So Jeff and I were sitting around in the apartment last night, flipping through the channels, unable to find palatable programming; we settled on a string of televangelists, starting with the venerable Robert Tilton (truly an abomination; I'd never actually seen him before). As I watched in horror, I joked idly, "I wonder what happens if you call that number!"
A minute later, I heard an enthusiastic Jeff speaking into an automated phone system. "Jeff . . . J-E-F-F." Horrified, I realized that he had not only called the number, but was signing us up on their mailing list. There must have been some kind of "leave us a message" because he launched into a calm, well-articulated diatribe about some of the more dubious theological points that had been made earlier in the program. The system cut him off after fifteen seconds.
The next program featured the intrepid Peter Popoff (I couldn't invent a better name for this guy). There are no words that can capture his audacity and bluster. With a complete lack of irony or self-consciousness, he careened between sweaty-faced religious exhortations and assurances that God doesn't want us to suffer. A montage of clips from his healing services (held, apparently, in hotel banquet rooms) portrayed near-hysterical audience members either being "healed" or sharing "testimony" about the five- or ten-thousand dollar check God had provided them. We called the number and ordered a prayer handkerchief (for Lewis the cat) and a free Prosperity Medallion.
After that came Don Stewart, whose style was similar to Peter Popoff, but whose opening montage included a reenactment of himself at the age of fifteen being healed from a debilitating condition. A long-haired man in a white robe (we see the back of his head) appears; the part that kills me is when young Don tosses away his crutches. Mr. Stewart, like other televangelists can whip down-on-their-luck audience members into a religious fervor by delivering a content-free potpourri of religious terminology in an emotionally charged tone of voice. But he can also croon like a commensurate showman. And croon he did. When Jeff dialed this third and final number, he realized in astonishment that the automated system was identical to Robert Tilton's... granted, with a different voice, although the voices even shared "the same stilted delivery". My final impression of the show was a female audience member who had been living in the projects and had received a four thousand dollar blessing (praise Jesus!), and was wearing "new diamonds" to prove it.
I couldn't tear myself away from the televised freakshow. Watching the shameless manipulation of the broken and the desperate gave me a clear picture of how institutionalized denial can take a stronghold in people's lives. And seeing the meaning of the gospel message being reduced to a good luck charm--where being "healed," "financially blessed," and "saved" are indistinguishable--truly made me sick.
The good news is that we're going to be receiving a lot of invaluable comedic material in the mail over the next few weeks. The bad news is that they know where we live.