Ebenezer Scrooge, the Televangelist…

Bob Seidensticker, one of my fellow bloggers at Patheos, has written a really neat alternative version of Charles DickensA Christmas Carol with an atheist twist. His novella features a televangelist (Nathan) who gets visited in the night by ghosts that take him through his past, present and future to show him the problems with his message and the consequences that await him if he keeps pushing it.

In the excerpt below, Nathan and Bill (the “Ghost of Christmas Present”) look in on an old couple watching Nathan’s show on TV:

From the television, the voice blared, “I know Pastor Lloyd is looking down on us now from his place in heaven, and I know he’s pleased with what he sees.” Nathan considered his image and noted that he looked a bit too scolding. “Pastor Lloyd said, ‘The bigger the need, the bigger the seed.’ Your seed offering will grow thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold, so step out in faith now. God can’t multiply what you don’t sow.”

Bill nudged Nathan. “If it rhymes, it must be true, right? Watch this next bit. You’ll love it.”

The woman turned down the volume and picked up the telephone. She squinted at the television image every few digits as she dialed. “I’d like to make a donation,” she said.

It was a laborious conversation, but Nathan’s telephone workers were selected for their patience. He prided himself on his good customer service.

The woman initially offered a twenty-dollar donation. After a slow-motion enumeration of her name, address, and credit card number, Bill said, “Here it comes …”

The woman paused. “All right, ten dollars a month.”

“Score!” Bill said, slapping Nathan on the back. “Talk about a widow’s mite! That was a nice upsale. After mandatory expenses, this couple has just under 62 dollars each month for newspapers, yarn, birthday cards, and other small pleasures and for donations to your ministry. Now they have ten dollars less, every month. And they did it in response to an offer of North Carolina pine sap, packaged in China, that cost you a dollar including shipping. You’re in the black on your first month. Nice!”

Nathan looked around at the old man staring dully at the television, at the woman putting down the telephone handset, and at their shabby apartment. He imagined how much of his own monthly incidentals 62 dollars would cover.

Bill said, “That line is a winner — ‘The bigger the need, the bigger the seed.’ And do you know her need? She wants her husband to get better. Physically, he’s strong, but his dementia has progressed so that he’s little more than conscious. Or, failing that, she wants a release — let his physical health decline along with his mental health. Can you deliver that?”

“But that’s God’s job,” Nathan said.

“You promised the hundredfold return. You’ve convinced her that you can deliver a miracle. Don’t take payment for what you can’t deliver.”

“Look, this isn’t what I wanted.”

“This is exactly what you wanted. This woman has a big need — she wants what medicine says is impossible. She wants what a billionaire can’t buy. So what should she do? God can’t multiply what you don’t sow, so sow that big seed. Dig deep. Make it hurt. And who better to spend that ten dollars a month than you, right? You scratch their itch, so you’re entitled to take a little something for your trouble. You’re a smart guy and a better steward of her money than she is.”

Nathan felt like he was up to his waist in quicksand. “But that isn’t what I meant.”

Bill leaned down slowly and put his huge face in front of Nathan’s. “Next time you put gas in your six-hundred-horsepower Mercedes,” Bill said, smiling broadly, “ask yourself who’s paying the bill.”

One more excerpt: This time, Nathan privately reviews the tough questions that challenge his faith:

The top sheaf of papers, held together with a paper clip, was labeled Problem of Evil. This question had defeated historian Bart Ehrman. Formerly a strong Christian, Ehrman couldn’t get past the idea of an all-good god who could prevent evil in the world but didn’t care to do so.

He had many pages of notes exploring the idea that evil resulted from God’s gift of free will, but could God care about the free will of the murderer when he clearly didn’t care about the violation to the free will of the victim? And the free will argument did nothing to resolve the problem of God creating or at least allowing natural disasters.

The next sheaf was labeled Problem of Divine Hiddenness. God demands that we come to him through Jesus, and if we don’t, we burn in hell for eternity. How could this be vitally important for us to know when God won’t meet us halfway by making his existence plain? Why is faith necessary when that’s all that a false religion would be based on?

