It appears that of all my blog posts, the one that has attracted the most attention is my piece on God TV (Jan 1st 2015). I want to add some further thoughts to that blog post, not only about that particular TV channel, but about the phenomenon of religious broadcasting generally.
In a conversation with Chris he described to me the picture of an elderly widow, with few outside contacts, sending quite large sums of money, which she cannot afford, to a religious TV channel. The motive for such giving is, no doubt, the thought, encouraged by the TV channel evangelist, that this money is kind of seed which will grow and provide her with an abundance of blessings both material and spiritual. I have no doubt of the texts used to encourage such ‘generosity’ . There will be the example of the widow casting her two copper coins into the Temple treasury, which Jesus commended. There will also be the quoting of texts about God loving a cheerful giver.
What is the real motivation for these relatively small donations repeated some thousands of times? The first thing that this money buys is the creation of a fantasy world for the giver. Well dressed presenters sit around in opulent studios telling the listener the old, old story that God has promised them all his blessings. With sufficient faith, which is expressed by a sufficiently sacrificial donation to the channel, all the blessings of health and prosperity can be theirs. The first-fruits of prosperity can be seen right before them on the screen in the expensive suits and coiffured hair-dos. The message is implied rather than precisely stated. ‘If you want what we have, then think like us, have faith like us and follow us’.
The attraction to a channel like God TV is like a process of seduction. The presenters, with their homely, pseudo-intimate ways, become important to the listener. Over a period they will become fantasy friends and attract a kind of brand loyalty which is all the more attractive to the listener if they are lacking real friends in their own restricted worlds. Once the listener is ‘hooked’ by the fantasy that Wendy on God TV actually cares about them personally, then the purse strings are automatically opened. The sums of money that are needed to keep the TV on the air start to flow. All this is possible because TV evangelists have discovered the secret of how to milk the vulnerable, the needy and the lonely of their hard earned money. Those who give to the religious channels have entered a fantasy promised land created by the presenters. They are now like drug addicts and it is almost impossible to break free of this fantasy without suffering massive withdrawal symptoms or breakdown. Many watchers of these programmes continue in this addiction till death finally frees them.
What does the money sent to a religious channel like God TV actually get used for? It has to be admitted that running a religious TV station is pretty expensive. Sometimes, however, even religious broadcasters overreach themselves and find that their ambitious empire building goes beyond their capacity to pay. A God TV project to convert a cinema in Plymouth into an international prayer centre seems to have stalled. The financial challenge to get this centre up and running has apparently proved too much for the directors. The builders employed to complete the project have simply walked out, not having had their invoices paid for work already done. A branch of God TV in Sunderland has reportedly simply closed with all those employed losing their jobs. It is reported that a number of people in Plymouth, working for the station, have also been ‘let go’, but not before they were forced to sign ‘gagging orders’. It is hard to imagine why such orders should be required unless the organisation has secrets, such as being a massive cash machine for those in charge. Those who look into these things, report that Wendy Alec, the owner and chief presenter, is paid £100,000 plus expenses. With all the perks of her job, her package is reportedly worth around a million pounds a year. In spite of the stalling of certain projects in the UK, there is no evidence that the perks of running this franchise have lessened for those in charge.
As I reflected on the phenomenon of religious broadcasting, I realised that the only theology that could work to get such a station up and running is the ‘Prosperity Gospel’. Why would anyone send money to fund the expensive lifestyle of a Wendy Alec, unless there was something in it for them? More cynically, why would anyone go to the trouble of setting up a religious broadcasting station unless there were worthwhile returns, and I mean financial ones. The Christian tradition does provide, when we read Scripture very selectively and in a distorted fashion, the possibility of meeting the needs of two groups of people. The first group are the lonely, the disconnected, the unsuccessful and the generally needy. This group, because they cannot get out of their homes, have become addicted to their television sets, which appear to offer them hope in the shape of Christian prosperity teachings. On the other side is a small group who have discovered how to exploit the needy group by using Christian language to create a fantasy world of hope, promises and colour to the grey dull lives of their audience. Do the providers of these cloying programmes actually believe their messages of hope or do they, as some would suggest, see their audiences as suckers to be exploited? My understanding of human nature would suggest that probably the owners of religious TV stations are probably not completely heartless scam artists. At some level they have come to believe their own rhetoric but the harm that these stations do to the integrity of the Christian faith is massive.
To finish I wish to list some of the reasons why religion broadcasting that uses the ‘Prosperity Teaching’ (I don’t know any other type) is a massive blot on the Christian landscape.
• The dynamic of religious broadcasting aims to create ‘addiction’ among a group of very needy people. This experience of dependency among this group constitutes abuse.
• The Christian teaching of religious broadcasting narrows the gospel down to encouraging people to believe that the only thing that matters is the access to health and wealth for the individual. There is no awareness of society or the place of the individual within it.
• The Christian teaching of the religious broadcaster is a version that eviscerates the tradition and takes it far from any challenge, set-back or pain. Such things are said to be the result of a lack of faith. When this message is internalised, the levels of despair among those addicted to the prosperity teaching become even greater.
I shall go on reflecting on the issues of religious broadcasting, as I suspect that most ‘main-stream’ Christians ignore it as not being worthy of their attention. Chris has helped me to see that it is in fact a big deal to many people who live on the edges of our society, those whom this abusive form of Christianity is able to touch and in some cases destroy.