On an average day, the largest religious broadcast channel in the country reaches millions of viewers and features programming from figures such as Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes, Pat Robertson, Paul and Jan Crouch, Jess Duplantis, Joel Osteen, and others, yet despite it's presence in well over 50 million household many have little conception of what kind of faith happens there.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran seminarian and former stand-up comic who's never before watched religious broadcasting, spends 24 hours in front of the TV immersing herself in the messages and culture to be found on the part of the dial. Bolstered by visits from guest such as rabbi, her 8-year-old daughter, Unitarian friend, and others,Salvation on the Small Screen? is Bolz-Weber's chronicle, augmented by after-the-fact research, of a huge, but unknown or mysterious to many, branch of religious culture.
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SALVATION ON THE SMALL SCREEN
24 HOURS OF CHRISTIAN TELEVISION
By NADIA BOLZ-WEBER
Church Publishing, IncorporatedCopyright © 2008 Nadia Bolz-Weber
All rights reserved.
(Seriously, my Savior would not wear bangs)
In defeat I turn off the alarm, which has been rendered useless due to the fact that I am already awake and tragically have been for the past two and a half hours. I awoke at 2:00 a.m. thinking, "If you don't go back to sleep you're screwed tomorrow," which produced just enough adrenaline to keep me awake.
Trying not to wake my husband, Matthew, I get out of bed to face the twenty-four straight hours of Trinity Broadcasting Network. Again.
So here I am, and there just isn't enough coffee in the whole world. My friends Jay and Annie, who'll be watching the 5:30 a.m. show with me, are asleep in the guest room downstairs, but I've decided I need to start this day on my own.
Coffee. Shower. Coffee. Pray. Coffee. Turn on the TV.
* * *
Mysterious, who could this Stranger be? I wonder.
This show appears to be a made-for-TBN drama. We open on an African American diner. Chaos is swirling around this busy breakfast joint with the requisite cranky floor manager and flirty waitress. In walks a white man with an insidious smile and long, chlorine-damaged blond hair with, and I couldn't make this up, bangs. Is it really possible that a guy who looks like a creepy middle-aged yoga teacher from Boulder, Colorado, could be the second person of the Trinity? Well, maybe Jesus would wear a white V-neck sweater.
The flirty waitress (Mary) sits down with the Stranger, who is on his third or fourth cup of coffee (so he's clearly not the Mormon Jesus) and tells him how the diner used to belong to their dad before he died, but now she and her sister, the cranky floor manager, are left to run the place. She's distressed about the fact that unlike their dad, her sister opens the diner on Sunday to get the church crowd. She tells the Stranger that while she never misses church and she prays a lot, she has a lot of questions. "I wish Jesus would just come down and answer a few questions for me."
The Stranger: "Really? What would you ask him?" The camera pans down to a closeup of his crucifixion-scarred wrists.
"I'd ask him why Daddy had to die so suddenly and why Martha's fiancé moved away and never came back, and why I had to quit school and sling hash for two-dollar tips." I'd have to add something about why Growing Pains lasted seven full seasons on ABC, but that's just me.
The Stranger: "No discipline seems pleasant, but painful But later it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it." It's hard to believe that Jesus would go the "redemptive suffering" route. Didn't he go through that so we wouldn't have to? Still, the most difficult disbelief to suspend is that my Lord and savior would have bangs.
Their conversation is interrupted by Martha — "Excuse me," sarcastically to Mary. "Are we closed now? Those lunch menus aren't going to put themselves out." Oh my gosh. I get it now, Martha and Mary. Just like the gospel narratives about Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus. This family was close friends of Jesus, and the story goes that one day Mary was hanging out with the guys listening to Jesus when her sister, Martha, started to passive aggressively slam dishes around in the kitchen to show how hard she was working in comparison to her slacker sister. When the passive thing didn't work, she implored Jesus to rebuke Mary for not helping out more. He, of course, told Martha to chill out. So this is a modern retelling of that story. I actually like the idea and, I almost hate to say it, other than creepy-Jesus, it's not too bad.
