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25/09/2017 Evangelism as Entertainment Religion Online


Evangelism as Entertainment
by Robert M. Price

Mr. Price is a doctoral student on systematic theology at Drew University.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, November 4, 1981, pp. 1122-1124.
Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles
and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material
was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


In the era of the electronic church and the born-again media blitz, the message comes
through loud and clear: evangelical ministry is such that whether the preacher really
believes in it or not doesnt matter! The mass-culture media religion is so super cial
that it scarcely matters whether its adherents are cynically being taken.

Its probably safe to surmise that most people write Marjoe off as a curiosity. Born-
again Christians tend to dismiss him as an embarrassing black sheep to be prayed for,
or as a pernicious false prophet. But to write Marjoe off is to miss the valuable lesson
he has to teach us. In the era of the electronic church and the born-again media blitz,
his message comes through loud and clear: evangelical ministry is such that whether
the preacher really believes in it or not doesnt matter!

In the movie Marjoe, the ex-evangelist explains that revivalism is just entertainment.
The people want a splashy, fun extravaganza and, for money, he gave it to them. This
became especially clear in a recent television interview in which Marjoe recounted his
career switches: rst he was in evangelism, then he was in movies, now hes in TV. As
simple as that. No crisis of faith upon leaving fundamentalism, as many of us have
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undergone just a new line of work. It probably puzzles Marjoe that people even use
the categories true or false prophet, sincere or insincere, to describe him. Was he
genuine or phony? Marjoe would ask for clari cation: genuine or phony as what? The
real issue is how genuine a performance you give, because evangelism is
entertainment. Whether the evangelist himself literally believes his gospel is about as
important as whether an actor playing Lenin is really a communist.

Marjoe seems to have put his nger on the central question in the current controversy
over media evangelism. Let us look brie y at three aspects of popular charismatic
religion to see whether Marjoes perspective makes the current revivalism more
understandable These categories may be dubbed hype, bilk and trip.

Before one says how reprehensible all this is, one might take another look at media
blitzes like Heres Life, America and the I Found It campaign, in which ad techniques
borrowed from Coca-Cola were used to hustle and lure the unsaved into the Kingdom.
Campus Crusader Bruce Cooks rationale: God performed a miracle there, on the day
of Pentecost. They didnt have the bene t of buttons and media, so God had to do a
little supernatural work there. But today, with our technology, we have available to us
the opportunity to create the same kind of interest in a secular society. What is he
saying but that converting someone to Christ is little different from getting them to buy
Coke instead of Pepsi? Similarly, multimedia sound-and-light musicals (Cry 3,
Dreamweaver) are carefully geared to soften up the viewers, set them up for the kill,
and whammo! The angels rejoice in heaven over the Nielsen ratings of salvation. Marjoe
Gortner didnt believe in the gospel he preached; Bill Bright does believe in his but
whats the difference? The result is the same, and so is the method: emotional

Bilk is our second category. We are all familiar with real estate and medical scams
perpetrated on the elderly, and it makes us especially angry to think of such things
being done in the name of religion. Of course, this kind of concern is the origin of much
of the public outrage concerning the cults. The popular media evangelists cannot
escape suspicion on this score either. What are we to make of it when Pat Robertsons
Kingdom principles include the advice to give even ones rent or food money to the
700 Club? Rest assured, God will miraculously repay you, he says. Is this a bilk? Is Pat
cynically conning the little old ladies, la Jim Jones, into handing over their social
security checks to line his own pocket? Or does he really believe that God will replenish
(a promise Jesus didnt make to the widow in Luke 21:1-4)?

I suggest again that it doesnt make a bit of difference. The result is exactly the same
either way. Viewers are buying some meaning for their mundane lives. They believe

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they are sharing in the task of spreading the Word. Better than buying would be the
metaphor of gambling. The poorer the PTL Club or 700 Club fan is, the more his
or her contribution is a high-stakes bet. But at least some return is guaranteed. Even if
the fan has to go without heat this week (God just may be testing her), she has the
satisfaction of believing that her dollars have advanced the work of the Great
Commission. And if she has simply been taken for a ride, it doesnt much matter
whether it was the TV preachers cynical greed or his nave faith that was responsible.

Third, let us consider the trip, the religious thrill provided by charismatic religion. It is
notoriously dif cult to distinguish spiritual uplift from sheer emotional excitement. This
ambiguity came home to me one evening as I sat enthralled with a TV special. There
were the crowds in ecstatic joy, swaying, hands aloft, singing along from the audience
as the musicians jammed away on stage. Was I watching Pat Robertson preaching?
Ernest Angley praying? Try Donna Summer, bumping and grinding across the stage.
The excitement was electric, contagious!

