The Gospel According to Television
By William M. Frierson, M.Div, Ph.D
Originally delivered as a sermon in July, 1987
Posted on April 7, 2014
Editor’s note: Dr. William M. Frierson was an ordained Presbyterian minister, a faculty member in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Valdosta State University, and a member of Christ Church. He was occasionally invited to preach sermons by our rector at the time, the Rev. Henry Louttit. The sermon reprinted below was originally delivered in July, 1987. A copy of the sermon’s text was recently found by Maggie Roberts, and was submitted for reprinting as a Vineyard article. A PDF copy of this text is available for download here. Dr. Frierson died on June 1, 2005, at the age of 72.
On Sunday evening, January 2, 1921, a service of Evening Prayer at Calvary Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh, was broadcast over radio station KDKA. This was the first religious radio broadcast, either in the United States or elsewhere, and the Assistant Rector who conducted the service, the Rev. Louis Whittemore, became the first person to preach a Christian sermon over the air.
Nineteen years later, on Easter Sunday, 1940, the first two religious television productions were aired–one Protestant, and the other Roman Catholic. It is the latter which claims our attention, in that it featured Bishop Fulton J. Sheen–who, in 1952, became the first prime-time television ‘preacher.’ It was he who demonstrated the remarkable capacities of television for religious communication, and who therefore paved the way for ‘televangelism’ as we know it today.
During the 66 years since the historic event at Calvary Church, Pittsburgh, religious broadcasting has exerted an incalculable influence in directing the development of religion in North America. Several major consequences are of particular interest for this discussion.
(1) The issues raised by religious broadcasting provided a major incentive for several minority Protestant churches and a considerable representation of Southern Baptists to align themselves against the ‘mainline’ churches. This was due primarily to the early refusal of the NBC, CBS, and ABC radio networks to sell religious radio time (Mutual was the exception), and their further refusal to donate public service time to any Protestant churches or preachers not affiliated with the Federal Council of Churches (now the National Council of Churches). By 1940 the attack by Fundamentalists, Pentecostals, and others against the Federal Council of Churches and its mainline constituents as well as against the radio networks, (except for Mutual), had reached unsavory proportions–a religious broadcasting legacy from which American Christianity still suffers.
(2) The immediate result of the foregoing was the formation of the National Association of Evangelicals in 1942, and of its offspring, the National Religious Broadcasters, in 1944. Major purposes of both were (a) to “witness against the apostasy” of mainline Protestant Christianity, and (b) to secure “a fair and equal opportunity for the use of radio facilities by Evangelical groups or individuals.” The efforts of these two organizations did not begin to produce dramatic results, however, until the advent of nationwide television, 1950 – 1952, and it was not until the 1970’s that their aspirations were brought to widespread fruition.
(3) Entailed in this commitment of the NAE and the NRB was the recognition that religious broadcasting must thenceforward depend upon the establishment of commercial religious networks, and therefore upon the availability of funds either supplied by the participating churches or, more effectively, solicited from the broadcast audience.
(4) The Fundamentalist and Pentecostal churches and preachers eventually discovered (during the 1950’s and l960’s) that they were far better equipped to employ the entertainment formats dictated by television than were the more formal, more tradition-bound, more creed-oriented mainline Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Orthodox churches. They lost no time in capitalizing upon this discovery–with results that are familiar to everyone today.
(5) A further consequence is that, for millions of North Americans, the Fundamentalist and/or Pentecostal ‘Gospel according to Television’ has become synonymous with Christianity—and this is equally as true for many who scoff at televangelism as it is for those who embrace its precepts. The effect has been equally dramatic in Central and South America, where Pentecostal televangelism has produced astonishing numbers of converts from Roman Catholicism–especially in Chile, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
(6) A final consequence has yet to be assessed: the overall effect of these developments upon the political, social, and economic destinies of our own country and of our Latin neighbors.
With this general background in mind, and assuming at least some familiarity with the ‘prime-time evangelism’ phenomenon, I would like to raise topics for discussion under three major headings: (1) Criticisms of Televangelism, (2) Arguments in Behalf of Televangelism, and (3) The Response of the Mainline Churches.
Criticisms of Televangelism
At the outset, I offer no complaint against either Fundamentalism or Pentecostalism as such, nor against the fact that I find many of their television presentations to be embarrassingly tacky. I do not wish to disparage a theological tradition simply because I fail to agree with it, and I am quite resigned to the discovery that tackiness flourishes in America–that, indeed, an open society such as ours both tolerates and encourages forms of cultural and religious expression which fail to embody traditional standards of good taste. My criticisms, enumerated below–with little or no amplification, are directed, rather, to other matters.
(1) In general, most major prime-time television evangelists proclaim that the problems of life–whether related to physical health, emotional health, or financial, vocational and other domestic difficulties–can be solved easily and immediately. Prayer, Bible-reading, and financial donations to the evangelist are included among the recommended antidotes for the viewer’s particular ailment. In other words, the Christian Gospel is construed as proclaiming an automatic ‘quick—fix’ for unhappy life situations.
(2) The public is encouraged to purchase Divine Favor. Deeds enacted and money paid can be expected to produce miraculous interventions in one’s life. Nothing of the sort has been so flagrant since the Renaissance promotion of indulgences decried by Martin Luther. In consequence, good works (especially financial good works), not faith, is the key to the ‘Gospel according to Television’.
(3) The Christian Church as a community is consistently denied. As with ‘secular’ television, the viewer is isolated from any real community–including that of his/her own family and friends.
(4) Television evangelism is ‘messenger-oriented’, not Christ-oriented–a heresy clearly condemned by St. Paul in his first Corinthian letter. The evangelist, not the World-Incarnate, has become the Good News, the medium of one’s access to God–and in some instances, even the object of one’s ultimate devotion.
