Philip Kent Goff, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University writes an insightful article in today’s Wall Street Journal about where Christian television has come from in the 80’s, and what it means for today’s culture:
TV’s Healing Powers
By PHILIP KEVIN GOFF
September 15, 2006;
Not a few Americans have grown nostalgic for the 1980s — at least in music and fashion. For those of us who study the intersection of religion and culture, it is hard not to be. Just think back: In the ’80s, the Religious Right was in its infancy and ministers from both the left and right were making serious runs for the presidency. Not least, televangelists had successfully jumped from early-morning Sunday network slots to prime-time cable television.
Twenty years ago televangelism had its greatest year on record. With their own slick productions that looked less like church than variety shows, evangelicals tuned in by the millions. Those heady days ended suddenly. Beginning in 1987, a series of scandals broke the faith of some, the wallets of others and confirmed the fears of millions that such religious showmanship was all a sham.
It seems like a dream now: Oral Roberts sequestered himself in his Tower of Prayer, telling audiences that he would certainly die unless someone bailed him out from the financial ruin caused by his building an unneeded medical center. He said that he was commanded to undertake that construction project by a 900-feet-tall Jesus he saw in a vision. (The fact that Mr. Roberts had to flee the tower, which was hit by lightning during his vigil, never struck him as an ironic answer to his prayers.)
Jim Bakker was led away in handcuffs from his mansion while Tammy Faye, makeup sliding from spidery eyes, sang for the cameras. Jerry Falwell, who loathed Mr. Bakker nearly as much as he did feminists, took over Mr. Bakker’s PTL (Praise the Lord) ministries, including its theme park, and enjoyed a widely photographed plunge down the water slide in his dark suit. Finally, Jimmy Swaggart offered one of the greatest public, teary, lip-quivering confessions ever recorded about his relationship with a prostitute and his addiction to pornography.
Whether it was the summer of ’86, when the televangelists owned the airwaves, or the summer of ’87, when they owned the headlines, those were days to remember. Today we still have preachers, rousing music and faith healers on cable television, but something is different. Joel Osteen’s popular services, for example, are unlike his father’s old-fashioned ones. The son’s include the hypnotic repetition of praise music and self-help encouragement to “discover the champion in you.” These are a far cry from the thrilling shows of the ’80s. Benny Hinn and a few others still provide traditional healing services, but we just don’t pay much attention now. Why?
For one thing, the novelty is long gone. Maybe a preacher can heal the lame with an audience looking on. But flip the channel and you can probably see real surgery being performed to accomplish the same thing (including follow-up visits, something faith healers never offered). Or something stranger still: the regular prime-time lineup of most of the networks.
But a more subtle shift has occurred in American culture as well. Generally speaking, Americans have moved closer to evangelicals in their focus on the interior world. The millions who watch reality shows every week are drawn less by the situations in which participants are placed (for there is nothing less real for most folks than being stranded on an island) than by the soul-searching thoughts of contestants. They whisper their innermost secrets to a camera much as 1980s evangelical preachers once did when giving testimony of their sinful pasts before conversion.
If American culture has moved toward evangelicals’ practice of making the personal public, so religion has moved in the direction of the broader culture. The way worship is conducted in growing numbers of evangelical congregations now replicates what once was confined to the TV screen. Sitting in your living room, you may feel just as close to the pastor as you would at the 5,000-person megachurch down the street. Unless you join one of the megachurch’s cell groups, these institutions can be as impersonal as mass media. Moreover, a visit to your local megachurch — including Starbuck’s coffee, entertaining music and drama, and a short talk that seems less like a sermon than an inspiring self-help lesson — will not seem much different than a trip to the mall.
Those who worried during the advent of Christian radio in the 1920s and the dawn of television in the 1950s that church attendance would drop were dead wrong. What these things did change was the way church is done. In their attempt to transform culture, evangelical Christians found they had to imitate it in order to attract an audience.
These changes indicate something important. First, American culture, even in its most secular forms, may be quite religious in its growing focus on the interior life. Second, because of mass media, religion in America is increasingly tied to secular culture in its presentation. Looking back, the ’80s slicked-up televangelists don’t look as strange as they do prescient.
Mr. Goff is director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
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