But, uh, secular.

Suppose the media revivalist has no more spiritual concern than Donna does as she
belts out Hot Stuff? I submit that it doesnt matter in the least. All that matters is how
well the prompter does his job. Can somebody say Amen?

Let me wheel out an old theological rubric that might make some sense of this
contradiction. To resolve the Donatist controversy, St. Augustine formulated the
doctrine of ex opere operato; that is, that the Eucharist does its salvi c work regardless
of the sancti cation (or lack thereof) of the celebrant. Therefore it didnt ultimately
matter (at least on this score) whether ones priest was a saint or a sinner. And so with
pop evangelism. It doesnt matter spiritually that it doesnt matter effectively whether
the whole thing is a scam. People seem to derive edi cation regardless.

But, it will still be objected, can such super cial sensationalism count as authentic
Christianity? If its conversions are merely glori ed consumer manipulations; if its
sacri cial giving might as well be mere gambling; if its spiritual exaltation is nothing
more than mob hysteria,, can this be real New Testament religion? And the
triumphalistic jingoism, the arrogant materialism, the individualistic easy-believism
what has this to do with the way of the cross? We often hear such critiques from
mainline churches that deplore the lack of pastoral counseling and interpersonal
community in media religion. Similarly, radical Christians like the Sojourners community
bemoan the self-congratulatory af uence of big-bucks evangelicalism. These
criticisms have to be taken seriously. But so do the replies of Pat Robertson and

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company, with their truckloads of mail from viewers whose lives seemingly have been
redeemed by remote control.

I propose that we have here one of those situations in which everything is true, and so
is its contrary. I borrow this phrase from Paul Watzlawicks book How Real Is Real? He
refers to Dostoevskys parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The cardinal berates Jesus for
shackling humanity with an unbearable burden of freedom. Men and women want the
sti ing security of miracle, mystery and authority. They want to escape from freedom.
But Jesus invites them to take on his yoke of faith (freely given), free thought and
responsibility. The cardinal takes pride in the progress of the church in nally undoing
this mischief of Jesus making and instead granting the people the servitude they

Who is right in this scene? On which side of the prison bars does the truth about
religion lie? Paradoxically, on both. Jesus call for freedom is heroic. But not everyone
can rise to such a challenge. Is no provision to be made for those who cant? Isnt it
better to give them a crutch than to leave them to limp?

I think we must admit that just as people have different levels of appreciation and taste,
so it is with religious sensibilities. Some people dine in elegant restaurants; others are
happy with pizza parlors (my favorite pizza is pepperoni). Some bask in operatic culture;
others see Star Wars (my count is up to 12 times so far). Some praise the Lord for
Ernest Angley, while others leave all and follow Daniel Berrigan (I hope there are other
alternatives). So we are left with a paradox. The mass-culture media religion is so
super cial that it scarcely matters whether its adherents are cynically being taken.
They seem to like it, and it does them good, no matter how it may trivialize the radical
gospel of the New Testament. And those of us who would criticize the electronic
church for that failing will be elitists if we do, and just as elitist if we refrain! Which is
worse, to berate the weaker brothers and sisters, or to grudgingly tolerate them as a
mob that knoweth not the law?

My suspicion is that we can go no further than assessing the issues for ourselves in
order to decide which form of faith we will personally accept. You have to call em as
you see em, after all. But what to say about the other option, the one we reject? And
what about those people who accept it? Recall Pauls advice in Romans 14:4: Who are
you to judge someone elses servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will
stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. But not so fast our dilemma can be
swept only so far under the rug provided by this text. Remember, the two positions we
are considering do not concern mere doctrinal trivia, and they seem to be mutually
exclusive. If either is a true description of the gospel, the other cant be.

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Perhaps the answer to our quandary is not, strictly speaking, an answer to the
theological problem at all. H. Richard Niebuhr wisely observed that we are often right in
what we af rm but wrong in what we deny. He proposed what has been called a
confessional stance. We should, indeed we must, confess the faith delivered unto us,
but we need not trouble ourselves one way or the other about the confessions of
others. We can speak of revelation only in connection with our own history without
af rming or denying its reality in the history of other communities into whose inner life
we cannot penetrate without abandoning ourselves and our community (The Meaning
of Revelation, Macmillan). Niebuhrs statement implies no relativism, in which somehow
everything is true, but rather a kind of believing agnosticism, in which there is no claim
to know what else is true or false besides ones own belief.

So if you are a radical Christian, following Jesus in the way of voluntary poverty, what
are you to think of the biblical boob-tube fan? Like someone else who once asked,
Lord, what about him?, you may receive the answer What is that to you? You must
follow me.

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