Christian TV may be a cultural ghetto, but living there has its advantages.
The indecency discussion that erupted a year ago encompasses images and words: a flash of breast in the midst of a violent game, a shocking expletive at the Golden Globe Awards, and Howard Stern’s revolt against the FCC, which has evolved into a multimillion-dollar deal to move his misogynistic talk to satellite radio in 2006.
The ruckus made me a little smug because a catalyst for our family’s ditching TV altogether had been the 2003 Super Bowl commercials—including the one in which a Dodge Ram passenger chokes up a piece of food onto the windshield to the delight of the sadistic driver.
If our decision sounds hysterical, consider this: Late one evening last summer, my family checked into the Comfort Inn in Monterey, California. My 17-and 19-year-old sons headed for their room across the courtyard to watch TV, and I did the same. As I clicked through the channels, a woman holding a life-size model of buttocks caught my attention.
She was espousing the supposed joys of a particular sex act and simulated it with other partially nude people, including a slew of nipple-pierced, bare-breasted young women. What turned out to be an episode of the HBO series Real Sex aired at 11 P.M. and was included in the regular hotel programming. As another dose of glamorized debauchery invaded my family life, I decided that hysteria is entirely appropriate.
James Squire and Jane Smiley, writing in The American Prospect about Viacom’s complicity in the Super Bowl farce, said, “No one was even asked to take the blame for the sleazy commercials because the one characteristic of the global corporation is the compulsion to close the sale, whether the product is pure gold, equity, or smut.”
Those corporations don’t care about my family, so we stopped buying their goods. But after a six-month hiatus, we decided we weren’t ready to give up TV completely and decided to limit ourselves to more wholesome fare. The results were similarly mixed.
We hooked up Sky Angel Christian satellite network and a bit of cover-your-ears technology called TV Guardian. We had paid about $400 for a lifetime subscription to Sky Angel and $85 for TV Guardian a few years earlier.
TV Guardian uses closed-captioning technology to replace offensive words. It can make videos riddled with unnecessarily crass language more enjoyable, though it can also be like watching a foreign film with subtitles that don’t always make sense. Our TV Guardian is set to replace the words God and Jesus with man. It doesn’t discriminate between sacred and profane uses of these words, so when viewing a movie like Wit, in which Emma Thompson’s character recites John Donne’s poetry about life, death, and eternity, one might think Donne believed man is the author of his own salvation. (By the way, this poignant movie was produced by HBO.)
Bono lamented the concern his conservative friends expressed about his exuberant expression at the Golden Globes, saying profanity is nothing more than the “percussive side of language.” Is he correct? Is TV Guardian silly?
Or does the permeation of profanity in our culture reflect the condition of our collective soul? Yeats said, “We had fed the heart on fantasies; the heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” It’s not silly to want to keep some of the brutality out.
In The Paradox of Choice, Swarthmore College sociologist Barry Schwartz asserts that choice overload is turning us into a nation of “maximizers,” for whom only the best will do in every area of life. The downside is that we are less satisfied with our choices because the stakes are so much higher than they’ve ever been in the past.
Schwartz recounts a visit to the Gap to buy a pair of jeans. Although he was overwhelmed by the volume of available choices, the fact that he could purchase something with ultimate fit and comfort made anything less than perfection unacceptable. What had once been a relatively mundane errand was suddenly imbued with significance.
Perhaps this explains why so many Christians complain about media indecency but still spend upwards of $50 a month to invite it into their homes when they could hook up an antenna and watch only FCC-regulated network television for free, or get Sky Angel.
I am what Schwartz calls a “satisficer,” someone who doesn’t aspire to perfection in every purchase, or in every television viewing opportunity. That’s why I’m okay with Sky Angel’s limitations. In addition to preaching and prophecy conferences, Sky Angel offers just about anything regular TV offers, only in limited supply and of a generally less sophisticated quality. That is its greatest advantage: Because the offerings are so meager, we spend a lot less time watching TV.
There is no profanity, gratuitous sex, or violence on Sky Angel, not even a hint of impropriety in the wonderfully tame commercials. It’s a wholesome viewing experience—if, and only if, you click past the money grubbers in expensive suits promising health and wealth to those who pledge from their want.
