Does Christian Television Serve Christ?



Let me start by saying that I watch very little television anymore, including ‘Christian’ television. I have seen some wonderful preaching and/or teaching on Christian television in the past. Therefore, I will not suggest that you categorically avoid Christian television as the following might suggest. I want to point out some deeply troubling problems that I believe are endemic to the medium itself.

Liken television to an internet portal. Anyone who regularly uses a computer hooked to the internet knows that downloading information from the internet, both through e-mail or downloading from websites, is a rather trepidatious activity. Besides wildly inaccurate information, the internet is the source of the greatest percentage of computer maladies, including viruses, pish-attacks, malware, memory hogging adware, and spybots. At a more subtle level Christian television is very similar. Because of the nature of television, bad teaching or soulish requests easily slip into your consciousness and lodge themselves there without ever being analyzed for accuracy or truth.

Those who become televangelists are themselves under a great deal of attack from the enemy. Because of their prominence as teachers, the enemy has a vested interest in leading their thinking astray. Of course this has been a problem from the time of the first prophet. The enemy wants to twist God's spokesmen, to place lies in their mouths, so as to keep God's people without knowledge. Because of the need for large amounts of money required to produce and televise an entry level evangelist is constantly encouraged to compromise both with the established television ministry culture and with his targeted audience. On the other hand, a successful television ministry generates large amounts of money and a great deal of public adoration. This encourages complacency and self-satisfaction, which will lead to pride and a religious spirit if not checked immediately. Public success may also bring criticism, but that generally stiffens the self-satisfaction rather than discouraging it. The money requirement will generally filter out anything but popular teaching which is in itself dangerous. God is not able to use the television ministry to scold his people in any significant way. Nor is the medium able to lead in any way that the viewers do not wish to go. Any resistance to the preaching will lead to lower income, which will quickly eliminate that television ministry.

These are not problems unique to television ministry or televangelism. There are significant ways in which these problems are compounded by the medium of television itself, and that is what I want to discuss. Television is a powerful tool for teaching, but it is especially powerful for delivering bad teaching. Since the financial constraints filter out uncomfortable teaching, a large portion of what God wants to say to us not there. But teachers who have drifted into complacency and self-satisfaction through success remain and become gate-keepers for those entering the field. Bad teaching is able to flourish in this environment. My concern is that the medium requires greater diligence in sifting out the bad teaching, but encourages less diligence.



In my earlier article on “The Destructive Influence of Television”, I develop the idea that film and television push the viewer into a passive, receptive state by overwhelming the senses with information and not allowing time for the careful analysis of that information. In a future article I would like to expose the ways that media injects ideas formerly repugnant into our thinking such that our current sensibilities are subverted (see: Ruskoff, Media Virus!, 1994.). This process of invading your mind is much like hypnosis or mesmerism. We are mesmerized by the nightly news, by sit-coms, by cartoons and by televangelists.

It would seem that watching an evangelist on television is not much different than watching them live and in person. Certainly the charge of mesmerism is used against preachers all the time. There are several factors which make the television presentation much different. At a live gathering, presumably in a church or meeting, there is a wide dynamic. There are many other people and things from which to draw an impression. The television enlarges the speaker and their presentation to in-your-face proportions and cuts out all or most of the peripheral information. At the same time the speaker is insulated from the viewer to an extent that the viewer is not likely no know many details about the speaker and their work beyond what the speaker divulges. I have spent several decades in the entertainment industry and have heard horrible stories about several well known evangelists. There may or may not be truth to these allegations. Who is checking? The television presents a prepackaged image of a teaching in much the same way as it presents a political message but without much opposition, analysis or public scrutiny.

“The arch-deceiver is well aware that any ‘teaching’ of deceiving spirits accompanied by supernatural signs, may be received by the believer if his mind is lulled into passivity so that he does not question, or intelligently reason, what the teachings are, or what they involve in their ultimate issue.” [Jesse Penn-Lewis, The War on the Saints, Chapter 7]

The Berean sifting of the messages coming at the believer is essential to the process of maturing. This takes time, an open Bible and the ability to ask questions. While you may be fast enough to keep up in the Bible, it is difficult or impossible to get the full gist of a passage and mull through various objections during a television program. Analysis takes time, television is not set up to provide that time. You must analyse separately on your own, if you can remember to full argument.

It is a mistake to assume that the gospel message is a truth to be ‘learned’. While the element of learning is there, the action of the gospel is much deeper. Those who look only for the ‘truth’ become stale and fractious very quickly. They are unfruitful to Christ the vinedresser. When Ezekiel is presented the scroll (Ezekiel 3:1) God tells him to eat it. when John receives the book (Revelations 10:9), he too is told to eat it. One would think he would be told to memorize its contents. No. God wants him to get it in his gut. “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water’.” (John 7:38). The right place for the Word is the innermost being, the gut. This requires meditation on the Word, deep study and prayer.

When I saw the movie the Matrix, I enjoyed it immensely. However, it also disturbed me because of the number of Eastern philosophical ideas woven into the story. The philosophical thread was not unlike the Star Wars trilogy but much more sophisticated. When the pastor of a large local church presented a series of sermons complementary of the Matrix and then put Matrix related information on their website, I began to look deeper. The Matrix is filled with Gnostic Christian (an early heresy battled by the Apostles) and Buddhist references. The pastor in question, a relatively inexperienced product of a large liberal seminary, hadn't the spiritual or intellectual discernment to realize his error until he had already blundered into some rather bad teaching. That Matrix “Godloaded” material has been removed. This simply points up how easy it is for even intelligent and well educated Christians to get caught up by quasi-Christian teaching when it is packaged in overpowering medium like film.