Mary sits in Jesus' booth again and after telling him charming childhood stories about how her daddy never turned away homeless folks from the diner but gave each one a sandwich and a cup of coffee, she confesses that Martha isn't quite so generous. Martha predictably interrupts their conversation to task Mary with filling the salt shakers. Next we see Jesus with a box of kosher salt, refilling shakers with Mary. If anyone pokes their head out of the kitchen and says, "We need to buy new yeast," I may have to leave the room for a few minutes.
Martha interrupts again basically to try to kick Jesus out for just hanging around. (I tried that in my twenties, and it just didn't work). The drama comes to a peak when Mary scolds Martha right back for opening on Sunday.
"Daddy wouldn't be proud of what you've done with the café. He'd be ashamed of who you've become." Ouch.
They both turn to Jesus to ask which one of them is in the right: Mary who wants to just kick back and enjoy life, or Martha the miserable workaholic. To which he says, "Both. In God's eyes it makes no more sense to spend all your time smelling the roses than it does to work yourself to exhaustion Enjoying God's love means balance."
To which Martha replies: "That sounds like something on Oprah. You can't just expect to live your life 50 percent one way and 50 percent the other." I have to say I'm with Martha on this one. I am fairly convinced that the whole "live a balanced life" thing is just another device society uses to try to make me feel bad about myself, much like commercials for Crest White Strips.
"Do you remember the broken-down playground across the street when you were kids?" Jesus, um, I mean the Stranger, asks the sisters.
"How do you know about that?"
"Remember what your dad would do to make the seesaw more fun? How he d stand in the middle to keep it balanced"?
The sisters pause and say, "Keep our eyes on him." And I'm going to puke. The sisters turn around at the sound of breaking dishes in the kitchen. When they turn again, Jesus is gone. Only his empty coffee mug, five dollars, and a photo of them as young girls is left, which is a little Twilight Zone-ish. I'm just glad Jesus is a good tipper, though that in no way makes up for the bangs.
Final shot: a patron walks up to the diner, but the door is locked. The sign on the door reads, "Closed Sundays."
Thought for this show: Keep your eyes on God and your life will be balanced, but your teeth will be no whiter.
Paula White Today
(Boosting God's self-esteem)
My guest Jay McDivitt is a Lutheran pastor in Denver, Colorado. After years of bouncing around Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, UCC, and Unitarian- Universalist communities, he now finds himself as a proud Lutheran, somewhere between a generous orthodoxy and a boundaried progressivism. He also loves to play poker, cook with garlic, and drink cheap wine with his lovely spouse.
* * *
My guest Ann E. Williams grew up in Wisconsin, where she spent every Sunday in the Presbyterian Church USA. Her undergraduate experience at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, converted her to the ELCA and a deep love of liturgy. A graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, Ann now spends her time as the ecumenical minister at a Jesuit university and also enjoys studying narrative theories of counseling.
(All guest biographies were written by the guest in question.)
* * *
Much to my delight, Paula White is next. The last time I watched her show, her talk was entitled, "Why God Wants You Wealthy." White is a mega-church "pastor" along with her (soon to be second ex-) husband "Bishop" Randy White.
After years of seminary, I find myself getting a tad indignant about people taking the title "pastor" much less "bishop" with all the consideration and credentialing one might use choosing a chat room screen name.
With the litany of multi-million-dollar corporate jets and mansions owned by the likes of White and Creflo Dollar, the Crouches (TBN founders), and many other prosperity preachers, I'm beginning to become convinced that the income earned by preachers on TBN is inversely proportional to the amount of theological education completed. Perhaps something in the range of the following: for every year of college and graduate education earned past an associate's degree from a correspondence course one can expect to earn from $10,000 to $50,000 less a year.
My good friends Jay and Annie have groggily emerged from the basement. Between the three of us we have twelve years of postgraduate theological training and the combined yearly income of far less than $100,000 (not quite proving my point, but coming pretty close to it). I love these two for many things, not the least of which is the fact that they agreed to watch TBN at 5:30 a.m. and that after a particularly late clergy poker game last night.