INDECENT CHRISTIAN TV
For media critics like William D. Romanowski, author of Eyes Wide Open, tame is not necessarily a good thing. By preferring sentimentalism and melodrama to art that engages and sometimes challenges, he says we copy the world rather than separate from it. At least Romanowski leaves room for the Anabaptist tradition of cultural critique via disengagement. According to screenwriter Brian Godawa, who wrote Hollywood Worldviews, people who tend toward what he calls “cultural anorexia” “endanger their own humanity.” He says, “They don’t understand the way people around them think because they are not familiar with the ‘language’ those people are speaking or the culture they are consuming.”
Last spring I visited a service at Willow Creek Community Church that was a culturally familiar montage of text, music, drama, video, and preaching. In a take-off on the Donald Trump reality show The Apprentice, a pastor introduced a sermon series on being an apprentice of Jesus. This may work for a service for seekers, but I want my home to be a respite from evil more than I crave convenient access to art or a catchy way to relate to my neighbors. And is Trump really the language I need to speak in order to retain my humanity?
I’m not saying that the programming Sky Angel carries is better. It’s a schizophrenic viewing experience that alternates from inspiring to bizarre, inane, and yes, indecent (though not by the FCC definition, which defines references to sexual or excretory functions as indecent and prohibits such programming on network television between 6 A.M. and 10 P.M.). By any other definition, the fundraising techniques of any number of Christian broadcasters are outrageously indecent. Sky Angel’s late founder, Robert W. Johnson, pursued the lofty goal of “Christian unity” at the expense of doctrinal conviction. Programming includes theological perspectives ranging from Roman Catholic, Seventh-day Adventist, and Calvinist to pure charlatan.
The words seed-faith say it all. Marcus Lamb, president of Daystar television, which is suing the owner of public television station KOCE in Southern California because their cash bid was refused, is masterful at this ploy. Recently, Lamb told viewers that by pledging to Daystar they would be making a “contract with God” to receive the desires of their hearts.
The talk show hosted by his wife, Joni, has vastly improved from the time she agreed with a guest’s claim that the Holy Spirit was raining down gold flecks on people right there in the studio, but it is still sometimes captivatingly strange. One recent guest had a truly fitting word that contradicted the positive confession mantra that proliferates on Christian television. Bunny had developed an “initial tremor” in her hand, which she had named “Handy,” and a “frozen shoulder” called “Dandy.” A third ailment was named “Mandy.” Bunny proclaimed the Lord’s work in her life through “Handy, Dandy, and Mandy,” and then recited what may have been the entire 38th chapter of Job. The longer she went on, the more uncomfortable Joni appeared, probably because Scripture recitation does not make good television.
Which brings me to the prophetic voice of the late Neil Postman. Postman believed that the sound-bite world of television degrades sacred messages. In Amusing Ourselves to Death, he wrote, “Television is at its most trivial, and therefore, most dangerous, when its aspirations are high. . . . For, like the printing press, television is nothing less than a philosophy of rhetoric.” He went further, saying that “the epistemology created by television is not only inferior to a print-based epistemology but is dangerous and absurdist.”
Other media critics disagree, but I keep hearing pastors use imagery from The Passion of the Christ as short-hand for rich scriptural descriptions of the Crucifixion—which makes me think he was onto something. And absurdist is an apt description of a good bit of Sky Angel programming.
NUGGETS OF GOLD
Even so, nuggets of gold sometimes appear where I least expect them. For an inside peek at the pinnacle of Christian broadcasting, I went to a taping of Trinity Broadcasting Network’s flagship TV show, Praise the Lord (before news of founder Paul Crouch’s alleged homosexual affair and opulent living was reported in the LosAngeles Times).
I pulled into the parking lot with the trepidation of a Baptist entering the wellspring of Pentecostal emotionalism. The interior was awash in gold, mirrors, and Kewpie Doll angels. A prominently displayed portrait of Benny Hinn welcomed me to the gift shop, and tucked in the back beyond the bountiful giftware was a rack of Jan Crouch’s used eveningwear. Alan Autry, formerly “Bubba” from In the Heat of the Night and current mayor of Fresno, California, was the host. Chuck Norris, Mr. T, and Michelle Williams of Destiny’s Child were among the guests.
