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Theological Publications







Evangelism and Entertainment


Recently, erstwhile evangelist Marjoe Gortner made the news again. He had for a moment reassumed his prophetic mantle. Only this time he posed not as a Pentecostal healer, but as the "Mad Prophet of the Airwaves," recapitulating the "Howard Beal" role in Network on the short-lived NBC show Speak Up America. He railed against the sinners, he whipped up the crowd. Alas, the show became less interesting and the ratings killed it when Marjoe began to settle back into the conventional style of a TV host. But for a while we were reminded of his “Damascus-Road-in-reverse,” his cinematic repudiation of evangelism some years before in the film Marjoe. It's probably safe to surmise that most people write him off as a curiosity. Born Again Christians tend to dismiss him as an embarrassing black sheep to be prayed for, or a pernicious false prophet (though in a striking show of charity, Bob Larson conceded he probably wasn't demon-possessed!). 1  But to write Marjoe off is to miss the valuable lesson he has to teach us. In the era of the "Electric Church” and the Born-Again media blitz, his prophecy comes through loud and clear: Evangelical ministry is such that whether the preacher really believes in it or not doesn't matter! In the movie Marjoe, the ex-evangelist explains that revivalism is just entertainment. The people wanted a splashy, fun extravaganza, and for money he gave it to them. This became especially clear on a recent television interview, where Marjoe recounted his career-switch. First he was in evangelism, then he was in movies, now he's in TV. As simple as that--no crisis of faith leaving fundamentalism, as many of us have undergone. Just a new line of work. It probably puzzles Marjoe that people even use the categories "true or false prophet," "sincere or insincere," regarding him. Was he genuine or phony? Marjoe would ask for clarification: "Genuine or phony as what?" The real issue is how "genuine" a performance you give, because evangelism is entertainment. Whether the evangelist himself literally believes his gospel is about as important as whether an actor playing Lenin is really a communist. Marjoe seems to have put his finger on perhaps the central question in the current controversy over media Evangelicalism. In what follows we will look briefly at three aspects of popular Charismatic religion to see whether Marjoe’s perspective makes the current revival more understandable.

These categories may be dubbed "Hype,” "Bilk," and "Trip." First "Hype": Marjoe made it clear that the success of a revivalist depends on his skill in playing on peoples' emotions and sensibilities so as to produce money, fainting, glossolalia, conversions, etc. The right tone of voice and technique are all- important. . The difference between a "seeker" who "got healed" and one who didn't might simply be how hard the healer grabbed the wounded limb, how violently he yelled. In fact Marjoe regularly demonstrates this on his college lecture tour as he harangues outright skeptics from the audience into being "slain in the Spirit" right on stage. (His topic, significantly, is "Persuasion and Rhetoric.")

Before one says how reprehensible all this is, one might take another look at media blitzes like "Here's Life, America," the "I Found It" campaign, where ad techniques from Coca-Cola are used to hustle and lure the unsaved into the Kingdom. Campus Crusader Bruce Cook's rationale: "God performed a miracle there, on the day of Pentecost. They didn't have the benefit of buttons and media, so God had to do a little supernatural work there. But today, with our technology, we have available to us the opportunity to create the same kind of interest in a secular society." 2  What is he saying but that converting someone to Christ is little different from getting him to buy Coke instead of Pepsi?

Similarly, multimedia sound and light musicals (Cry 3; Dreamweaver) are carefully geared to soften up the viewer, set him or her up for the kill, and whammo! The angels rejoice in heaven over the Nielsen ratings of salvation. “That's entertainment!" Also redemption. Marjoe Gortner didn't believe in the gospel he preached, Bill Bright does, but what's the difference? The result is the same, and so is the method—emotional manipulation.

"Bilk" is our second category. We are all familiar with real estate and medical scams perpetrated on the elderly, and it makes us especially angry to think of such things being done in the name of religion. Of course, this kind of concern is the origin of much of the public outrage concerning the "cults." The popular media evangelists cannot seem to escape suspicion on this score either. What are we to make of it when Pat Robertson's “Kingdom Principles” include the advice to give even one’s rent or food budget to the 700 Club? Rest assured, God will miraculously repay you. Is this a bilk? Is Pat cynically conning the little old ladies, a la Jim Jones, into handing over their Social Security checks to line his own pocket? Or does he really believe God will replenish (a promise Jesus didn't make to the widow in Luke 21:1-4, as far as we know)? I suggest again that it doesn’t make a bit of  difference. The result is exactly the same either way.

What it amounts to is that viewers are buying meaning for their mundane lives. They believe they are sharing in the task of spreading the Word. Better than "buying” would be the metaphor of “gambling.” The poorer the PTL or 700 Club fan is, the more her contribution is a high-stakes bet. But at least some return is guaranteed. Even if she has to go without heat this week (God just may be testing her), she has the satisfaction of believing that her dollars have forwarded the Great Commission. And if she has simply been taken for a ride, it doesn't much matter whether it was the TV preacher's cynical greed or his naive faith that was responsible. 

Third, what about the “Trip,” the religious thrill provided by Charis­matic religion, on TV or otherwise? It is notoriously difficult to distinguish spiritual uplift from sheer emotional excitement in such a context. This came home to me one evening as I sat enthralled with a TV special. There were the crowds in ecstatic joy, swaying, hands aloft, singing along from the audience as the musicians jammed away on stage. Was it Pat Robertson preaching? Ernest Angeley praying? Try Donna Summer, bumping and grinding across the stage. The excitement was electric, contagious! But... uh... secular. 3 And suppose the media revivalist has no more spiritual concern than Donna doe s as she belts out "Hot Stuff"? I submit it doesn't matter in the least. All that matters is how well the prompter does his job. Can somebody say amen?

