Religious television in the UK
Satellite platforms, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
Presented by: a colourful cast of characters
This time last year, when I was writing (fiction) about a cult-like church obsessed with eschatology, I watched an awful lot of religious TV by way of research, and very enlightening it was too, but not in the way the broadcasters intended. People who don’t venture beyond the documentary zone of the electronic programme guide (EPG) or who are not fans of the word-of-faith movement or believers in creationism will probably never have seen the programmes I’m talking about, but if you thought that all religious broadcasting amounted to was Songs of Praise, Alleluia, or some well-rehearsed hymns introduced by a cosy celebrity like Thora Hird (anyone remember Praise Be!? … I’m showing my age), then you need to think again. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio …
First there’s EWTN, a long-established channel which belongs in a category all of its own, broadcasting Catholic programmes old and new, and not involving itself at all in the fun and games the other channels are having on the evangelical merry-go-round of shared content and blurred brand identity, of which more below. Mostly it seems to feature an elderly nun telling the rosary, or earnest discussions between clean-cut young priests in a library.
Then there are the channels showcasing a variety of African churches, hysterical sermons, chaotic healing sessions and intemperate debates. The programmes tend to have pretty poor production values, but they must have their followers, even if they aren’t as slick or well funded as some of the “white” religious channels which occupy the more prominent spots in this part of the EPG.
And it is to this third category that I now turn, because when I first got Sky TV I could barely believe my eyes and ears. Is this kind of thing really allowed on UK television? Can’t people see that they’re charlatans one and all? There isn’t a snake oil salesman alive who couldn’t learn a thing or two from the folk who appear on some of these channels. Just start at 580 on the EPG and keep clicking the arrow-up button, and you’ll find undreamt-of worlds of greed and hypocrisy masquerading as faith, and all manner of low-life conmen grasping for your money.
By far the vilest and most obviously criminal of these is Peter Popoff, long since exposed on primetime US television as a fraudster by Johnny Carson and arch-sceptic James Randi, but still disgracing our screens on this side of the pond. Ofcom have claimed they can do nothing to prevent his infomercials from being broadcast in this country because the channels that carry them are not operating under UK broadcast licences, but maybe the Advertising Standards Authority will get round to dealing with him one of these days. In the meantime, he remains free to hawk his magical manna bread and miracle spring water to the gullible and desperate.
May God strike Popoff down! Oh yes, Lord, and while you’re in smiting mood, spare a thought for Don Stewart and his green prosperity handkerchiefs. Haven’t seen him on telly for a while now, but no doubt he’s still out there scamming away as before.
But my personal favourites are Larry and Tiz Huch, whose ministry seems to revolve around promoting a tawdry range of pseudo-Judaica (pseudaica?) which will deepen faith and enhance prayer … somehow or other. Larry does all the talking and Tiz gazes adoringly at him, nods a lot and echoes what he says with a lot of little Tourette-ish amens. Occasionally she’s allowed to say a few words about the effectiveness of the latest powerful “prayer tool”. You can see she’s champing at the bit, but Larry doesn’t surrender airtime willingly. Poor Tiz! She might actually have something interesting to say for herself, but sadly we’ll never know.
You don’t have to watch religious TV for very long to notice that there’s a small but constantly rotating cast of characters all guesting on one another’s shows. So for instance, Jonathan Bernis of Jewish Voice Ministries (my thoughts on the Messianics could fill several blog posts and then some, so I’ll leave that for another day) will invite Larry Huch onto his programme, but before you know it Bernis himself will be a guest of Sid Roth’s, and Sid will pop up on yet another show or channel. An awful lot of this content is years old and frequently repeated, but the messages seldom change.
The personalities divide basically into five categories with some overlap:
a) sellers of tat and miracles: the Huchs, Peter Popoff, Benny Hinn, etc;
b) evangelists to the Jews: Mike Evans, the unctuous Mr Bernis, the shouty and excitable “Rabbi” Schneider, and a rather sweet couple called Barry and Batya Segal, who actually seem really nice and I wonder if I ought to lump them together with the others;
c) creationists, of which the grand-daddy of them all is “Dr” Grady McMurtry, whose most-used phrase, without a trace of irony, is “the fact of the matter is”;
d) stadium preachers: Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, Hinn again and others who aspire to inherit the mantle of Billy Graham; and
e) studio sofa preachers, chat hosts and fundraisers, chief among whom are Rory and Wendy Alec of God TV and their slightly more homespun British cousins Howard and Lesley Conder of Revelation TV.
Other bloggers, most notably Gordon Hudson, have compiled comprehensive dossiers on the theological bent and business dealings of Revelation TV, so it’s worth checking out Gordon’s blog on this and other matters. And a warning to anyone who thinks of further googling on the subject of our friend McMurtry: you will become incredulous and irate and waste a lot of your precious time and he’ll be no less smug or illogical at the end of it.
Both Revelation TV and God TV used to broadcast from the UK but left to set up elsewhere to evade the strictures of their Ofcom licences. The lower-budget Revelation TV headed for Spain, but mega-rich God TV went all the way to Jerusalem, where they have installed themselves in a state-of-the-art studio complex in anticipation of the second coming.
But until that longed-for moment arrives, viewers of God TV will watch a lot of appeals for money, a lot of advertisements for Wendy’s books, a fair few sweaty concerts starring “prophet” Kim Clement, and a lot of interviews with bizarre people you really wouldn’t want to associate with unless you were … well, unless you were Rory and Wendy Alec.
Christianity is all about a resurrection, and it seems that any televangelist’s career can be resurrected no matter how thoroughly dead they might once have appeared. Peter Popoff popped up again, didn’t he? And he’s not the only one. Rory and Wendy have recently welcomed back to their sofa Todd Bentley, star of the controversial Lakeland revival, a phenomenon in which people apparently received healing in a fall-to-the-floor-shaking kind of way reminiscent of the Toronto blessing.
Yes, we’ve seen it before and it will no doubt come round again, but there were allegations of financial impropriety and Bentley stepped down and it’s all well documented elsewhere so I’ll say no more than that Bentley is back, as of Thursday 14 February 2013, a grotesque parody of penitence begging for cash for God TV’s vital work in hastening the day of rapture. If you think the Messiah’s a long time coming, you could always help them out; the first thing you’ll see when you visit their website is a “donate” box.
Christians of every stripe should be concerned about these channels, about their shaky theology, their potential to influence credulous viewers and the warped image of Christianity they project. Jews should be concerned about the thinly cloaked missionary efforts and the Messianics' have-your-cake-and-eat-it approach to the tenets of two obviously incompatible faith positions. Scientists, politicians, educators -- in fact, all of us -- should should be deeply concerned by the diets that claim to cure cancer, the "evidence" for a young earth and the promotion of other crazy theories in the name of God.
Revisiting all this tripe has well and truly sickened me, so where does this leave my own little Soul Search mission? Uncomfortable, quite frankly. Angry at times. Suspicious of evangelists, most certainly. In fact, apart from Barry and Batya, who come across as engaging and genuine and who actually make some quite interesting programmes, there’s not a single religious broadcaster I could bear to be in the same room with. It doesn’t bode well, but these virtual churches are so unlike any real-world church I’ve ever been to that I think I can still live in hope. And so the mission continues.