Then the Problem of Unanswered Prayer. Jesus said that if you have faith as tiny as a mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains. Jesus said that prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well. Jesus said that whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Jesus said that all things are possible to him who believes. Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it.”

But prayer didn’t work that way. Earnest, selfless prayers like wishes for the improved health of a stranger might as well never have been made for all the good they did.

The image came to mind of tombstones at the top of each sheaf representing the Christians turned away from the faith by each one.

Nathan turned to the next sheaf: Why God orders genocide and condones slavery. And another: How God can be considered good when he does bad things.

Why good and bad befall Christians no differently than any other group.

Why there are no medical miracles that shock science, like regrown limbs.

What role the soul has when the brain explains the mind and consciousness.

Why religions are not coalescing (assuming Christianity is a universal truth accessible by all people) but instead continuing to fragment into sects, Christianity included.

Why Christianity isn’t an invented religion though all the others are.

Why “God’s plan” is in one tiny and insignificant corner of one enormous galaxy out of an inconceivably vast universe of a hundred billion galaxies.

Nathan pushed away his dinner and closed the folder. Each question was an admission, a liability, a weakness. He’d delicately brought up these questions with other professionals in his field on many occasions. Once a confidante realized that he wasn’t asking for Christian rationalizations but was actually struggling and wanted to explore the question honestly, it was like he had made some vulgar faux pas.

He was on his own.

It’s a really cool idea and executed beautifully, in my opinion.

A Modern Christmas Carol is now available on Amazon.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://www.examiner.com/atheism-in-los-angeles/hugh-kramer Hugh Kramer

    The ghosts show the televangelist the consequences that
    await him if he keeps pushing his message? Which are what? That he will die
    wealthy and respected by millions? That’s a more probable outcome because no
    one ever thinks of themselves as the villain in his/her own story no matter who
    points out to them what they’ve done.

    • RedneckCryonicist

      That he will die wealthy and respected by millions?

      Hey, it worked for Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and Paul Crouch.

    • http://lady-die.deviantart.com/ LizzyJessie

      Televangelism seems like bombing a city from altitude. When you’re up on high, you don’t see the devastation that you cause by your actions. You just go up, do your job, then come home to accolades for a successful mission.

      But when you’re in the dirt and you see the faces of those who are affected, things change. These people become real to you. And if you aren’t a complete sociopath then your own humanity and empathy start to take hold and you may feel guilty.

      That’s the core of the Christmas Carol story element. That someone living in their own bubble is exposed to the world around them and see how they – personally – are effecting those around them. As they saying goes, “No man is an island.”

      • Timothy McLean

        That’s another possibility.

    • Timothy McLean

      More likely the long-term consequences of religion in general. It might not seem like much, but…well, you know what happens for want of a nail, and this is shooting straight to “for want of a rider”.

  • CanuckAmuck

    This televangelist apparently has muscles like Batman.

    • RedneckCryonicist

      Bane, the Ghost of Atheists to Come? “Ah, yes, I was wondering what would break first: Your faith, or your body!”

    • RedneckCryonicist

      “You fight like a younger Christian, with nothing held back. Admirable, but mistaken.”

    • RedneckCryonicist

      “Theatricality and deception! Powerful agents to the uninitiated. But we are initiated, aren’t we, Nathan?”

    • Timothy McLean

      Everyone has great bodies in fiction.

    • smrnda

      I was going to mention that the televangelist’s back is ripped and it looks like he’s wearing form-fitting spandex. Is this guy’s god providing six pack abs as a sign of his favor?

      • http://lady-die.deviantart.com/ LizzyJessie

        I would think that someone that rakes in the dollars can afford a personal trainer.

  • Raising_Rlyeh

    Realistically why would he change? The only thing that would change his actions is if he were to see some sort of punishment for his actions in life and that would then that it doesn’t have an atheist twist to the story.

