It is so turned around these days.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Such lame mimicry is the curse of most youth ministries.


Despite my invitation to pop some popcom and curl up together on the sofa for a big Saturday night of Christian television, my wife and kids go to bed early. I'm not surprised. Courtesy of Falwell and the Bakkers, Christian TV has a lousy reputation, even, I bet, among a lot of Christians. Between the nonstop frantic appeals for funds and the apoplectic praise-athons, it throws a lot of heat for a "cool" medium. Or at least it used to. It's changing now--blending into the mainstream, as the music has. That's a shame: I miss those frenzied traditionalists. Like the old-style gospel singers, the classic televangelists were geniuses, inimitable products of a culture that stood as a rival to middlebrow mass taste and didn't try to beat it by joining it. Now, instead of soaring, perspiring rants staged amid profusions of potted lilies and amened over by bouffanted grandmas who seemed about to either cry or come, you get shows like the Sky Angel network's Ten Most Wanted a low-voltage rip-off of those MTV music video-countdown programs. The twentyish host has a fuzzy soul patch, a grungy plaid shirt and a shock of spiky hair that like most Christian versions of "downtown" style, is years out of date and ever so slightly too clean. Plus, his earrings look suspiciously like clip-ons.

Both of the videos I manage to sit through by Gibraan, a black rapper who seems to lack his race's stereotypical gift for rhythm, and by 12 Stones, a gang of mussed-up white boys whose sisters are probably standing just offstage mixing pitchers of Country Time lemonade for when the guys knock off are set in what seems like the same abandoned apartment building. Its broken windows and peeling paint presumably stand for the sinful human condition that teens today are struggling to transcend.

An ad comes on for a pro-life pregnancy hot line, and then it's back to the shaggy veejay, who drops his rebel pose, earnestly asks his young viewers to come to Christ ("call 877-949-HELP") and then slips back into jive talk for the sign-off: "Thanks for hangin' wit' me. I'll see you guys later." Such lame mimicry is the curse of most youth ministries. I start changing channels, looking for fire and brimstone healings, tongues, exorcisms, spectacle but wimpiness reigns in the Kingdom of the Lord. A lot of Ark TV, particularly on PAX, seems to consist of nothing but reruns of Murder, She Wrote and other shows aimed at the nursing-home demographic (like that one in which Dick Van Dyke plays a crime-fighting pathologist). There's nothing particularly Christian about such programs, but insofar as they feature extremely old people using their wits to bring younger folks to justice, they do radiate a diffuse conservatism. Then there are the specifically Christian shows, such as Touched by an Angel, whose soft-core, herbal-tea spirituality meld old-time religion with the New Age. I catch one on PAX--Twice in a Lifetime, starring Mariette Hartley as a grown-up '60s hippie chick who, way back when, betrayed her longhaired boyfriend in order to please her crusty Republican dad. The plots of these tearjerkers are all the same: Someone screws up very, very badly and then, with the help of a kindly intercessor from outside the space-time continuum, is granted a do-over, which the person aces. Of course, the whole agony of moral choice is that do-overs aren't possible on earth (unless you're a Hindu or a Buddhist), which makes these shows meaningless as religious instruction, if not heretical. Also, I find their stories hard to follow. There's always one being who's visible to some people but not to others (or not at the same time), and there's always some tricky problem that results from leaving the present to tinker with the past.


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