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 has; it 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.Email this Post