    What I really wondered about the story when I was younger was why scrooge even changes. Yes, he sees ghosts that are tortured afterwards because they refused to help in real life, but the thing that seems him to get him to change is seeing his own grave. Everyone dies eventually, but I guess the shock at seeing people happy he is dead is what gets him. The ego of the person who is an asshole and yet thinks people will mourn them is amazing.

    • Timothy McLean

      In real life, some people change. They are few, they are rare, they are unlikely, but they exist. Fiction focuses on the improbable, the rare, the one-in-a-million, because dull, average, everyday things are boring. No one wants to see Scrooge promise to repent to get it to stop before waking up and shaking off the dream. No one wants to see Frodo get caught before he leaves the Shire. No one wants to see Romeo break up with Juliet. No one wants to see MacBeth ignore his wife and just wait for the king to die of natural causes. No one wants to see Bella get creeped out by Edward–okay, bad example, that probably would have made Twilight better. But you get my point.

    • Ibis3

      It’s not just one thing that changes Scrooge. First, he wasn’t a bad guy when he was young, he just got bitter and lonely and the only things that ended up mattering to him was saving/making money and making other people miserable. In the story he’s reminded of the relationships he enjoyed once, he’s shown that his trite answer about letting the poor be institutionalised in workhouses is a horrible, negligent, and cruel sloughing off of his responsibility to humanity, he’s shown that his own actions will be the cause of Tiny Tim’s early demise and the effect that death has on the Cratchit family, and finally, he’s shown how, instead of leaving the world a better place, the world will think itself better without him. Not to mention having to spend at least some of the afterlife as a ghost chained to the injustices he’s committed. The response to his own grave is because he’s already changed at that point but is terrified to think that it’s too late for him to alter the future.

    • http://parkandbark.wordpress.com/ Houndentenor

      Anyone begging for donations from low income people and then spending that money on multiple mansions is obviously a narcissist. Appeals to conscience are only effective for someone who has one.

      Years ago (late 70s/early 80s) Richard Roberts’ ex-wife gave an interview on Donahue about the Oral Roberts ministry and tried to explain how easy it is to rationalize that you needed designer clothes bought with money from people on social security because you had to look nice on television. It’s easy to get sucked into a twisted way of thinking when everyone around you is reinforcing that way of thinking and there’s no one there to tell you that your doubts and questions are perfectly reasonable. Eventually she couldn’t justify it any more. (There was also emotional blackmail: on the day of her wedding, her new father in law called them into his office and told them that he’d had a vision that if they ever left his ministry they’d die in a car crash.)

      • MarkTemporis

        (There was also emotional blackmail: on the day of her wedding, her new father in law called them into his office and told them that he’d had a vision that if they ever left his ministry they’d die in a car crash.)

        That sounds less like ‘emotional blackmail’ and more like there’s a bunch of goons in black who work behind the scenes to make the prophet’s visions come true.

        BTW, that is one weird cover. My arm hurts just LOOKING at how that guy holds his bible, and his build suggests Clark Kent might have pursued ministry rather than journalism as a calling.

    • The Other Weirdo

      People lie about who they are, even to themselves. Especially to themselves. They can convince themselves that they don’t care, that those people over there mean nothing except the extra dime that can be extracted out of them. “Yes, I gave you a potato as a Christmas bonus because you are Irish and I hate Irish you can eat it now or let it ferment and drink it later and I am mean and I don’t care about your hobbling child.”

      As has been pointed out, Scrooge was a completely different person when he was younger and the visitations didn’t so much change him as remind him of what he once was and could be again. The pain of self-revelation is the most terrible pain of all, which is why people avoid it, but for those who can endure it…

  • Timothy McLean

    It’s nice to see a re-envisioning of A Christmas Carol that actually…re-envisions it, rather than just copy-pasting it before changing the characters and setting.

    • http://www.flickr.com/photos/chidy/ chicago dyke, TOWAN

      i agree! this is nifty. i’m motivated to read it.

  • Bearclover

    I would love to see this made into a Christmas movie.