One might react to this summary by concluding that it is surely a superficial religion that "works" in this way regardless of the sincerity of its leaders. (In other words, the "real thing" is no better than a cheap scam would be!) And that's true, but not the whole story. Adherents of the Electric Church seem quite happy with the results. They claim to be uplifted, comforted, inspired. Even saved, healed, filled with the Holy Ghost. (Similarly, a boy, blind from birth, allegedy regained his sight at Marjoe's hands, though the evangelist had no illusions as to his own “powers.”)

Let me wheel out an old theological rubric that might make some sense of this. To resolve the Donatist Controversy, St. Augustine formulated the doctrine of ex opere operato, i.e., the Eucharist does its salvific work regardless of the sanctification (or lack thereof) of the celebrant.

So, it didn't ultimately matter (at least on this score) whether one's priest were a saint or a sinner. And so with pop-Evangelicalism. It doesn't matter spiritually that it doesn't matter effectively whether the whole thing is a scam. People seem to derive edification regardless.

But, it will still be objected, can such superficial sensationalism count as authentic Christianity? If its conversions are merely glorified consumer manipulations; if its sacrificial giving might as well be mere gambling; if its spiritual exaltation is nothing more than mob-hysteria, can this be real New Testament religion? And the triumphalistic jingoism, the arrogant materialism, the individualistic easy-believe-ism--what has this, pray tell, to do with the way of the cross? We often hear such critiques from mainline churches who deplore the lack of real pastoral counseling and interpersonal community in the media religion. Similarly, radical Christians like the Sojourners Community bemoan the self-congratulatory affluence of big-bucks Evangelicalism. These criticisms have to be taken seriously. But then so do the replies of Pat Robertson and company with their truckloads of mail from viewers whose lives have been redeemed by remote control.

I propose that we have here one of those situations where "everything is true, and so is its contrary." I borrow this phrase from Paul Watzlawick, in his book How Real is Real? He refers to Dostoevski's parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The cardinal condemns Jesus for shackling humanity with an unbearable burden of freedom. Men and women want the stifling security of miracle, mystery, and authority. They want to "escape from freedom." But Jesus invites them to take on his yoke of faith freely given, free thought, and responsibility. The cardinal takes pride in the progress of the Church in finally undoing this mischief of Jesus' making, and instead giving the people the servitude they desire. Who is right in this scene? On which side of the prison bars does the truth about religion lie? Paradoxically, on both! Jesus' call for freedom is heroic. But not everyone can rise to such a challenge. Is no provision to be made for those who can't? Isn't it better to give them a crutch than leave them to limp? This, I fear, is exactly the case with the Electric Church.

I believe that the sophisticated clerics and the radical Sojourners are exactly correct in their criticisms. I am as sure as I can be that mass-market faith is a trivialization of Christ, even an opiate of the people. But, realistically speaking, most folks are not as heroic as the Sojourners and never will be. One just cannot expect them to understand or heed a call to radical disciple­ship. To demand that they do will be futile. And such a demand is thus essentially elitist. (So is, I realize, my very description of the problem, but I'm afraid that's the way it is.)

Schleiermacher defined piety as “a sense and taste for the Infinite.” Well, I think we must admit that, just as people have different levels of appreciation and taste, so it is with religious sensibilities. Some people dine in elegant restaurants; others are happy with pizza (my favorite is pepperoni and anchovy!). Some bask in operatic culture; others see Star Wars (I must have seen the original at least twenty-five times in the theatre). Some praise the Lord for Ernest Angeley, while others leave all and follow Daniel Berrigan (I hope there are other alternatives). So we are left with a paradox. The mass-culture media religion is so superficial that it scarcely matters whether its adherents are cynically being "taken." They seem to like it, and it does them good, no matter how it may trivialize the radical gospel of the New Testament. And those of us who would criticize the Electric Church for that failing will be elitists if we do, and just as elitist if we refrain! Which is worse: to berate the "weaker brethren," or to grudgingly tolerate them as a “mob that knoweth not the law”? My suspicion is that we can go no farther than to assess the issues for ourselves in order to decide which form of faith we will personally accept. You have to call 'em like you see 'em, after all.

But then what to say about the other option, the one we reject? And what about those people who do accept it? It won't hurt to recall Paul's advice in Romans 14:4, "Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand."

But not so fast-­-our dilemma can be swept only so far under the rug provided by this text. Remember, the two positions we are considering do not concern mere doctrinal trivia, and they seem to be mutually exclusive--if either is a true description of the gospel, the other can't be! They differ squarely on the same issues. Perhaps the answer to our existential quandary is not, strictly speaking, an answer to the theological problem at all. H. Richard Niebuhr wisely observed that we are often right in what we affirm but wrong in what we deny. He proposed what has been called a “confessional" stance. We should, indeed we must, confess the faith delivered unto us, but we need not trouble ourselves one way or the other about the confessions of others. "We can speak of revelation only in connection with our own history without affirming or denying its reality in the history of other communities into whose inner life we cannot penetrate without abandoning ourselves and our community!” 4

This implies no relativism, where somehow everything is true, but rather a kind of believing agnosticism, where there is no claim to know what else is true or false besides one's own belief. So if you are a radical Christian, following Jesus in the way of voluntary poverty, what are you to think of the "biblical boob-tube" fan? Like someone else who once asked "Lord, what about him?" you may receive the answer “What is that to you? You must follow me" (John 21:21-22).

1 Bob Larson, The Guru (Denver: Bob Larson Ministries, 1974), p. 52.

2 CBS Reports: “Born Again'" with Bill Moyers, July 14, 1977.

3 Now it turns out that Donna is a Born Again Christian, too!

4 H. Richard Niebuhr, The Meaning of Revelation (New. York: Macmillan, 1974), p. 60.



 By Robert M. Price


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