivery is not the same, then the message, quite likely, is not the same. And if the context in which the message is experienced is altogether different from what it was in Jesus’ time, we may assume that its social and psychological meaning is different, as well.

To come to the point, there are several characteristics of television and its surround that converge to make authentic religious experience impossible. The first has to do with the fact that there is no way to consecrate the space in which a television show is experienced. It is an essential condition of any traditional religious service that the space in which it is conducted must be invested with some measure of sacrality. Of course, a church or synagogue is designed as a place of ritual enactment so that almost anything that occurs there, even a bingo game, has a religious aura. But a religious service need not occur only in a church or synagogue. Almost any place will do, provided it is first decontaminated; that is, divested of its profane uses. This can be done by placing a cross on a wall, or candles on a table, or a sacred document in public view. Through such acts, a gymnasium or dining hall or hotel room can be transformed into a place of worship; a slice of space-time can be removed from the world of profane events, and be recreated into a reality that does not belong to our world. But for this transformation to be made, it is essential that certain rules of conduct be observed. There will be no eating or idle conversation, for example. One may be required to put on a skull cap or to kneel down at appropriate moments. Or simply to contemplate in silence. Our conduct must be congruent with the otherworldliness of the space. But this condition is not usually met when we are watching a religious television program. The activities in one’s living room or bedroom or—God help us—one’s kitchen are usually the same whether a religious program is being presented or “The A-Team” or “Dallas” is being presented. People will eat, talk, go to the bathroom, do push-ups or any of the things they are accustomed to doing in the presence of an animated television screen. If an audience is not immersed in an aura of mystery and symbolic otherworldliness, then it is unlikely that it can call forth the state of mind required for a nontrivial religious experience.

Moreover, the television screen itself has a strong bias toward a psychology of secularism. The screen is so saturated with our memories of profane events, so deeply associated with the commercial and entertainment worlds that it is difficult for it to be recreated as a frame for sacred events. Among other things, the viewer is at all times aware that a flick of the switch will produce a different and secular event on the screen—a hockey game, a commercial, a cartoon. Not only that, but both prior to and immediately following most religious programs, there are commercials, promos for popular shows, and a variety of other secular images and discourses, so that the main message of the screen itself is a continual promise of entertainment. Both the history and the ever-present possibilities of the television screen work against the idea that introspection or spiritual transcendence is desirable in its presence. The television screen wants you to remember that its imagery is always available for your amusement and pleasure.

The television preachers themselves are well aware of this. They know that their programs do not represent a discontinuity in commercial broadcasting but are merely part of an unbroken continuum. Indeed, many of these programs are presented at times other than traditional Sunday hours. Some of the more popular preachers are quite willing to go “head to head” with secular programs because they believe they can put on a more appealing show. Incidentally, the money to do this is no problem. Contributions to these shows run into the millions. It has been estimated that the total revenue of the electric church exceeds $500 million a year.

I mention this only to indicate why it is possible for these preachers to match the high production costs of any strictly commercial program. And match them they do. Most of the religious shows feature sparkling fountains, floral displays, choral groups and elaborate sets. All of them take as their model for staging some well-known commercial program. Jim Bakker, for example, uses “The Merv Griffin Show” as his guide. More than occasionally, programs are done “on location,” in exotic locales with attractive and unfamiliar vistas.

In addition, exceedingly handsome people are usually in view, both on the stage and in the audience. Robert Schuller is particularly partial to celebrities, especially movie actors like Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., and Cliff Robertson, who have declared their allegiance to him. Not only does Schuller have celebrities on his show but his advertisements use their presence to attract an audience. Indeed, I think it fair to say that attracting an audience is the main goal of these programs, just as it is for “The A-Team” and “Dallas.”

To achieve this goal, the most modern methods of marketing and promotion are abundantly used, such as offering free pamphlets, Bibles and gifts, and, in Jerry Falwell’s case, two free “Jesus First” pins. The preachers are forthright about how they control the content of their preaching to maximize their ratings. You shall wait a very long time indeed if you wish to hear an electronic preacher refer to the difficulties a rich man will have in gaining access to heaven. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: “You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want .” 3

You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo. There is no great religious leader—from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther—who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is “user friendly.” It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programs are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.

I believe I am not mistaken in saying that Christianity is a demanding and serious religion. When it is delivered as easy and amusing, it is another kind of religion altogether.

