Thou Shalt Be Rich

The first time I turned on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) was, inauspiciously enough, during its spring Praise-a-thon, an exhibition of servile begging and naked greed worthy of a PBS pledge drive. In a festive atmosphere reminiscent of Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show, TBN's natty, silver-haired founder, Paul Crouch, and his Tammy Faye-esque wife, Jan, relentlessly exhorted viewers to send in their hard-earned dollars to support Christ's cause. “Precious ones,” Jan (she of the heavy makeup, false eyelashes and lace-bedizened raiment) said coyly, indicating a mammoth map of the U.S. on TBN's frothy, gilded stage, “we haven't heard from you in Mississippi yet. Won't you call in your pledge to one of our prayer partners? Bless you.”My first couple of weeks of watching TBN-the Costa Mesa-based Christian cable network-seemed to confirm televangelism's money-grubbing reputation. But under the Crouches' high-energy, Jesus-centric preaching lies a harsh financial reality: television is freaking expensive. TBN shells out a substantial sum each month to keep its more than 500 stations in the U.S., Europe, Africa and South America on the air. It also owns a Christian resort, Trinity Music City USA (just outside Nashville), and it just completed a kind of Taj Mahal for its headquarters just off the San Diego Freeway. Commercial television, of course, supports its outrageous expenses by charging advertisers equally outrageous fees. But TBN, like PBS, is wholly supported by viewer donations, which means that a great deal of air time is spent begging for money.So I chalked up the Praise-a-thon to financial necessity and kept an open mind. But once the fund-raising was over and TBN's regular programming resumed, they just kept talking about money. There were the expected pitches for funds between shows, of course-during which hosts waved free pens and leatherette checkbook covers in return for donations. But I expected that much. The weird thing was this: many shows were about money, unless they were about health, in which case, the point seemed to be that health would allow you to make more money. In other words, TBN is virtually 24 hours of talk about money. There's more talk about cash in a day of watching TBN than in a year of watching PBS's Wall Street wisenheimer Lou Rukeiser-and possibly less talk about Jesus.The money talk seemed nonstop when I watched. Seattle preacher Casey Treat assured me that God wanted me to be rich. Oral Roberts promised that God would heal my body, save my marriage and find me a new job. Nancy Harmon sang songs about taking my finances back from the hands of the devil. Markedly absent during the times I viewed the network were meaningful mentions of spiritual peace or the rewards of the afterlife.While all of this was undoubtedly quite appealing to TBN's audience, it didn't seem to me to have much to do with Christianity. But the simple fact is that the financial realities of televangelism mean that, like commercial television, TBN must keep its viewers happy; if it doesn't, the donations slow to a trickle. TV networks are in the ticklish situation of having to tailor their messages to please their audiences. This does no harm on commercial television-except to artistic integrity-but TBN's message is Christian doctrine, presumably consisting of unalterable truths, some of them rather uncomfortable for the fallen of the world to hear. If televangelists change their preaching to suit their audience's tastes, aren't they doing their religion a disservice by offering the non-Christians watching a message consisting of half-truths and distortions?TO YOUR HEALTH
Although TBN's programming is diverse-talk shows, music videos, kids' shows, fitness shows and, occasionally, evangelizing-most of the people who appeared on TBN seemed to be conservative evangelical Christians: Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland and so on. Robertson et al. believe that some Christians (themselves included) are blessed by the Holy Spirit in a second baptism and granted spiritual gifts, including the ability to speak in tongues (babbling what sound to my secular ears like nonsense syllables: “ba ma zu na la am pa go lu ne me a ba du”) and perform miraculous healings. Jesus, of course, spends a great deal of time in the New Testament healing assorted lepers and blind people and casting out demons. But only a small sect of Christians, the Pentecostals, believe that modern-day people can be blessed with the same curative powers. And yet they are disproportionately represented on TBN. An obvious reason is that watching Hinn, attired in a natty white suit, whack people on the chest while “curing” them is more video-friendly than a dry-as-dust Methodist minister delivering a lecture on some fine point in Leviticus. Another reason, though, is people simply want to see happy stories of God's miraculous power.When it comes to peddling miracles, one of the slickest salesmen is Robertson, whose The 700 Club (airing weekdays on TBN) is the flagship show of his Christian Broadcasting Network. The show's name is derived from a 1963 telethon in which