Eat well, Weep hard and prosper

The unfolding TBN scandal we were discussing a while back made the big time on the front page of The New York Times this weekend. The usual litany of excess in which the Crouches so conspicuously indulge is recited at length, but we’ve already covered that ground here.

So two things, in a slightly different direction.

First, reading the article’s discussion of the “chauffeured Bentley, which TBN says is used to ferry television guests in proper style,” and the “working dinners” that total at least $300,000 per year, I’m reminded that no small part of the Crouches’ gravitational pull for the many guests who regularly appear on their show must surely be the free-flowing largesse of the TBN empire.

Just as the Crouches probably tell themselves they’ve done the hard spiritual labor to justify their lifestyles, the musical performers, preachers, missionaries, and other guests who appear on the show probably tell themselves that a free feast and a chauffeured Bentley to and from the hotel are justifiable perks for reaching millions of TBN-loving souls all over the world with the message of the gospel.

Second, I would lie to say I’m not fascinated by the sheer, overwhelming, unbounded gaucheness of televangelism … the pink hair and bejeweled costumes and makeup applied with a trowel and the bedazzled sets of gold lame and props from long-ago proms of the 1980s. It’s all fascinating to me.

True, I tend to have more tolerance for this pietistic too-muchness in a Vestal Goodman  than in Jan Crouch. Personally, I like gospel music better than bad preaching. But more generally, I also think musical performance is more readily understood as … well, a performance and a transaction. You pays your money and you takes your chances. But this a distinction of emphasis, not of kind.

In any event, it’s harder to get at what this is all about – the big hair and linebacker shoulder pads and preference for gold lamé and Lee Press-On nails – than most people assume. One explanation I offer in the book is that the “cartoonish extravagance” of the Tammy Faye style you find on TBN and in some quarters of southern gospel offers to the ordinary Christian viewer at home an example of Christians simultaneously succeeding in the world without becoming part of it.

The outsized proportions of evangelical celebrity [like the Crouches or the Bakkers] signal ascendancy to wealth and success. … At the same time, the unmistakable gaudiness of the Tammy Faye aesthetic has the self-authenticating effect of binding the evangelical celebrity to her fans. Outsiders see in the celebrity evangelical appear a tacky amateurism and transparent fraudulence; to cultural insiders, this appearance communicates a refusal to surrender or succumb to the blandishments of the secular celebrity’s worldly elegance and the human frailty it hides. That this style may appear “cheap” or “overdone” is the point at some level. … The gospel diva … revels in her appearance as a conspicuously pious Christian. As the mascara runs down her cheeks, she demonstrates her abiding concern with the gospel in song [or the preaching of the gospel] over the allure of secular celebrity’s stylistic equipoise. (147)

I’ve got other fish to fry in this chapter, so my treatment is not exhaustive by any stretch. But it was (and is) important to me to take this stuff seriously and not just dismiss it as spiritual hucksterism or a “false theology” that’s been a “huge embarrassment to evangelicalism” (as the SBC’s Al Mohler puts in the NYT article). It may all be true, but that’s like trying to explain Moby Dick by pointing out that the whale was white and really tarnished the whaling industry’s image.

Exactly why people keep sending money to the Pauls and Jans of the world is another book probably (though I don’t think I’d have the stomach to write it), and there really isn’t any short or single answer.

Here’s one: After my last post on this topic, I was contacted by a southern gospel professional with ties to people who regularly appear on TBN. His main point was to politely suggest that though everybody’s heard rumors about Paul and Jan for years, no one really talks about this stuff in public because TBN has a lot of good, honest Christians followers who rely on the TBN ministry for real spiritual support and guidance. Essentially, the argument here is: God works through many cracked vessels.

Another common explanation you often hear is a corollary to the first: that people who form intense connections with - and make financial commitments to - the Crouches and Bakkers of the world are unwitting dupes or rubes or sheep or whatever. This is the “sucker born every minute” argument.

Whichever version you prefer, these arguments have never been very satisfying to me, not least of all because they require the use of a fairly unwieldy paint brush and a heavy dose of cultural superiority (and in the case of the cracked-vessel argument, it’s more than a little self-serving  coming from folks who are fond of eating well on the TBN working-dinner account and getting to and from their guest appearances on the show in limousine).

For my part, I’d say some people are greedy, some people are needy, and at a certain point just about everyone will suspend disbelief when the need or greed is great enough.

But whatever the complete answer, if support for televangelism can withstand the withering reality of what goes on off-screen with the help of all that money (and it can; it hasit does), then I think we have to be ready to stipulate up front that in addition to the televangelist’s high tolerance for ethical dissonance, there’s probably also a lot more self-awareness among televangelism’s viewers about the part they play in all this.

In other words, there’s plenty of embarrassment to go around.

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Comments

  1. sickened wrote:

    The world is full of drones, and many of them will follow, and support people like the Crouches to the ends of the earth. As long as it is in the “name of lawd”… It sickens me. You should write that book Harrison.