There are, of course, counterarguments to the claim that television degrades religion. Among them is that spectacle is hardly a stranger to religion. If one puts aside the Quakers and a few other austere sects, every religion tries to make itself appealing through art, music, icons and awe-inspiring ritual. The aesthetic dimension to religion is the source of its attraction to many people. This is especially true of Roman Catholicism and Judaism, which supply their congregants with haunting chants; magnificent robes and shawls; magical hats, wafers and wine; stained-glass windows; and the mysterious cadences of ancient languages. The difference between these accoutrements of religion and the floral displays, fountains and elaborate sets we see on television is that the former are not, in fact, accoutrements but integral parts of the history and doctrines of the religion itself; they require congregants to respond to them with suitable reverence. A Jew does not cover his head at prayer because a skull cap looks good on television. A Catholic does not light a votive candle to improve the look of the altar. Rabbis, priests and Presbyterian ministers do not, in the midst of a service, take testimony from movie stars to find out why they are religious people. The spectacle we find in true religions has as its purpose enchantment, not entertainment. The distinction is critical. By endowing things with magic, enchantment is the means through which we may gain access to sacredness. Entertainment is the means through which we distance ourselves from it.

The reply to this is that most of the religion available to us on television is “fundamentalist,” which explicitly disdains ritual and theology in favor of direct communication with the Bible itself, that is, with God. Without ensnaring myself in a theological argument for which I am unprepared, I think it both fair and obvious to say that on television, God is a vague and subordinate character. Though His name is invoked repeatedly, the concreteness and persistence of the image of the preacher carries the clear message that it is he, not He, who must be worshipped. I do not mean to imply that the preacher wishes it to be so; only that the power of a close-up televised face, in color, makes idolatry a continual hazard. Television is, after all, a form of graven imagery far more alluring than a golden calf. I suspect (though I have no external evidence of it) that Catholic objections to Bishop Fulton Sheen’s theatrical performances on television (of several years back) sprang from the impression that viewers were misdirecting their devotions, away from God and toward Bishop Sheen, whose piercing eyes, awesome cape and stately tones were as close a resemblance to a deity as charisma allows.

Television’s strongest point is that it brings personalities into our hearts, not abstractions into our heads. That is why CBS’ programs about the universe were called “Walter Cronkite’s Universe.” One would think that the grandeur of the universe needs no assistance from Walter Cronkite. One would think wrong. CBS knows that Walter Cronkite plays better on television than the Milky Way. And Jimmy Swaggart plays better than God. For God exists only in our minds, whereas Swaggart is there, to be seen, admired, adored. Which is why he is the star of the show. And why Billy Graham is a celebrity, and why Oral Roberts has his own university, and why Robert Schuller has a crystal cathedral all to himself. If I am not mistaken, the word for this is blasphemy.

There is a final argument that whatever criticisms may be made of televised religion, there remains the inescapable fact that it attracts viewers by the millions. This would appear to be the meaning of the statements, quoted earlier by Billy Graham and Pat Robertson, that there is a need for it among the multitude. To which the best reply I know was made by Hannah Arendt, who, in reflecting on the products of mass culture, wrote:

This state of affairs, which indeed is equalled nowhere else in the world, can properly be called mass culture; its promoters are neither the masses nor their entertainers, but are those who try to entertain the masses with what once was an authentic object of culture, or to persuade them that Hamletcan be as entertaining as My Fair Lady, and educational as well. The danger of mass education is precisely that it may become very entertaining indeed; there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.4

If we substitute the word “religion” for Hamlet, and the phrase “great religious traditions” for “great authors of the past,” this quotation may stand as the decisive critique of televised religion. There is no doubt, in other words, that religion can be made entertaining. The question is, By doing so, do we destroy it as an “authentic object of culture”? And does the popularity of a religion that employs the full resources of vaudeville drive more traditional religious conceptions into manic and trivial displays? I have already referred to Cardinal O’Con-nor’s embarrassing attempts to be well liked and amusing, and to a parish priest who cheerfully tries to add rock music to Catholic education. I know of one rabbi who has seriously proposed to his congregation that Luciano Pavarotti be engaged to sing Kol Nidre at a Yom Kippur service. He believes that the event would fill the synagogue as never before. Who can doubt it? But as Hannah Arendt would say, that is the problem, not a solution to one. As a member of the Commission on Theology, Education and the Electronic Media of the National Council of the Churches of Christ, I am aware of the deep concern among “established” Protestant religions about the tendency toward refashioning Protestant services so that they are more televisible. It is well understood at the National Council that the danger is not that religion has become the content of television shows but that television shows may become the content of religion.

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