Robertson asked 700 viewers to donate $10 per month, thus keeping his ministry afloat; by 1978, the club boasted 140,000 members.The 700 Club is so polished it puts the rest of TBN to shame. It was also the most overtly political program I saw, which makes sense, given Robertson's presidential aspirations in the late 1980s. On a stark gray set framed by windows lit by a glorious “sunset,” Robertson sits with his co-host, Lisa Ryan, and alternates between newsmagazine-style profiles and straightforward news stories, occasionally throwing in his own divine insights on a given topic.The two profiles on each program are about people who have been miraculously healed. In one profile I saw, gospel singer Kurt Franklin fell off a stage and landed on his head but suffered no permanent injury. Doctors were amazed. “Come on,” says fellow singer Yolanda Adams in the piece. “A guy falls 9 feet, [and there are] no broken bones [and] no broken spine-you know that's God.” The second segment tells the story of a restaurant manager who underwent several surgeries to relieve intense spinal pain; finally, after she refused any more surgeries, Jesus healed her. The stories are told as a narrative flashback, with highly dramatic shots of the victims grimacing in agony, contemplating suicide and so on. (Journalist Sara Diamond, who covers the religious Right, says the people shown in these segments are frequently actors; if so, Robertson doesn't bother to mention it.)But Robertson didn't always pay so much attention to miracle healings. According to religious writer Quentin J. Schultze, Robertson discovered that his ratings went up when he featured upbeat, happy stories about miracles, and consequently, he began showing many more of them. In a 1983 interview with Charisma magazine, Robertson is quoted as saying: “When we started talking about the miracle power of God, our male audience increased by 67 percent, our female audience went up by 37 percent, and total households watching us increased by 50 percent. Now we are talking to Jewish people, to Catholic people, to non-Christians, to Protestant people, evangelicals, Pentecostals. And we are talking about things they are interested in. As a result, our support base has gone up dramatically. In fact, our 1982 income was up 43 percent.”With all his talk of “audience,” “households” and “income,” Robertson might as well be the president of NBC. But by focusing so exclusively on one tiny aspect of Christianity-because that's what puts asses in the seats-Robertson is distorting the gospel. What good does it do you to reach more people if you're sending the wrong message?For all of Robertson's emphasis on miraculous healings, he doesn't actually perform any miracles himself. I have no such problems with Benny Hinn; on This Is Your Day!, miracles are a daily event. The Israeli-born Hinn is the head of a massive ministry in Orlando, Florida, and is building a World Media Center in Aliso Viejo. His show is seen on more than 90 stations across the U.S.A dark-skinned man with stiff, graying hair and a noticeable accent, Hinn begins his healing with a song and a prayer; he then starts announcing what are presumably bulletins from the Lord: “A spine-someone's spine-has just been healed. A blood condition has just been healed. Somebody's ear has just popped open-thank you, Master. I command the devil of cancer: go in the name of Jesus.”The recipients of miracles begin to come onstage. One man claims he's been healed of arthritis and a rash on his forearm from lupus; Hinn touches the man's chest, and he falls backward, grinning, into the arms of a handy assistant. Another man claims he's been healed of his (conveniently nonvisible) leukemia.Gale Holland's Oct. 10 article in the OC Weekly pointed out that Hinn's “miracles” may go beyond good theater into the realm of fraud. Hinn's patients, far from being cured, remain as sick as ever; reportedly, some of the faithful died after they stopped taking their medicine. Ironically, TBN's health show, Calling Dr. Whitaker, appears to require a disclaimer about providing medical advice, while Hinn's miracle cures do not.Hinn and the other faith healers on TBN-Richard and Lindsay Roberts, Marilyn Hickey, Dottie Rambo-apparently look on man's relationship with God as a kind of business arrangement: believe in me, God says, and I'll give you good health. Aside from giving the healer an escape hatch-if the healing didn't work, your faith wasn't strong enough-this emphasizes earthly rather than spiritual rewards. It used to be that God promised his faithful spiritual peace in this life and an eternity of paradise after death. Hinn's promises of robust health hardly differ from commercial television's pledges of popularity and beauty.THE ROOT OF ALL EVIL