“Anthropologists who have studied pre-literate religions rightly point out that capitalist countries display a kind of fetishism. They endow the symbols of things with more energy than the things themselves. Money itself is the principle fetish. Soon one does begin to ‘eat the label and disregard the goods.’... Teachings about God and words about Christ and phrases about the Kingdom begin to replace the real thing.” (Cox, Turning East, 1977. Pg.105).

Western culture begins with abstraction which slowly rends the meat from the bone until the Christianity crumples in place. Harvey Cox is an astute student of religion, but as a Harvard professor and product of a long line of liberal Christian teachers, he seems frozen, outside the box, unable to raise the dry bones. His recent book Fire From Heaven speaks lovingly of the rise of Spirit-filled Christianity, and yet he seems unable to approach the alter. He understands completely that abstractions about Jesus, God and the Spirit have no life of their own. But, a true academic, he is a voyeur not able to swallow the big lump... surrender. Those without Cox's intellectual stamina cannot spend so much time next to the Fire without becoming either religious or catching Fire themselves. Television is the perfect medium for those who wish to feel the heat, without getting burned by the transforming Spirit. Television attracts the half-hearted.

I don't know Cox personally. He visited my seminary twice while I was in school and I like the man. So I am quite out of place to suggest that he is unsurrendered. He could rightfully retort, “to what?” In a situation in which a semblance of God so easily replaces God, a Berean distance is not un-called for. I never watched Jimmy Swaggart's program and so I really can't say much about the man himself. I include the following extended quote from Cox, as it seems pertinent to the discussion:

“I don't know what I expected. Like many others I had seen [Swaggart] frequently on television––weeping, scolding, dancing, singing along with his choir, sometimes picking out tunes on the piano. Also like many others who did not like his theology I found him a little frightening, but strangely compelling, a voice from some hidden dimension of myself perhaps. I had often puzzled over just what it was that kept me from switching him off right away when I happened upon his familiar face while grazing the channels. I continued to be puzzled until I read Lawrence Wright's candid description, in his book Saints and Sinners, of why he felt the same fascination. ‘I felt an unhappy kinship with this man,’ he writes ‘I could sense the raw and sometimes dangerous expansiveness of the human spirit. His was not a religion I could believe in––but then mere belief was not what he was after; it was surrender, total abject surrender of the spirit. And of course a part of me longed for exactly that, the ecstatic abandonment of my own busy, judgmental, ironic mentality.’

“That was it. On television at least, Swaggart was something of a shaman. by putting himself into an ecstatic state of consciousness, with hundreds of millions of people watching, he conveyed a wildly dissonant note from a register that is somewhere within us, but that we do not hear from very often. As Wright puts it, he was beguiled by Swaggart in part because of fear, a fear that the man was on to something, ‘that the whole point of life was to plunge into the wilderness and joyfully throw aside the resistance and anxiety that characterize the skeptic.’ He confesses that when he watched a Swaggart program he was both drawn to and terrified of the possibility of becoming himself a person ‘bursting with spiritual power.’

“I had also sensed some of that power on television. But at Swaggart's church it was diluted. He seemed almost puny. It was clearly one of those instances in which the power of the television medium transforms and magnifies the ordinary. Kathleen Reid, a professor of Communications at Lee College, a Pentecostal institution in Cleveland, Tennessee, has suggested that Swaggart––and the kind of primitive pentecostalism he represents––is extraordinarily well suited to television. Television is a modern technology that has a curious similarity to the magic of shamanism. The shrinking of distance, the larger-than-life presence, the compression of time, the sense of belonging suggested by the congregation's response, the appeal to emotion rather than logic––all integral to the topography of television––are also elements of shamanism. The problem is that when the shaman is pacing a stage 200 feet away, when the contortions of his face and the glint in his eyes––so visible on the screen––cannot be seen, then something of the magic evaporates.” (Cox, Fire From Heaven, 1995. Pp.277-278).

The real question is whether Swaggart was genuinely moved by the Holy Ghost, or whether he was moved by a religious spirit. The fact that he appeared to burn with fervor is not a guarantee. John Wesley is oft quoted as having said, “I set myself on fire and people come watch me burn.” We are called to test the spirits: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1). Swaggart may well have been moved by the Holy Spirit, but succumbed to an unsurrendered place in his soul. There is simply no way of testing by simply watching his performance. Some might test him by his theology, and yet there are televangelists with wildly unBiblical theology through whom God moves. God does not have perfect people to work with.

Surrender is a delicate issue. At the time that I heard Cox speak, I was a Moonie who had sworn allegiance to a man who claimed equality with Christ Jesus. Needless to say My theology was a total mess. But in my heart I had come to one conclusion: I knew that God was God and that Jesus was His son. All other things I was becoming less and less sure of. And so I put my life in God's hands. I had surrendered, not to Moon who I served on earth, but to Jesus. When the time came to leave the Unification Church, I walked out the door. I had yet to find a home in the body of Christ.

Surrender is the ultimate question. When Adam and Eve chose the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis chapter 3) they were choosing their own independent path, to decide for themselves what is good and what is evil, Adam and Eve chose not to surrender. The unsurrendered soul is at home with television Christianity. The reason is simple, there is no one to put a finger on your personal rebellion. The ministry is scattershot. But if something does touch a sore spot, it is locked in its glass box where it can be shut off at a moments notice. The up-close and personal sensation that the television can provide is always an illusion. The viewer controls the image. The evangelist can't touch you, can't lay hands on you, and can't see who you are or what you are doing.

Wm W Wells: November 7, 2004

Copyright © 2004 Wm W Wells. May be copied freely without alteration.