By Matthew Ralph
I don’t own a TV so I tend to mostly only read and overhear people at work talking about “Dancing With the Stars,” “American Idol” and countless other mindless programs. This being the case, I was pretty excited when I found out that the Sarcastic Lutheran, Nadia Bolz-Weber, had an entire book about her experiences watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network for 24 hours straight.
While I’ve never heard anyone in the lunchroom talking about TBN, I’ve definitely heard a lot about TBN over the years. Even when I was still living at my parents’ house and had access to cable, we didn’t get TBN so I would have to settle for stories from friends in other parts of the country about Carman kicking butt on a Christian-themed cop show and other nonsense. The few times I’ve been exposed to the actual network, in hotel rooms and during a short stint with DirecTV in my house, it never seemed nearly as exciting as the way people would describe it. Or the way YouTube videos of Benny Hinn made it seem. It’s usually, when I’ve seen it at least, been really boring and long-winded preaching.
In other words, the kind of stuff that would make a 24-hour marathon of watching the network an unimaginable task. Fortunately, Bolz-Weber was up to the task originally requested by Seabury Books of funny woman Becky Garrison. Compared to A.J. Jacobs’ “The Year of Living Biblically,” the stunt of sitting through 24 hours of religious broadcasting might seem minor but the further into “Salvation On The Small Screen” you get the more you realize how painful it must have been, especially toward the end when the text of her dozing in and out watching Christian cartoons in the middle of the night starts to read as deliriously and bizarrely as it probably felt for a writer who like Mr. Jacobs has become one of my modern-day literary heroes.
Judging by the book’s cover alone, a reader cracking the book for the first time might suspect that a self-described sarcastic mainliner writing a book about TBN would represent a perfect storm of criticism and shameless ridicule. Personally, I expected mostly to laugh at the idiocy of some Christians, applaud the author from my seat in the Sarcastic choir and stroke my own ego about my place in a Christian landscape that — I’m always ready to tell curious inquirers — looks nothing like the prosperity gospel/Bible fell from the sky in English universe of Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, TD Jakes and Benny Hinn.
I discovered otherwise early into this fast-paced page-turner. Rather than hog all of the attention, Bolz-Weber invited a host of friends with a variety of backgrounds, faith persusasions and experiences with the church to join in the conversation. Their chatter adds another layer to the analysis, which Bolz-Weber does both gracefully and even-handedly throughout much of the journey. Rather than make easy sport of the talking heads on her screen, she lodges criticism both on the flawed theology and thinly-veiled marketing of Christian products and her own knee-jerk reactions to what she is seeing on her television set. When she does throw down, her tone is serious and possibly even prophetic.
Take for example her reflection nine and a half hours and $6,340.19 worth of products offered for sale into the marathon:
“So far today TBN has said precious little of Christ, perhaps a half-dozen mentions, and most of those were ‘calling on the name’ of Jesus as talisman and did not involve the nature, work or teachings of Christ. What seems to qualify as Christian is that which is clean, smug, overly groom, socially conservative, and above all wrapped in super-duper positive thinking. If Jesus were here it would be hard to envision him on the set of a TBN show, except perhaps if he were turning over their Louis XVI money-changing tables.”
There’s plenty more where that came from but there is also a fair amount of serious theological reflection and open-ended questions being asked of the reader. There’s also a careful attempt by the author to do more than poke holes in the theology, patriotism, eschatology, conservative politics and “Christian” news about a frozen pizza recall, etc. being shown on TBN.
“What if we are both right,” she ponders after considering some of the positive take-aways she is seeing. “Part of me can’t bear the though, but what if it’s true? In the book of Genesis God blessed both Sarah and Hagar, so maybe God blesses and, despite the lousy raw material God has to work with, manages to get something done through both our community and (gasp) TBN.”
Those looking for humor and snark won’t be disappointed. There are plenty of one-liners comparing the popularity of Joel Osteen to Hot Pockets and show production values to that of Charlton Heston’s “Ten Commandments,” not to mention repeated references to the Faberge-style eggs being sold on the screen, cracks about “Jesus Is My Boyfriend” praise music and a slew of mainstream pop culture allusions.
There is a healthy diet of sarcasm one might expect from the Sarcastic Lutheran and some of her guests as well. After hearing Paul Crouch Jr. (the son of TBN’s founder) repeatedly say that God uses several disabled people he is interviewing on limbless day at TBN “despite” their disability (even after they all tell him that God is using them “because” of their disability) Bolz-Weber writes: “Does God use PC Jr. because he’s an idiot, or despite the fact that he’s an idiot?”
Ultimately, what keeps Bolz-Weber honest and mostly in check throughout the book is something she ponders in the book’s intro.
“I began to wonder what the TBN folks would think of me, a heavily tattooed Christian progressive from a liturgical denomination. How would people in their theological camp respond to my preaching? Would they think, as I do of them, that I misuse scripture? Would they be offended at the aesthetic in the community I serve? Would they dismiss my years of theological education as silly and unnecessary?”
It is this kind of humility and self-realization that makes the book much more than advertised. Whether you align with either theological perspective or claim no belief in a God of any kind, this book explores the bizarre world of Christian TV so you don’t have to and in the process provides just as many questions to ponder as it does answers. For one, I know I am still pondering and wrestling with a question asked after an American soldier on one of the TBN shows says he wouldn’t have survived his tour of duty without the prayers of the people watching. The question: Do the soldiers who have died die because their families didn’t pray well enough or hard enough?
It’s a serious question that someone preoccupied only with pink-haired evangelists, prosperity preaching, Ann Coulter, bad special effects and $250 Faberge-styled eggs might have missed.