God doesn't just want you to be healthy; he wants you to be awash in cash, too. At the end of the midnight showing of Praise the Lord, TBN's flagship talk show, Jan makes a restrained pitch for donations and calls down the blessings of the Lord on those who comply. “We love you, Lord Jesus,” she says with peculiar emphasis. “Those who give of themselves, which is their means to you, bless them-30, 50, a hundredfold in this life.”John Avanzini develops this theme even further on an episode I caught of his 10-minute show, Principles of Biblical Economics. The host, a Fort Worth, Texas, author with the deceptively truculent face of a bulldog, sits ensconced behind an ornate desk and surrounded by marble and elaborately swagged curtains and tells us about the principles of money management laid out in the Bible.His central argument, as I understand it, is that when you convert to Christianity, you become the property of God, bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus. Therefore, any money that comes your way actually belongs to God; that's because it comes from God, who is channeling it through you to do his work in the world. So don't squander God's cash flow by going into debt on cars, houses, boats and other worldly snares.The dictum that you should live debt-free is certainly darn good advice. But this small taste of Avanzini's theory left me curious, so I wrote to him for more information. I received a number of brochures urging me to join the Debt-Free Army by buying various expensive books and cassettes (for $125). I also got several fliers and pamphlets with testimonials from grateful soldiers in Avanzini's army.It was the testimonials that caught my attention. Many simply attested that they had used Avanzini's principles to reduce their debt, but several suggested their rewards were more immediate: mysterious whopping gobs of cash. Bryan and Valerie-no last name given-from Phoenix, Arizona, wrote: “We gave our last $17 in cash to our Wednesday-night offering as a memorial seed. Three days later, we got a phone call from a couple who wanted to sow $5,000 into our business! Praise God!” Lynn from Reston, Virginia, also testified: “We had been sowing our miracle seed for six months, and, praise God, last month, we received a check for $12,500 . . . which went to pay off our home mortgage.”The unmistakable impression is that if you live like a good Christian, God will send you payola. I tried and failed to recall where Jesus promised his disciples that he would make them rich. All I could recall was his admonition: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matthew 6:19-20). The key to salvation, he told one disappointed rich man, was to give away all of your possessions to the poor. TBN, by suggesting the rewards of salvation are possessions, is doing more than distorting Christian doctrine: it flat-out contradicts it.But the worst offender was yet to come: Casey Treat, host of Living on Course. For Treat, on the show I saw, the Bible appears to contain only one verse of true importance: John 3:2, which reads, “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, even as your soul prospers.” From this single sentence, Treat has constructed a preposterous lecture bent on ridding you of any materialistic guilt you might be feeling. It's clear, he insists: God wants you to be rich.”So many Christians wonder about God's will when it comes to prosperity and health,” says Treat, a lanky redhead who speaks in a slightly hoarse voice. “It's quite obvious that John would not pray a prayer contrary to the will of God, and certainly, it would not be recorded in Scripture if it wasn't the will of God. . . . It must be God's will that you prosper and be in health or he wouldn't have prayed for it.”Treat used the same verse to answer that perennial question: Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? Or, as Hannibal Lecter put it in his great justification of faithlessness, “I collect church collapses, recreationally.” But to Treat, it was simple: “God wants you to prosper, God wants you to live in health, but it's the condition of your soul that decides whether you get it or not. . . . It's not that God likes some people better than others. It's not that some people are just lucky and some people are just blessed and some people just get all the good stuff, and you and I are always just left out in the cold. . . . They prosper and are in health even as their soul prospers. That's what's gonna happen with you.”Even on those rare occasions when TBN discusses the afterlife, that, too, is virtually saturated in materialism. On the 7 p.m. broadcast of Praise the Lord, televangelist Dwight Thompson delivers a fairly traditional sermon on the topic of heaven. He sets the tone for the rest of the evening by asking the assembly how many of them know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they're ready to go to heaven. Nearly every hand-in the audience, in the choir onstage-goes up. Thompson then paints a glorious picture of what isn't going to be in heaven: tears, sorrow, pain, ambulances, hospitals, medical insurance, aspirin, aches, sin, death. Heaven, as he describes it, sounds like a fabuloso country club. Jesus built it, after all, and he knows what we like. All of the ladies who want a big closet in which to stuff their clothes are going to get one. People who like to eat are going to get a big kitchen stocked with food. “Some of you may have lived in cabins all of your life,” he says, “but you're not gonna have a cabin in heaven.”Sounds like-well, it sounds like heaven. And it's