Selling Catholicism: Bishop Sheen and the Power of Television / Edition 1

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Overview

" When the popularity of Milton Berle's television show began to slip, Berle quipped, "At least I'm losing my ratings to God!" He was referring to the popularity of "Life Is Worth Living" and its host, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. The show aired from 1952 to 1957, and Sheen won an Emmy, beating competition that included Lucille Ball, Jimmy Durante, and Edward R. Murrow. What was the secret to Sheen's on-air success? Christopher Lynch examines how he reached a diverse audience by using television to synthesize traditional American Protestantism with a reassuring vision of Catholicism as patriotic and traditional. Sheen provided his viewers with a sense of stability by sentimentalizing the medieval world and holding it out as a model for contemporary society. Offering clear-cut moral direction in order to eliminate the anxiety of cultural change, he discussed topics ranging from the role of women to the perils of Communism. Sheen's rhetoric united both Protestant and Catholic audiences, reflecting -and forming- a vision of mainstream, postwar America. Lynch argues that Sheen's persuasive television presentations helped Catholics gain social acceptance and paved the way for religious ecumenism in America. Yet, Sheen's work also sowed the seeds for the crisis of competing ideologies in the modern American Catholic Church.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Named teh 1999 Book of the Year by the Religious Communication Association." --

"Journal of American History" -- About the power of television and how one man used it so effectively.

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Long before millions of faithful viewers turned on their TVs and welcomed Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart into their living rooms, thousands of viewers opened their homes to Bishop Fulton Sheen by tuning into his TV program, Life Is Worth Living. Broadcast nationally from 1952 to 1957, Sheen's weekly program of spiritual advice was so popular that its ratings dethroned Milton Berle's The Texaco Star Theatre from first place in 1953, won an Emmy in 1952 and catapulted Sheen, whose face appeared on the covers of Time and Cue, to celebrity status. Lynch, who teaches communications at Kean University (N.J.), examines 42 episodes of Life Is Worth Living to analyze the Sheen phenomenon. Using rhetorical analysis of the show, Lynch contends that the Bishop's popularity arose as much from his presentation as from the content of his messages. From Sheen's opening greeting, "Friends...," to his parting words, "Bye now, and God love you!," viewers were treated as the Bishop's intimate friends. Such intimacy, according to Lynch, was also created by the camera's close-up shots of Sheen as he kept "his gaze fixed on the viewers, inviting them to laugh at his jokes, learn from his blackboard diagrams, and change their values." Having erased the gap between priest and laity, Sheen went on to deliver sermons and spiritual lessons on the strengths of the Catholic church in America, the horrors of Communism and the role of women. Lynch's accessible use of communications theory to elucidate cultural and religious events provides an insightful glimpse into a portion of American religious and media history. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979), one of America's best-loved Catholic prelates, defined the role of the genteel preacher on television. Lynch (Kean Univ.) shows how Sheen used television to reconcile Catholicism with a Communist-fearing America. Lynch provides a rhetorical study based on 42 tapes of Sheen's television program, Life Is Worth Living, which ran from 1952 to 1957, and places Sheen in the context of the wider popular culture. Lynch gives us insight into Sheen's charismatic personality and ability to fulfill a need in his audience in an age of postwar insecurity, but he also discusses details of the show like make-up, props, assistants, and sponsorship. For a compendium of Sheen's writings, see From the Angel's Blackboard: The Best of Fulton J. Sheen; A Centennial Celebration (Triumph Bks., 1995).--Leo Kriz, West Des Moines P.L.
Kirkus Reviews
A thin, unsatisfactory examination of Bishop Fulton Sheen's rise to television prominence in the 1950s. Lynch (Communication and Theatre/Kean Univ.) sets out to examine how the bishop, the most popular religious TV personality of that decade, made Catholicism appeal to mainstream Americans. Lynch found and analyzed not just transcripts but the actual tapes from Sheen's Life Is Worth Living program. Because of this, he is able to demonstrate how Sheen played off his audience with gestures, eye contact, and camera angles, showing the bishop to have been a very sophisticated manipulator of the new medium. Lynch also does a nice job in reviewing the content of Sheen's half-hour monologues; the chapter on his incorporation of Marian tradition into1950s rhetoric on women and the family is the best in the book. That said, Selling Catholicism falls short because it usually fails to connect Sheen to the wider culture, even though he addressed it so handily. Lynch ventures all sorts of general statements about McCarthyism, nuclear anxieties, and class mobility, but he never explains these generalizations in any systematic or analytical way. Such vagueness is due in no small measure to Lynch's apparent lack of secondary research about the postwar period in America (as indicated in his bibliography). In the third chapter, for example, Lynch asserts that Sheen's emphasis on the hierarchical, "corporate" nature of society attracted many in the '50s because the era emphasized the "subordination of the individual," an intriguing yet undeveloped (and unproven) assertion. Throughout the book, paragraphs culminate with sweeping statements that strain credibility. Useful for its assessments of Sheen'ssermons. Yet Lynch has missed the mark he set for himself: tying Sheen's popularity to larger cultural trends. (5 b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813120676
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 9/28/1998
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 6.28 (w) x 9.34 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Table of Contents

Foreword
Preface
Acknowledgments
Introduction 1
1 The Shaping of a Medieval Knight for a Modern World 15
2 Quest for Stability in the Midst of Change 32
3 The Medieval City and the Crusade for the American Ideal 59
4 A Television Troubadour Sings His Medieval Lady's Praise 87
5 Bishop Sheen's Role Negotiation from Ascetic Bishop to Television Celebrity 120
6 Bishop Sheen as Harbinger of an American Camelot 151
Notes 161
Bibliography 178
Index 196
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