Paula Today is nothing more than Paula White talking into the camera, and let me tell you, this girl can talk. She's a gifted orator, speaking into the camera in such a relaxed, charming, confident manner that I find myself unable to look away. She's absolutely mesmerizing — perfectly styled dyed-blond hair, fake French manicured nails, capped teeth, and enough botox in her face to taint the food supply of a small farm town. She's what fancy French postmodernist Baudrillard would call a simulacrum of a woman (an imitation for which there is no actual original). She's excited this morning to be bringing us a message on an "attitude of gratitude." As she talks I realize that she gestures not with her hands so much as with her fingernails. It's as if with every movement she is underscoring not only the meaning of her words but also the supremacy of her manicure. Here's her argument:
1. I desire God's presence (Psalm 27).
2. God sets up clearly how to approach him (Psalm 100:5).
3. We must "do it God's way."
This "order" that she claims God has given us to enter into God's presence is that we must give a "thanks offering, an offering for fellowship or communion with God." The "thanks offering" thing is added onto the text in the Amplified Bible, which is, much like the name implies, a version of the Bible where the translators decided to add a little "umph," and so, like the Ted Turners of biblical publishing, have "colorized" the classic. So the psalm she's using says, "Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise," but Paula then takes the "thank offering" addition of the Amplified version, and she runs with it — all the way to the bank.
* * *
Paula offers this thought, "When you worship you are prostrating yourself before God, and you are submitting your sense of superiority to God." This is interesting to me. I have to give it to the evangelicals here; they seem to focus on worshiping God more than the dry liturgical types I run with. We tend to mistakenly conflate worship and liturgical precision, as though worshiping God is possible only when all the magical elements of confession, absolution, creed, Lord's Prayer, and the words of institution are done correctly and in the appropriate order. What is our doctrine of worship really?
Back to Paula: She's claiming that to be satisfied, fulfilled, peaceful, and joyful, "You have to do it God's way. God never asks that you understand him, just that you obey him." And this is going to be where White begins to make me crazy. I'm wondering: How do we determine what "God asks" of us? One biblical account says that all that God requires is to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. What does it mean to "obey" God? Are we, like the Hebrew people, to abide by the law of Moses and the Deuteronomic code? Really, Paula? I'm going to assume for the sake of argument that Paula would say that following the "rules" in the Bible is the same thing as obeying God. The problem with that line of reasoning is that the Bible is a huge book (really more like a library than a single book), and there are hundreds of rules or guidelines. Some rules we think of as God's will and others we ignore.
This is admittedly an easy target, but here are a few ways in which I am certain that Paula does not "obey God":
* Her outfit is made of more than one fabric (Lev. 19:19).
* She clearly cuts her hair (Lev. 19:27).
* While I can't prove this one, it's still worth mentioning on the merit of sheer weirdness: When (perhaps if) Paula goes camping, I hope that she designates a place outside of camp and then takes a small trowel with which she digs a hole to cover up her own shit, for this is to "obey
God" (Deut. 23:12).
Yes indeed, two can play at this game, my prooftexting sister.
She quickly goes on to add that "if you want God's results, God says, 'This is the way you approach me,' this is the portal into my gates, first by a thanksgiving offering, to say, 'God I value you and this sacrifice is validation of your worthiness.' "
"Wow," Jay offers, "God is so needy. I've had girlfriends like that."
This idea of God is that God is a wealthy king with low self-esteem who arbitrarily makes up rules that have to be followed in order for his impoverished subjects to get anything out of him. Most of these rules involve the subjects acting sycophantically in order to boost God's self-worth. Oh, and this particular "rule" is found in one line of a psalm, so thank goodness we have the scholarly work of Paula White to help uncover this little mystery for us.
All of a sudden I realize that it's way too early in the morning to be feeling quite so cynical, and what if I use my cynicism all up and by hour ten or eleven then find myself agreeing with stuff that would normally make me want to convert to something less crazy, like, say, Branch Davidianism. I must pace myself.