Mr. T was clearly the audience favorite. Dressed in sweatpants, a worn “Got Jesus” T-shirt, tube socks, and plastic flip flops, his appearance was that of a modern-day John the Baptist. Off camera, he explained that he never wears his signature gold when he’s preaching because it distracts from the message. Like a boxer lunging for his opponent, he launched into his 10-minute sermon.
He said he was going to step on some toes, and he did, railing against TV preachers who tell people to send their money in exchange for healing, and against Christians who talk but don’t walk. He testified that he loved his mother too much as a child to rob someone’s purse or do the things his friends on the South Side of Chicago were doing. He’d promised to buy her a house and new dresses some day. And that’s what he did. He said his father, the preacher, had baptized him at the age of four and taught him not to hate or become bitter because of racism or poverty. He concluded with the story of his cancer, saying that after telling dying children that they could trust in Jesus, he would have been a fraud if he had done anything less himself. None of this followed a logical pattern. We gave him a standing ovation.
(Mr. T didn’t do so well a month later when he chastised Christians for sending their children to colleges with sports teams named after the Devil. He even suggested that the New Jersey Devils change their name to the New Jersey Squirrels.)
The worst of Mr. T’s preaching is far more decent than portions of two series produced by Cross TV that regularly air on the Faith Television channel, which is a stalwart of missionary biographies and reasoned teachers like Kay Arthur. A 16-part series on the sovereignty of God seems more like a tediously drawn-out unveiling of the doctrine of reprobation, and an episode in the Word Pictures series is a study in shaky ethics.
The stated goal of this one-hour broadcast is to train the viewer in the importance of “the grammar principle” in biblical interpretation. The host, Mark Kielar, begins by talking about how the cults approach the Scriptures. Then he transitions to how the grammar principle, which involves analyzing the original language, can be used to resolve doctrinal disputes among Christians.
He turns to the debate over Calvinism and Arminianism for illustration, and introduces two men who publicly debate the issue. Dave is a businessman and CPA with no theological training, while J. R. possesses multiple theological degrees and holds illustrious positions in the Reformed Baptist denomination.
Kielar quotes from their 2,500-page email debate to point out that Dave is using rhetoric and personal opinion, just like the cults, while J. R. is using good scholarship. He doesn’t provide any actual tools for using the grammar principle until 40 minutes into the program, and then only in a cursory fashion for less than 5 minutes.
His goal is clearly to discredit Dave and his position while elevating J. R. and Calvinism. Kielar’s descriptions point to Dave Hunt and James White, coauthors of Debating Calvinism: Five Points, Two Views (Multnomah, 2004). The show is filmed primarily on the deck and bridge of a battleship. It is sophisticated and terribly manipulative.
To avoid spiritual trash, my husband and I mostly watch the PAX channel and our sons prefer TVU, the edgiest of the four music-video channels. According to Romanowski, the “family fare” found on PAX appeals to white middle-aged women like me rather than all members of a family. My boys would agree, but they often appear in the living room for the ultra-syrupy Doc or the stand-up comedy revue Bananas because there is nothing else to watch on our TV.
A RELEVANT GHETTO
If you think Christian television is an irrelevant ghetto, consider this: The day I visited Praise the Lord, Stephen Mansfield,author of The Faith of George W. Bush, named two men as mentors to the President. Aside from his father, George H. W. Bush, Mansfield said that talk-show host James Robison has had, by far, the greatest influence.
Robison’s show, “Life Today,” is regularly a 50/50 combination of engaging, insightful interviews, and images of suffering children designed to elicit contributions from viewers. The medium of television both enables and betrays him. The images don’t engage my emotions; they manipulate them to a degree that inspires distrust rather than empathy leading to action. If his formula weren’t so predictable, I might have enough faith to write a check, and trust that he trusts God more than images. But he is clearly compelled to address misery that the American Christian community could alleviate.
Emerging technologies will inevitably transform both the indecency discussion and the prevailing epistemology. That doesn’t change the fact that knowing your own weaknesses and building protections into your life that keep them from overpowering you is a legitimate spiritual discipline. After my summer vacation, I don’t feel the need to apologize for venturing into the imperfect ghetto. But lately we’ve been talking about hooking up an antenna and trying TiVo.
Christianity Today, January 2005
© cas 2005, all rights reserved.