(5) The Gospel preached by much of television evangelism is one of self-orientation, focusing primarily upon my griefs and problems and how I can resolve them. In consequence, such features of the historic Christian proclamation as love for one’s neighbor, forgiveness and reconciliation, and social responsibility are either down-played or lost sight of altogether.
(6) Television evangelism has been alarmingly successful in transposing the Gospel of Salvation into materialistic terms. This is evidenced not only by the emphasis upon ‘faith’ as a commercial transaction (see Item 2, above), but likewise by two additional features of much religious broadcasting: the ‘successful corporation’ image of the medium and its complex organization, and the implied equation of ‘salvation’ with the viewer’s physical/material success.
(7) Televangelism has also succeeded in reducing the proclamation of the Gospel to a species of popular commercial entertainment–in some cases, with only the thinnest veneer of ostensible religious content. The dimensions of corporate worship, sacramental participation, mutual teaching, salvific personal relationships, and ministries within the local community are virtually ignored, and therefore tacitly denied. While it is true that earlier forms of Christian practice have also incorporated an ‘entertainment dimension’ (e.g., Medieval mystery plays, major liturgical and musical extravaganzas, and Protestant ‘revivals’), none that I know of has regularly done so to the virtual exclusion of other valid dimensions of Christian experience.
(8) The net result, I fear, has been to foster a truncated, trivialized parody of the Christian Gospel amongst televangelism enthusiasts–and for the rest, to denigrate the Gospel to the status of a fraudulent laughing-stock amongst the unchurched and the skeptical.
Were I to summarize the foregoing criticisms in one sentence, I should phrase it as follows: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is now being rewritten by the Gospel according to Television in order to accommodate (a) the medium of television, (b) our materialistic interpretations of human life, and (c) our insistence upon instant personal gratification.
Arguments in Behalf of Televangelism
These arguments are not entirely my own. Nevertheless, whether I find significance in all of them or not, I recognize that they are worth further investigation and discussion.
(1) The Gospel according to Television, as currently proclaimed, apparently meets the perceived religious, moral, and psychological needs of millions of persons. Whatever their shortcomings (from my standpoint), the televangelists have provided a forum for self-expression amongst large numbers of persons who, for whatever reasons, have become disenchanted with traditional institutional ministries (including local Fundamentalist and Pentecostal ministries). Such persons have come to feel, whether realistically or not, that they have no other outlet for their hopes, their fears, their pent-up emotions, and their discontent with ‘the losing hand’ that life has dealt them. The evangelists have filled a void in a changing and fearsome world, and have offered, however trivially and superficially, a sense of self-identity, self-esteem, and security.
(2) Television evangelism, whilst re-enforcing some moralistic taboos, has nevertheless released countless Fundamentalists and Pentecostals–especially women–from the stultifying notion that it is a mortal sin to be attractive, to enjoy the benefits of one’s earnings, and to include entertainment as a healthy component of one’s life.
(3) Some televangelists have directed public attention to our culture’s moral ‘unravelling’, others to basic Christian affirmations regarding forgiveness and spiritual ‘rebirth’, and others to socially-induced psychological maladies endemic to contemporary culture. Whether or not their proposed solutions are acceptable, creative, and potentially salvific (literally, ‘healthy’) is not the point here. The point, rather, is that they have communicated valid concerns to persons who quite possibly have been closed to other means of communication regarding these important issues.
(4) Televangelism has de-regionalized (and de-nationalized) the appeal of Fundamentalist and Pentecostal approaches to the Christian Gospel. No longer are these departures from mainline Christianity viewed as the exclusive prerogative of the stereotypical ‘Deep South’ (or of an equally stereotypical ‘America’), and therefore merely as parochial products of H. L. Mencken’s ‘cultural Sahara’. To the contrary, the cross-cultural response to televangelism must now be evaluated as an important key to understanding human nature and human need, irrespective of geographical and cultural regions or of prior religious tradition.
(5) The Gospel according to Television has provided a religious mode of ‘defusing’ our national political, economic, and social failures. Some would reply that Adolf Hitler provided a similar ‘defusing’ of German frustrations several decades ago. In principle, this reply is correct. In both intent and content, however, as well as in practical application, the differences are considerable.
(6) The phenomenon of religious television has provided a needed indictment of mainline Protestant (and Roman Catholic and Orthodox) Christianity. Had we been more diligent and more creative with the resources at our disposal, it is doubtful that televangelism would have exerted the appeal it presently enjoys.
(7) Television evangelism has been a pioneering pilot-project demonstrating to us (as Bishop Sheen had previously been able to demonstrate to the television evangelists) both the power and the limitations of television as a medium for communicating the Christian Gospel.
The Response of the Mainline Churches
I will be brief, and confine my remarks to four questions which I consider pertinent to the discussion. I propose no answers.
(1) What have we, as mainline denominations, failed to provide for the religious edification and self-expression of so large a percentage of our neighbors-in-Christ?
(2) Could we, without diminishing our theological, ecclesiastical, and cultural precepts, have provided what they required?
(3) Considering the accepted fact that television is a ‘communications miracle’, what restraints and potential pitfalls does it place upon the proclamation of the Christian Gospel? I refer, of course, to the proclamation of the Gospel as we interpret it and are committed to expound it.
(4) How might the Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and other mainline churches adapt themselves to and employ the medium of television more effectively?
Question: Whatever happened to Bishop Sheen?
Answer: Cardinal Spellman found him to be a flamboyant nuisance, and banished him to the Archbishopric of Rochester.
Comment: Bishop Sheen could have done worse, and Cardinal Spellman could have done better.
William M. Frierson
Christ Episcopal Church