  2. David wrote:

    As they say on talk radio, “I’m a first time caller”. Your blog is terrific. I’ve read it for a long time and look forward to each post. You’re not afraid to speak your mind or be critical, and thankfully don’t follow “establishment” commentary. Keep writing—you are very talented.

    It’s appalling to read the commentary from the southern gospel professional who basically says that Paul and Jan should be allowed to keep their program (can it be called a ministry?) because it has a lot of good honest followers. Huh? Why is it we want crooked insurance salesmen in prison but we make excuses for preachers? Shouldn’t the standards be higher?

  3. Alan wrote:

    David - So true. I will only add one thought: There is a day coming when all of this will be made right, and it may not be in our Courts here on earth. But, if you believe what the Bible says, it will be taken care of. Wolves in sheep’s clothing - and those who associate with them - will have their day. That NY Times article that Doug linked to was sad to read. No wonder so many sneer at the church, reading that, and thinking that people like them might be more than a fringe minority.

  4. JM wrote:

    Through the course of my sojourn, I’ve lived through the tent evangelists and “prayer cloth” healers of the 50’s, the TV preachers of the 60’s, the university founders and televangelists of the 70′ and 80’s and the slick Christian TV marketers and success ministers of the new millennium. Fortunately, I’ve also lived with countless numbers of sincere, good Christians, who have been beacons of hope and light in a world populated with charlatans and those devoted to self-interest. Should God allow the world to continue on, there will be more Crouches and Bakkers and Swaggarts, etc., etc., etc. I agree with Alan; God’s justice will prevail.

  5. ode wrote:

    :( so called “christian morality” of SGM reached yet new lows.

    Mr. SG pro that wrote to Doug, read Luke 6 -39. Matthew 15-13:14. So for the occasional bone that Crouches throw you off their table you are arguing that “TBN is needed because some honest christians rely on it”. So let’s legalize crack cocaine and pedophilia, some christians – every diocese in US,to be exact, and a number of protestant churches are a part of clergy abuse lawsuits - rely on it as well. Why dont we.

    What guidance can the blind leading the blind provide? There is a difference b/n a cracked vessel filled with sweet water and one with the posion of false teachings.

    I like some of this music,it saved my church dance class. But all those strange SGM’s Family “values” …sad

  6. David wrote:

    JM, allow me to recommend the book “Charlatan” by Pope Brock. It’s the story about John R. Brinkley — one of the all-time great hucksters. While the Crouch’s may be close to the top, Brinkley wins the prize.

    Late in his life, and in order to get away from the mess he had made, he moved to Mexico and broadcast his program from XER-AM. For $10 you could get an autographed picture of Jesus Christ. Now that’s a huckster with spunk!

  7. cynical one wrote:

    Cracked vessels, or crackpots?

  8. Alan wrote:

    Ode - #5: Very well said. Thanks. The only thing I’ll hasten to add is that relatively few SGM artists/groups have appeared on TBN. So, the “family values” of this genre, at least relative to that circus, are not that far gone!

  9. CVH wrote:

    God’s justice will ultimately prevail but until then think of the (literal) millions of people who have been duped by all these charlatans. I know many people say sin is just sin - doesn’t matter what it is. But I wonder if God may have a particularly horrible corner of hell reserved for those who shamelessly, knowingly prostitute the gospel for their own financial and material gain. I hope so.

  10. ode wrote:

    8,

    As the saying goes, one hair on your head is nothing, one hair in your soup is way too much, so it’s still said to see ANY groups doing that. But thank you, it’s great to know there are many that won’t sell out their God and Gospel, just a few rotten eggs.

  11. BackwoodsPhilosopher wrote:

    #5 - Ode…..Amen and Amen!

    Doug……regarding your quote…….
    ************
    “For my part, I’d say some people are greedy, some people are needy, and at a certain point just about everyone will suspend disbelief when the need or greed is great enough.”
    ************
    I think you “broke the code”. When it’s all said and done, it’s not about the Gospel, it’s about GREED with a big, fat G.

    Jesus warned us over and over in the Gospels, but people still refuse to listen and take heed of these charlatans. And unfortunately, many local ministers and pastors buy into the TV-oriented “celebrity culture”, dipping into the church funds to help pay for their own extravagant lifestyles.

    I have very little confidence in Gospel performers, preachers or speakers who perform on TBN or who have programming on the network. I feel the exact same way about the Daystar Network and Marcus Lamb’s philandering ways.

    How the Paul Crouch’s and Benny Hinn’s of the world continue to evade the IRS and Senate inquiries is beyond. It makes you wonder who is “paying off” who.

  12. cindy treadway wrote:

    maybe somebody wants christians to appear to be idiots like this. maybe somebody is paying the crouches and etc of this world to be idiotic in order to make complete and utter fools of christians. did you ever think about it? conspiracy theory 101.

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