Why Is Religious Television So Bad? (1992)

Having a Bad Hair Era

I have a friend who is a faithful viewer of religious television. Years after “Pearlygate,” he still longs for his Jim and Tammy Bakker fix.

But there are other stars to watch. He is especially fond of talk shows featuring evangelicals whose hair does not appear to be their own.

Week after week, this media professional turns on his TV and cracks up laughing. He says it would be impossible for secular pros to create satire as cutting-edge as the contents of most religious shows. He calls it “unintentional comedy.” In his opinion, the electric church is good precisely because it is so bad.

Yes, my friend was raised in a nominally Christian home and, today, he is part of the flock most researchers call the “unchurched.” He is the kind of person most religious broadcasters say they need to raise money in order to reach.

Well, he loves religious television. But I doubt many religious broadcasters would be cheered by this man’s glowing, if somewhat twisted, review of their work.

Let’s assume for a moment that there is truth in this secular point of view and that, as a rule, most religious broadcasts are technically inferior to their secular counterparts. And let’s assume that what many Christians say is true: that much of what is aired on religious television is embarrassing and that they cringe when secular people laugh at it.

Note: We are not discussing the contents of religious and secular television, in terms of morality. This is a discussion of entertainment values.

So why is religious television so bad? I propose five theories.

I. In electronic media, high-quality work is very expensive and Christians are not investing the money it takes to produce entertainment that can compete in the secular marketplace. How much does it cost to produce an episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” or a similar high-quality independent series? You don’t want to know. But try to imagine a low-budget Christian effort in science fiction or fantasy competing for viewers in a head-to-head competition with Steven Spielberg.

High-quality religious entertainment will become more common when Christian pay to produce it or convince secular entrepreneurs they can profit by funding such work.

II. Because the high production costs, Christian performers usually elect to work in formats that cost less — such as talk shows. This also allows religious teachers and intellectuals to talk a lot, which they enjoy doing.

Thus, Christians avoid the very forms of entertainment that Americans enjoy the most.

Several years ago, I had a conversation with a Catholic bishop who was directing a study of religious television. He asked what I would do with their budget. I told him I would fly to England and offer Sir Alec Guinness every penny I had to produce made-for- television movies based on the classic “Father Brown” murder mysteries by G.K. Chesterton, with Guinness in the title role.

Whatever I did, I would stop making so many talk shows featuring people wearing collars. The bishop smiled, but had nothing to say.

III. Most TV ministries are led by preachers or religious teachers. It is safe to say that they are better preachers or teachers than they are comedians, screenwriters, journalists or entertainers.

Good Christian television will be produced by Christians who are, first and foremost, good entertainers and communicators. It would help if more Christian colleges, universities and even seminaries helped train women and men in the practical skills required to work in the media age.

IV. Many conservative Christians have a love-hate relationship with secular entertainment — we like it, but we rarely admit that we do. We think that entertainment is somehow unworthy of our time, but we keep tuning in.

Thus, Christians who show promise as entertainers are often attacked for “wasting” their talents. The hidden question: How could God call a person to work in the dirty world of the news and entertainment media? When Christians show they are good enough to “go secular” and have an impact in the popular culture, they usually find that Christians start shooting them in the back. The devastating conclusion: Excellence is secular.

V. And finally there is this theory from Dr. Ted Baehr, chairman of the Atlanta-based Christian Film and Television Commission. During a lunch meeting at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the media critic noted:

“A Chinese Communist student once asked me: Why are Christian films so boring? I asked her: Why are Communist films so boring? She said she didn’t know, so I told her. Communist films are so boring because they are only aimed at one audience — the party boss. You have to speak the language of the party boss. You have to make sure that the film is loaded with his language, so that you can prove that you’re orthodox. Christian films are boring because you make them to please … the church party bosses.”

Here is the bottom line: Religious television is bad because most religious broadcasters have, with a few exceptions, been forced to do cheap work that is safe enough to satisfy the Powers That Be in church life.

Meanwhile, researchers tell us that there are few, if any, differences between the viewing habits of Christians and non- Christians, even between conservative evangelicals, especially the young, and their unchurched counterparts.

We live in an age that is defined, in large part, by its entertainment and by waves of signals shaped by the masters of visual storytelling and humor. Yet most churches and religious institutions are doing little to critique and evaluate the media, or to raise up and train talented Christians to work in media.

It’s not a joke, even though many people are laughing for all the wrong reasons.

Terry Mattingly is assistant professor of communications at Milligan College and writes the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C. Terry, Debra, Sarah Jeanne and Frye Lewis Mattingly live in Johnson City, Tennessee.


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