Monday, September 5, 2011

Mad Men

There wasn't a lot of entertainment for a boy in Depression era Tennessee. So my dad and his family would go to revivals. Choirs would sing. The preacher would stalk the stage like a tiger, his voice dropping to a growl and rising to a roar. And members of the audience would shout "Amen," bewail their sins, shiver, shake, cry, and maybe swoon in the Spirit and fall to the ground. As night fell the people would go to their cars, parked around the revival tent, and turn on the headlights for illumination. There wasn't a better show around. Of course, if the revivalist painted a scary enough picture of the wrath of God, it wasn't funny anymore. One night the preacher described a train going to hell. You didn't know which stop was the last one before the end of the line, the heart of Hades itself. The tension got to be too much. My dad went forward to be saved before that train took him straight to Grand Central Satan.

Two groups of people are the earliest adopters of any new communication technology: preachers and pornographers. Oral Roberts was one of the first revivalists to use television. It wasn't long before Billy Graham and an army of evangelists followed his lead. Today there are several cable networks run by ministries. The entertainment and production values are better than in the days of tent revivals and the message is more varied than just a call to convert. The preacher might speak on depression, or personal finance, or parenting. Or it may concern hot button issues like the end times, or abortion or gay marriage. When it gets to one of those, the preacher may feel free to roar like the tent revivalist, denouncing sins and calling for sinners to repent.

"How come TV preachers seem mad and church preachers are not?" asks our sermon suggestion slip. Of course, not all TV preachers come across as mad, if by that the writer means merely angry. Some are rather scholarly. The ex-stripper who can be seen in the wee hours of the morning on one of the local stations covers blackboards with very close exegesis of the original Greek of the New Testament. Robert Schuller and Joel Olsteen go out of their way to present a positive message every week. But many preachers on TV do seem to be exercised about some sinful aspect of modern life every time you tune in. Why is that?

If asked, these preachers would probably put themselves in the proud tradition of the Biblical prophets who critiqued their society for its spiritual deficiencies. And that includes John the Baptist and Jesus. What got them both killed was their lack of deference to the powers that be. John pointed out the faux pas of Herod Antipas and his adulterous and incestuous marriage. Jesus let the Pharisees and Sadducees know in no uncertain terms that they were dead wrong on certain essentials in obeying God. The church needs to keep its prophetic stance and not just rubberstamp what state and society find acceptable. That voice was sorely missed when, say, the Nazis came to power in Germany. Those brave Christians who did point out the contradiction between Aryan ideology and the Gospel, like Dietrich Bonhoffer, were thrown into the camps along with the Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, gays, Jehovah's Witnesses and other undesirables. Separation of church and state in this country was championed by Christians not so much to keep churches from influencing government as to the government from compromising the independence of churches or their message.

When looked at this way, the freedom of TV preachers to tell it like it is can be seen as admirable. We need people who point out when society's values are seriously awry and when the rich and powerful are too cozy with the government. Sadly, we seldom see that. The vast majority of TV preachers come from the same wing of the church and are so focused on sexual sins and a limited number of political issues that they neglect the other things the Biblical prophets are known for preaching against: social injustice and spiritual hypocrisy. Over and over again, the prophets pointed out that God judges society by how it treated its poor, women without husbands and children without fathers and immigrants living in the country. They lambasted corrupt judges and officials who cut deals with the rich while letting the poor get cheated. And they connected this with a lazy, self-satisfied lip service to God, high on ritual observance and low on soul-searching and concern for the suffering. I'm afraid that for all the sound and fury drummed up by TV evangelists they still fall short of the standards set by the real prophets of God.

That said, many of these ministries do run charities for the poor, often in very poor countries. And now that Congress is talking about deep cuts in the federal budget, many prominent clergy, including the National Association of Evangelicals, are urging them not to cut programs that help the poor. Younger Evangelicals are open to the whole range of Biblical concerns.

There is another reason why TV preachers get mad about things. Unfortunately, it has to do with fundraising. Jerry Falwell was always sounding alarms about hidden spiritual and moral dangers in modern culture. It was his contention that the purple Teletubby was a stealth icon of the gay rights movement. Opinion columnist Cal Thomas used to work for Falwell's Moral Majority. Thomas wondered why the organization always emphasized threats and stoked people's fears rather than focus on the positive things the group did. He was told that when they appealed to people's fears they got bigger donations. Politicians know that fear is a big motivator, literally bypassing the reasoning center of the brain. And since TV ministries are expensive and must buy their time from the stations on which they appear, it must be tempting to emphasize things that get people frightened and fired up and willing to send in lots of money.