Excerpted from SALVATION ON THE SMALL SCREEN by NADIA BOLZ-WEBER. Copyright © 2008 by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
5:00 a.m. The Stranger (Seriously, my Savior would not wear bangs)
5:30 a.m. Paula White Today (Boosting God's self-esteem)
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen Simul lustus et Peccator
6:00 a.m. Jesse Duplantis Ministries (Being Charlie in God's chocolate
6:30 a.m. Enjoying Everyday Life with Joyce Meyer (Am I a victorious,
powerful, stomp-on-the-devil's-head Christian?)
7:00 a.m. Changing Your World with Dr. Creflo Dollar (Resisting the
cherry danish with God's help)
7:30 a.m. John Hagee Today (At the Ethan Allen Middle East Apocalyptic
8:00 a.m. Breakthrough with Rod Parsley (Do the prayer line people have
to use stripper names?)
8 30 a.m. Today with Marilyn and Sarah (I didn't know stickers could do
9:00 a.m. Believer's Voice of Victory ("The Secret,"
Postscript: My Sister Emails in Solidarity
9:30 a.m. Best of Praise the Lord (Siegfried and Roy go to Burning Man)
11:00 a.m. Behind the Scenes (Liberals in heaven?)
11:30 a.m. Paula White Today (Forgetting about kangaroos)
12:00 p.m. Life Today (In the down-homey log cabin of millionaires)
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen The Grassley Six
12:30 p.m. This Is Your Day with Benny Hinn (Catching the mic in one
1:00 p.m. The 700 Club (Pentecostal Romper Room)
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen What Are People Getting Out
2:00 p.m. John Hagee (How is a frozen pizza recall "news," or
"Christian," or "Christian news"?)
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen What Makes Something
2:30 p.m. Breakthrough with Rod Parsley (l wonder if? Raise eyes to
heaven" was on the teleprompter?)
3:00 p.m. Praise the Lord (PTL) (Don Ho sings the bad theology of your
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen Prayer
5:00 p.m. Ancient Secrets of the Bible (CorningWare is ruined for me)
5:30 p.m. Rediscovering the Kingdom with Dr. Myles Munroe (Religion as
6:00 p.m. Behind the Scenes (I think all this anointing has just given me
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen Christology, Pneumatology,
and the Absence of Language
6:30 p.m. The Hal Lindsey Report (Meet my dad)
7:00 p.m. Joel Osteen Ministries (McPreachy's good-time prosperity
7:30 p.m. Ever Increasing Faith (Every word in the Bible is true. We know
this because the Bible says it's true, and, as we already said, every word
of the Bible is true.)
8:00 p.m. Praise the Lord (Heartbreaking, inspiring, limbless day on
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen What Is Really Being Sold on
10:00 p.m. Against All Odds (The session in which I pass out)
10:30 p.m. Life Focus (Exploring menopause with my ex-boyfriend)
11:00 p.m. The Dream Center with Tommy Barnett (Don't fake your own
kidnapping just because you're having an affair)
11:30 p.m. This Is Your Day with Benny Hinn (You can't go wrong combining
gold lamé shoes and a Nehru jacket)
Intermission Reflection on the Blank Screen Do They Believe It?
12:00 a.m. Pastor Greg (Sublimated homoeroticism is funny)
12:30 a.m. The Ramp (Getting under the glory)
1:00 a.m. Virtual Memory (Seriously? There's a Book of Jonah)
1:30 a.m. Bananas (Christians don't need beer and the F-word to be
2:00 a.m. Xtreme Life (How would Jesus surf?)
2:30 a.m. Team Impact (Jesus of Nazareth: Lamb of God, or cagefighter?)
3:00 a.m. Children's Heroes of the Bible (I've become a monster)
3:30 a.m. BJ's Teddy Bear Club (Dancingpoultry time!)
4:00 a.m. Greatest Heroes and Legends of the Bible (Through the rabbit
Epilogue: My Unlikely Evangelical Friend