Quentin J. Schultze (Ph.D., University of Illinois) holds the Arthur H. DeKruyter Chair in Faith and Communication and is the director of the Calvin Workshops in Communication at Calvin College. He is the author of many books, including Habits of the High-Tech Heart, Communicating for Life, and Here I Am.
Reviews - What do customers think about Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion?
Televangelism Mar 10, 2009
Most of us know, if only on a tacit level, that television has transformed our world's cultural landscape. Yet few of us seriously probe its workings and implications for the church as well as for the broader society. Quentin J. Schultze, in Televangelism and American Culture: the Business of Popular Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, c. 1991) helps us do so. One of the authors of Dancing in the Dark, Schultze teaches communications at Calvin College and is a highly regarded scholar who's devoted much care to the study of television. He not only watches the programs, he studies the flood of solicitations sent to those who respond to the televangelists' appeals. What concerns Schultze is "how and why televangelists are helping to transform American Chris¬tianity from a church into a business, from a historic faith into a popular religion based at least in part on superstition" (p. 11). Still more, he argues that "televangelism is probably the most characteristic and remunerative expression of American religion. It is the nation's own religion, a special Protestant hybrid raised in American culture and nurtured by the mass media. Televangelism may even be the flagship of American religion, setting the style and tone of local and denominational life" (pp. 11-12). TV "ministries" almost always share certain traits. They are "audience-supported" --since funds come viewers' contributions the ministries must cultivate and maintain a loyal audience, so the message is tailored to please those who watch. You can easily shift channels. You write checks only when you're happy with the presentation. Keeping the audience happy, maintaining its allegiance, becomes a preeminent concern. They are "personality-led"--we want "stars" and "celebrities" in religion as much as in ath¬letics and films, so successful TV preachers and singers must be attractive personalities. It helps if they're good looking. (Knowing I planned to visit Lloyd John Ogilve's church in Hollywood, a lady who works with my wife asked me to see if he's really as handsome as he looks on TV. Well, I've seen him . . . and he is!) They are "experientially-validated"--few doctrines or historical traditions receive much attention, but practical, how-to-do-it-and-enjoy-it messages abound. The audience, of course, likely includes folks from aa variety of theological persuasions, so you must not risk alienating any of them. Even moral stances may be muted. (One study found a direct correlation between TV viewing and knowledge of the 10 Commandments--the more religious TV watched, the fewer of the commandments were known!)
"Technologically sophisticated," TV ministries rival the best, state-of-the-art equipment and production techniques of their secular counterparts. They are "entertainment-oriented"--to keep folks' attention you must use variety show or talk show formats and imitate the Johnny Carsons who score with the American public. Not many Lloyd John Ogilve type church services last long on TV. Finally, they are "expansionary-minded"--the "success" of the ministry is judged by the number of viewers and size of their offerings. Were the above characteristics restricted to TV ministries, they might not overly concern us. But a serious problem appears when the people who watch TV programs come to the local church--and most all the folks who watch Televangelists also attend local churches--and expect TV-style religion! Early critics of TV ministries feared they would tempt people to stay away from church, but that's not happened. What has happened is perhaps worse: TV addicts crave similar "fixes" in their weekly worship services! (Even more problematic in my mind, though Schultze doesn't focus on it: those who never watch religious TV watch incredible hours or regular TV, and their whole attitude toward life, their basic taste in communication, has been thoroughly shaped by the medium.) So we want messages and programs that please us--if not, we scoot down the road in search of a church which "ministers to us," unconcerned with denominational or community ties. We demand that our singers and preachers be alluring personalities, as polished and winsome as Robert Schuller or as old-fashioned and fiery as Jerry Fallwell. We really want to be free of dogma and denominational distinctives--after all, it's what we feel in our hearts, what enables us to cope with family problems, what provides therapeutic advice illuminating our psychological ills, which most matters. TV ministries, and TV in general, breed "Christians" who have little concern with what the Christian faith has historically considered central. Americans have always demanded up-to-date technology, and Evangelicals, while often resisting intellectually "modern" trends, have embraced technically "modern" developments with reckless abandon. (I'm always amazed by the sound systems in churches which serve 50 people! Without a microphone, it seems, no message amounts to much!). We've refused to see "modernity" as a whole, as something you cannot easily pick and choose purely wholesome dividends. We really want our church services to be entertaining. We insist our congregational plans be growth-oriented--woe to the pastor who doubts the need for a new gym of "family worship center"! After brooding about such developments, Schultze says we must discern the "demonic" in the medium. Quoting William Stringfellow, Schultze declares that "televangelism exists in a 'state of alienation from God, cut off from the life originating in his life, separated from its own true life and, thus, being in a state of death'" (p. 181). Nevertheless, Schultze insists TV will not go away, nor will Televangelism. What we need to discover, he suggests in the book's final chapter, are ways to redeem it. He thinks televangelists should be more accountable to governing bodies. He urges churches to focus more study on the medium, helping believers see how they are manipulated and thus prepare them to more wisely cope with it. I'm not sure Schultze's recommendations will solve the problems, but his treatise certainly helps me think about how powerfully TV dominates our culture, even our religious culture, and stimulates us to consider ways to correct or counteract its influence.