Monday, January 19, 2009

Book Review: Salvation on the Small Screen?

On Friday night Carla and I attended a small event at Mustard Seed House in Seattle. A dozen or so people gathered in a living room to sip tea, nibble shortbread and hear Nadia Bolz-Weber read from her book Salvation on the Small Screen?.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a tall, brash, heavily tattooed Lutheran pastor from Denver who speaks with the sarcastic delivery of a stand-up comic. It turns out she used to be a stand-up comic and her blog is entitled The Sarcastic Lutheran. She introduced herself on Friday evening by reading an unpublished essay about "the rowing club"--an AA recovery group she belongs to--and the slow, sad decline of one's of it's members. The essay (like Bolz-Weber herself) was smart, delightful, challenging, honest, edgy, gritty (replete with F-bombs and references to pornography), genuine and insightful. Her writing is in some ways reminiscent of Anne Lamott.

After the introductory essay she read excerpts from Salvation on the Small Screen?. We finished with a time of questions and discussion. I had not read the book, but was intrigued enough to purchase a copy. I've just finished it and found it to be a quick and entirely fun read.

The set-up for the book is this: Bolz-Weber, a blogger and essayist on Jim Wallis' God's Politics site, was asked by a publisher to watch TBN (Trinity Broadcast Network) for 24 hours straight and then write about the experience. She asked, "Can I bring my friends?" and when the publisher agreed, she took on the job.

Nadia begins her journal of TBN watching at 5am and concludes at 5am the next day. Throughout that 24 hour period she is joined by a revolving cast of friends and strangers (ranging from seminary professors to gay community workers to her parents to an ex-boyfriend to a Jewish atheist to a Methodist pastor) who sit on her couch and provide running commentary--ala Mystery Science Theatre 3000--on what unfolds on the screen before them. She admits up front that not only has she never watched TBN (other than occasionally passing it while channel-surfing and thinking, "What the...?"), but that she also harbors deep feelings of derision towards Fundamentalist Evangelical Christianity (originating, no doubt, from her upbringing in a Fundamentalist Evangelical home).

One expects snarkiness and mockery, and one is not disappointed. The surprise, however, is the author's chagrin/discomfort at her own cynicism, her willingness to examine her own attitudes, prejudices and shortcomings and her attempts to find something (anything) of value in the tepid swill served up on TBN.

Here is an example:

Best of Praise the Lord, 9:30am
... Praise the Lord is a Christian talk show, and today Mark Chironna hosts Dyan Cannon. I vaguely remember her; I think she was the judge on Ally McBeal.

The decorating is faux everything. Huge fake plants, enormous fake Louis XVI furniture, and white and gold walls. It's very Siegfried and Roy meets Tammy Faye--Absolute prosperity gospel heaven. Is there something righteous about the faux ornate, just as there seems to be an implied righteousness, here on TBN, to certain hair styles and music and manicures and decorating? There's an evangelical aethetic of righteousness. Even the music is faux: it's piped in.

Ted [her viewing buddy for this segment] notices, "The set looks like the shrapnel from a Hobby Lobby explosion."

John Hagee comes on the air, and she describes him thusly:
Hagee is jowly and angry and looks, though I'm no medical expert, like he may possibly be bloated on his own hate. ... In just five minutes we've gotten the crippling of the U.S. economy, nuclear holocaust in Israel and the United States, and the end of Western civilization. Is this guy available for children's parties? He's more terrifying than a birthday clown.

Other highlights include her description of the 700 Club (Pentecostal Romper Room) and Joel Osteen's ministry (McPreachy's good-time prosperity pinata).

There are moments, however, when she is genuinely affected by what she sees. After viewing a segment of PTL which features quadraplegic Joni Eareckson-Tada, Bolz-Weber gushes "She's beautiful and articulate and full of sincerity..." and is moved to introspection:
She's saying that God's work in the world can be done even through brokenness, not despite our brokenness. I tend to agree with her. I know for myself that the uglier things about me--my inordinate love of booze (before getting sober fifteen years ago), my sarcasm, the fact that I swear like a truck driver, and even the fact that I have tattoos all the way down my arm--these inelegant aspects of myself that would never pass TBN muster, that seem "non-Christian," are exactly the things that others in my community find compelling. These character traits are seen by nicey-nice Christianity as "worldly," but God still finds them useful.

While watching Creflo Dollar preach, Bolz-Weber admits:
I'm impressed with the fact that his whole congregation has open Bibles in their laps and all seem to be busy taking notes. Lutherans don't really bring Bibles to church. I'm not sure why that is. The lectionary texts are printed in most Lutheran church bulletins, and so if they want to follow along they only have to flip over the announcements, and there are the four texts, one each from the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the epistles, and the gospels. One problem this creates is that then no one opens up his or her own Bible. And in some churches when the lectors get up to do the readings, they don't open up a huge lectern Bible; they just read off the bulletin insert. We seem less like a People of the Book and more like a People of the Bulletin Insert.

Rather than walk away from her 24 hour ordeal with a smug sense of superiority, Nadia comes to the realization that her own faith tradition also contains plenty of holes and flaws. She wonders "...what the TBN folks would think of me, a heavily tattooed Christian progressive from a liturgical denomination. How would people in their theological camp respond to my preaching? Would they think, as I do of them, that I misuse scripture? Would they be offended at the aesthetic in the community I serve? Would they dismiss my years of theological education as silly and unnecessary? When it comes right down to it, so many of my criticisms of TBN could go both ways, and if that's true then could it also be true, despite us both, that God is at work in my community and (gulp) TBN?"

Thankfully, she also clarifies that "Allowing for the possibility that God may be at work in both my community and TBN is not the same as conceding that TBN's theology and methods are sound."

Throughout the book a tally is kept of the amount of money one would spend by purchasing the trinkets, teaching tapes, books, DVDs and other products hawked during each ministry's TBN segment. The 24 hour grand total, revealed at the end of the book, is flabbergasting. Bolz-Weber also ponders such inevitable questions as What is really being sold on TBN?; Are preachers like Benny Hinn sincere in their beliefs?; and What is the appeal of these ministries, particulary to the elderly and shut-ins? The answers to these questions are disturbing, not only because of what they say about those ministries on TBN but also about Western Christian culture as a whole (including you and I).

Salvation on the Small Screen? is put out by a small publishing company with limited distribution. You're certainly not going to find it at your local Family Christian Bookstore. I do hope that it catches on though because it conveys some great observations in a thoroughly enjoyable manner. It's gotten me to thinking that it might be really fun to have some friends over for a round of TBN viewing.

Or not.


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