Nadia Bolz-Weber, Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television
You know it exists: that channel (or cluster of channels) on your cable service, which you always flip past, where silk-suited preachers exhort the masses. Sometimes they offer True Believers vast earthly prosperity in return for “love offerings.” Others promise to feed Darfur or support missionaries in Mongolia. These networks are part of a parallel economy of Christian stores, media, and other services that Nadia Bolz-Weber calls “the Christian-Industrial Complex.”
Bolz-Weber, a recent seminarian and avowed humorist, decided to watch twenty-four straight hours of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), America’s largest Christian broadcaster, home of such hot names as Joel Osteen and classics like PTL. Coming from a liturgically conservative but theologically moderate church, she admitted not watching Christian TV. Most Christians who attend mainline churches won’t go anywhere near Christian TV. So what happens if we do?
Merriam-Webster defines “cynical” as “captious, peevish; contemptuously distrustful of human nature and motives.” Bolz-Weber admits both her cynical viewpoint and her sarcastic rejoinders. She even calls her blog “The Sarcastic Lutheran.” I was surprised, though, since I come from Bolz-Weber’s denomination and largely share her views, just how cynical my responses to her cynicism were. I was profoundly disturbed, not by her, but by my own reaction.
Accompanied by a rotating roster of fellow jesters, Bolz-Weber spends an entire day watching TBN. She admits she wanted some conservative evangelicals to join her, but was unable to find anybody who actually watches TBN. Apparently, mainline pastors and TBN devotees run in circles that never overlap. Moderates, atheists, Jews, sure: she could find all these. But not one conservative evangelical. In Denver? Seriously? She couldn’t hang a flyer at Orchard Road?
Then Bolz-Weber lobs bombs at TBN’s personalities that often just look mean. She mocks televangelists’ mannerisms, homiletics, and hair. Rather than breaking new ground, she often rehashed specific mockeries I remember from “Bloom County” comic strips, circa 1987. I started rolling my eyes and guffawing. Though I’m no televangelist apologist, I found myself answering Bolz-Weber’s cynicism with my own. When I realized what I’d done, it shocked me.
Philosophic cynicism may be a legitimate response to life’s near-constant assaults. But knee-jerk cynicism is nothing but a way to hold people at arm’s length, exonerating ourselves from the need to communicate. About TBN’s aggressive money solicitations, Bolz-Weber writes: “I am seriously skeptical about how much of the money people send in is actually used [to feed Sudanese refugees] and how much is used to fund [Rod] Parsley’s lifestyle.”
So am I. Yet I responded to Bolz-Weber’s cynicism with a cynical eye-roll. I’m cynical about her cynicism. Very “meta.” And in that moment, something cracked: I’ve feigned a world-weary attitude to prevent either Rod Parsley or Nadia Bolz-Weber from touching my soul. If I can remain looking down my nose at either would-be persuader, I need not reevaluate my own positions. I can continue, untouched by another human’s need. My scars protect my status quo.
Equally important, I needn’t understand or communicate with anybody whose views differ from mine. If they’re beneath my contempt, why should I listen? Bolz-Weber admits this, too. Years of postgraduate theological study have left her more able to communicate with atheists and Jews than her own fellow Christians. Therefore, she realizes, the more TBN she watches, that televangelists meet a need she’s profoundly unprepared to answer in her own parishioners.
We all know the phenomenon, where people only talk with people they already agree with, and emerge from the conversation believing a more extreme, intolerant version of their original beliefs. Psychologists call this “group polarization,” though the military has an altogether more appropriate term: “incestuous amplification.” Too many Christians today demonstrate this incestuous tendency. No wonder unbelievers find our daily discourse strident and unpleasant.
Bolz-Weber and I, almost simultaneously, find ourselves unable to sustain our practiced cynicism under its own self-contradictory weight. We cannot hide our hearts behind practiced academic trickery and hope to convince anyone else that our positions have merit. We cannot call ourselves ambassadors of the Prince of Peace while regarding some people with reflexive contempt. Cynicism, ultimately, is the opposite of Christianity.
Did Bolz-Weber intentionally provide an object lesson in my own prideful errors? Maybe. We bookish Protestants are a repetitive lot, demonstrating the same errors with monotonous regularity. Cynicism is easy; Christ’s love is hard. Because we come from similar spiritual backgrounds, it shouldn’t surprise me that Bolz-Weber and I commit the same sins. And her ability to overcome hers gives me hope that I can overcome mine.