There is a final reason why a TV preacher can afford to be angry most of the time. Even if a TV evangelist has a church, it will be enormous enough that his duties are hardly pastoral. He can preach harshly against many of the features of modern life without it being taken personally by his multitude of followers. A preacher with a family-sized or pastoral-sized church will know the people in his parish and what's going on in their lives. To him these problems are not abstract. Neither are they simple, nor can they be dealt with as if the issues involved were as stark as black and white. Unlike the highly charismatic TV preacher and his almost cult leader-like status, the average pastor isn't on a high enough pedestal that he can afford to look down on his flock and their problems. He will be able to be more understanding and more compassionate towards a person caught in a tough situation than someone addressing a congregation of thousands and a television audience of millions.

We see an example of this in the life of Christ. Jesus was hardly soft on the topic of adultery, yet when some Pharisees brought him a woman caught in the act of adultery (but not, for some reason, the man involved) he was not for stoning her to death as prescribed by the law. He opted for forgiveness and giving her the chance to change her life. He even faced down an angry mob and reminded them that none of them were sinless and therefore they were unfit to condemn and execute the woman. When the crowd melted away, Jesus told the woman to go and sin no more. Jesus did not let his moral stance blind him to the pastoral needs of the woman before him. Getting her out of her bad situation was more important than preaching to her.

It's easy to condemn anyone you don't know. It's easy to scapegoat whole classes of people you rarely, if ever, encounter. It's easy to ascribe immoral motives to them or to say they are lazy or stupid. So we hear people's beliefs that all illegal immigrants are here to go on welfare (which doesn't explain why so many are willing to work so hard and risk death in the desert just to get here), or that those who are unemployed are lazy (as opposed to having a hellish time getting a job at a time when companies are still laying lots of people off), or that that people who take drugs continue to do voluntarily (which contradicts brain science showing that real addicts do not enjoy drugs but have a fiendishly hard time getting off them because their body punishes them for trying to quit). But then it happens to a friend or someone in your family and you realize that the problem is not that simple. Maybe that person made one bad decision and now they may have to pay for it for the rest of their life. Maybe it happened to them entirely without their knowledge or consent. And you realize the truth behind that saying of Plato: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."

Generals are sometimes so removed from the reality of the guys on the front lines that they can forget that. A superstar TV evangelist might as well. Or maybe he doesn't want to be considered soft on sin. Successful respectable preachers forget that Jesus was hardest on the respectable sins, like arrogance, and those who didn't see the need to repent, which included most of the religious leaders of his day. While he didn't condone the less respectable sins, he did find that those who practiced them, who were ostracized and living on the margins of society, were more willing to repent and seek to change their lives.

Not all TV preachers are hypocrites or angry. You just don't hear of that kind as much. The newsworthy ones tend to be the outliers, the ones who say and do the most outrageous things. And sadly, a lot of people think we non-televised pastors are like them. A lot of them think we make tons of money, apparently not knowing that the vast majority of churches in this country have 100 members or less. They think we bully our flocks and preach hate and that church members believe our every word and follow our teachings blindly. That's like thinking every person in New Jersey or every housewife in Atlanta or every trailer park inhabitant is exactly the same as those you see in realty shows on TV. It's like thinking every member of the Republican or Democratic party is like the ones who get the most time on the news. It's like thinking every Muslim is a suicide bomber.

I watch a lot of TV but I know that it's not reality. It's not where I get my information about God nor where I experience God's grace. I get that here, among real people, who are following Jesus. I know that for some people, shut-ins and the like, TV might seem like the best option. But even at the nursing home they have clergy and volunteers who come and offer worship and Bible studies. Just like it's easy for TV preachers to see sins and sinners abstractly, it is easy to see the Body of Christ abstractly if your fellow worshippers are televised. The true test of loving one's neighbor is not if you can love a theoretical one, but the one you actually have, the person you actually encounter in your life, the one with the bad combover, or the obnoxious opinions, or the big gut, or the poor social skills. He or she doesn't look or act like anyone on TV. But then God didn't become one of us theoretically but in reality. And as we've seen, even Jesus got exasperated with people occasionally. Which must have made it harder for him to go to the cross and undergo real suffering for people who could be worse than ungrateful and unbelieving. That he did so is a testament to his love.

We will probably not have to die for others. But as Christians we do have to serve Christ self-sacrificially and do it in the real world. May God give us the courage to speak the truth prophetically, but to speak it in love, to people who are fighting a hard battle. If we do it right, they will realize that we are not condemning them or fighting them but helping them to live, to survive, to triumph eventually in this world, the real world, where things are messy and where they may have to forfeit a battle or 2, especially against our creator, to win what is priceless: peace with God and humanity, through him who is both.

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