Sunday, October 19, 2008

How Would Jesus Surf? Or, Why Should the Devil Have All the Bad TV?

Once upon a time my siblings and I were regaling some long-lost cousins with stories of our wild youth. We were proud of our waywardness, which involved--for the most part--driving around Des Moines, Iowa, and occasionally drinking beverages we were too young to drink. When we finished our bragging session, our cousins took their cue and shared some of their exploits, which involved--among other things--conspiring with two strippers and a bouncer from my cousin-in-law's club to appear on the Jerry Springer Show, where they faked a fight and his eyeball temporarily popped out of its socket. Then we watched the tape, and I became more fully aware of my own mediocrity.

I have a similar visceral reaction when I read Nadia Bolz-Weber, author of one of my favorite blogs--The Sarcastic Lutheran (there's a link in my sidebar)--and now of the book Salvation on the Small Screen? 24 Hours of Christian Television. I like to fancy myself a fairly sarcastic person, but when I read Nadia I learn my limits, and I simply sit at the feet of a master.

Salvation on the Small Screen? belongs in a relatively recent category of what might be called first-person documentary, which includes films such as Super-Size Me and books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Year of Living Biblically. In such works the investigator is the protagonist, and the work that ensues weaves back and forth between memoir and some other discipline--journalism, perhaps, or in this case, theology. It's like a literary form of extreme sport or reality TV. The challenge Bolz-Weber accepts in this case is to watch Christian television--the kind you're encouraged to lay your hands on--for twenty-four straight hours, journaling the experience as she goes. As a protagonist she earns our sympathy right off the bat by sharing the calamity of losing her notes and having to repeat the entire experiment, so while her observations chronicle twenty-four hours, they actually reflect forty-eight, bless her heart.

For such a project you need a distinct skill set--someone who can go the distance, for one, but also someone who can entertain and edify her audience as she goes. Salvation on the Small Screen? thus qualifies as another in my recently coined category of sanctitainment. (Trademark pending.) Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor currently finishing her M.Div. and heading up a church plant in Colorado. She's also a former stand-up comedian, which only helps the book. Beyond these particular skills is the need for a particular proximal connection to the subject matter, and Bolz-Weber's is almost ideal: raised in the conservative evangelical tradition that birthed the kind of television she's filling her mind with, she now rests solidly in the Lutheran tradition, which is theologically about as far removed from the tradition of her childhood as she can get. All the stars seem aligned on this one.

Bolz-Weber is bolstered in her project by the participation of friends, both far (she receives occasional text messages of solidarity from various parts of the country) and near. Guests volunteer for shifts throughout the twenty-four hour period, with diverse backgrounds ranging from virtually no contact with conservative evangelicalism to, in the unique case of her parent, an ongoing participation in that tradition. I would have liked to see more conservatives participate in the project as much to allow for the possibility that we might find some reason to show some sympathy for the devils who create this programming, as to add some greater depth to some of the dialogue.

It's here, in fact, that I must confess my limits. I like sarcasm to a fault, if you ask some of my friends and loved ones, but the problem with sarcasm is that occasionally your delight gives way to your discomfort. Bolz-Weber is confronting not just the very troubling theology that comes across on these shows, not just the psychological manipulation that takes place with each host's interaction with the viewer; she's also confronting the jargon and cultural patterns of evangelicals, of which I am one. So while I feel virtually no identification with the likes of Benny Hinn, I cringe just a bit when she off-handedly describes a key element of my weekly worship experience as "vapid."

Such are the constraints of sarcasm, and everyone--including Bolz-Weber--affected by them. Her inner conflict is increasingly evident as the day progresses, hitting a high point when her evangelical parents join her for "Behind the Scenes," a presentation of the network's inner workings and corporate mission. Bolz-Weber feels

uncomfortable as hell. This song they are singing is more reminiscent of my Church of Christ upbringing than anything else I've seen on TBN, and I can't believe it's during the hour my parents are here. . . . Do I roll my eyes and make a biting comment about the TBN audience and set design, or do I give in and sing the last refrain with my mom? Answer: I get up and take a shower.


This is an uncomfortable book, but one that bears (and rewards) reading. Bolz-Weber is always surprisingly respectful and circumspect, looking for nice things to say when possible and confessing her own finitude and fallenness along the way. It's also painfully funny throughout. The theological reflection thins out toward the end--a combination of factors such as the broadcast lineup, the backgrounds of the guests and the sleep deprivation--but the book ends perfectly, with a semiconscious Bolz-Weber being swept along by a cartoon about Jonah, narrated by, of course, Charlton Heston.

You will love most of this book and hate parts of it, just as you would probably, like Bolz-Weber, hate most of TBN's programming and yet find yourself moved to tears by the occasional bit of it. This is the world we inhabit; this is the faith we embrace, one in which we remain simultaneously sinners and saints, and we have to deal with that in ourselves and in one another. God save us all.

2 comments:

heather said...

Slacker. You didn't pull a stunt involving strippers and Jerry in high school? I thought everyone did that.
Thanks for the review. I'll have to add it to my list.

Bob/Sir Pent said...

24 hours of Christian TV!

That's like using waterboarding for baptism...