so easy to get there. Thompson is no Calvin, with his scant handful of saved souls. No, all you have to do is believe in Jesus Christ. That's it. “It isn't Jesus Christ and Buddha,” Thompson says. “It isn't Jesus Christ and Mohammed. It isn't Jesus Christ and good works. It isn't Jesus Christ and charitable giving. It isn't Jesus Christ and anything.” It's effort-free salvation: no money down, no payments till Judgment Day.It's an unbelievably passive vision of Christianity. Jesus was a firm believer in good works and clean living, advising those who wanted to get to heaven to give their money to the poor, love their fellow man, and follow the Ten Commandments. But listening to Thompson's sermon, you'd never know that.Television, of course, is inescapably a passive medium. The only interaction between performers and audience takes place in the Nielsen box-or, as in TBN's case, when the viewer writes a check. But Christianity is an activist religion, relying on the faithful to witness to the heathens. Unfortunately, TBN takes even that away from Christians: rather than knocking on doors, just send TBN some money and let them do the witnessing for you. By being the all-purpose Christian network, the effect is to keep Christians in their living rooms, their sole contribution sitting on their sofas and staring at the flickering screen.THE SECOND COMING
After spending 24 hours with TBN, I concluded that their God wants you to be healthy, he wants you to be rich, and he expects virtually nothing in return. Not for him the rigors of the Ten Commandments, the striving after divine perfection, the boundless compassion for one's fellow man. Your happiness is all he craves.German sociologist Max Weber traces the notion that God will make good Christians rich back to Calvinism, with its belief in doing sober, pious work for the Lord, rather than the medieval, Catholic notion of withdrawing from the world and worshiping through silent contemplation. He argues in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism that the Calvinist work ethic made possible the rise of capitalism and that the thorny problem of how to tell the saved from the damned was finally solved: if you made a profit, God's favor was clear. It's a short step from there to Treat and others peddling naked greed on the airwaves.But Schultze believes that the “health and wealth gospel” characteristic of so many televangelists isn't so much a Calvinist concept as a quintessentially American one. “Worldly prosperity is a distinctly American version of the gospel, not a particularly biblical one,” he writes. “God's will for our lives is far more eternal than is typically acknowledged by the advocates of the health-and-wealth gospel. As the Bible makes clear, God seeks long-term growth and abiding happiness for his children, not merely short-term financial gain or quick healing.”I would go even further: I would suggest that part of the problem is that American capitalism is American culture, maybe even American theology: stuff equals happiness. Television daily floods us with countless messages promising us happiness if we buy this soft drink, drive this car, visit this gym. The suggestion that happiness can be achieved through something non-material is almost blasphemous. Spiritual bliss, inner peace-these are merely the ends, and the means to those ends are the products ceaselessly churned out by the world's corporations. So when televangelists promise us happiness if we give our hearts to Jesus, that can mean only one thing: happiness in this life, surrounded by our comforting possessions.But in order to feed this peculiarly American conception of paradise, TBN has ignored-or, worse, blatantly contradicted-certain Christian doctrine. In its place, you get assurances that if you're a good person, you'll be rich. If you believe in God, all of your problems will be solved. And you get easy answers: the glib, comforting cliches of San Antonio, Texas, pastor John Hagee; the effort-free path to heaven of Thompson. The needs of the medium have distorted the message, and TBN is left with a pale mockery of Christianity, with the beauty and power of Jesus' words sacrificed to feed television's gaping maw-and their audience's desire for more stuff.Somewhere in the midst of the Praise-a-thon, I recall someone-I think it was Jan-mentioning that Oral Roberts, the grand old man of televangelism, had told her and Paul that when TBN reached its goal of 1,000 stations, Christ's second coming would be at hand. According to Roberts' biography, Expect a Miracle, he got that message straight from the Holy Spirit.”I will never forget when a light shone in my spirit, and the Holy Spirit said, 'Tell Paul he'll soon be at 100 stations-then 1,000!'” he reminisces. “It almost took my breath away-and Paul's.”Cast your mind forward to that glorious day when TBN hits the 1,000-station mark and Jesus descends with his angels and trumpets-to find a world animated only by materialism and greed, his followers preoccupied more with their possessions than with the state of their souls, expecting him to bring not salvation, but hard cash.

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