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 doesn’t matter! The mass-culture media religion is so superficial that it scarcely matters whether its adherents are cynically being “taken.”

It’s 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 doesn’t 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: first he was in evangelism, then he was in movies, now he’s in TV. As simple as that. No crisis of faith upon leaving fundamentalism, as many of us have 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 clarification: 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 finger on the central question in the current controversy over media evangelism. Let us look briefly at three aspects of popular charismatic religion to see whether Marjoe’s 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 "Here’s 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 Cook’s rationale: "God performed a miracle there, on the day of Pentecost. They didn’t have the benefit 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 didn’t believe in the gospel he preached; Bill Bright does believe in his -- but what’s the difference? The result is the same, and so is the method: emotional manipulation.

"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 Robertson’s "Kingdom principles" include the advice to give even one’s 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, à 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 didn’t make to the widow in Luke 21:1-4)?

I suggest again that it doesn’t make a bit of difference. The result is exactly the same either way. Viewers are buying some meaning for their mundane lives. They believe 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 doesn’t much matter whether it was the TV preacher’s cynical greed or his naïve faith that was responsible.

Third, let us consider the "trip," the religious thrill provided by charismatic religion. It is notoriously difficult 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 doesn’t 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 salvific work regardless of the sanctification (or lack thereof) of the celebrant. Therefore it didn’t ultimately matter (at least on this score) whether one’s priest was a saint or a sinner. And so with pop evangelism. It doesn’t matter spiritually that it doesn’t matter effectively whether the whole thing is a scam. People seem to derive edification regardless.

But, it will still be objected, can such superficial sensationalism count as authentic Christianity? If its conversions are merely glorified consumer manipulations; if its sacrificial 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 affluence of big-bucks evangelicalism. These criticisms have to be taken seriously. But so do the replies of Pat Robertson and 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 Watzlawick’s book How Real Is Real? He refers to Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor. The cardinal berates Jesus for shackling humanity with an unbearable burden of freedom. Men and women want the stifling 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 finally undoing this mischief of Jesus’ making and instead granting the people the servitude they desire.

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 can’t? Isn’t 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 superficial 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 Paul’s advice in Romans 14:4: "Who are you to judge someone else’s 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 can’t be.

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 affirm 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 affirming 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). Niebuhr’s 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 one’s 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."