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Light from the tube


"If one could believe in God,
would he fill the desert?"

– Graham Greene, The End of the Affair

The spirit of television moves in mysterious ways. Perhaps it’s just me, but it didn’t seem the least bit fishy that Billy Graham would make his farewell tour on "Larry King Live" the very week of the Littleton massacre. In fact, it was nothing less than a divine synchronicity.

As Graham’s son and spiritual heir, Franklin, held his own for a couple nights among media pundits and anti-violence advocates, Billy looked on with great pride. In the final 10 minutes of the last night, King popped the question: "Are you ready to go?" The elder Graham, not yet eclipsed by Parkinson’s disease, didn’t even blink. "Yes, Larry, I’ve been ready for a while. I wish the Lord would take me now," he replied, his face a picture of beatific serenity.

Wow. Ten years ago, I thought of Billy Graham as the purveyor of pious bromides favored by Reader’s Digest. In my mind, he was a cut above swindlers such as the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart, but that’s not saying much to a cynic. Now I am much less fixed in my skepticism. These past weeks have found me cruising the dial in search of that same powerful vibe I felt coming off Graham, if not for novelty’s sake then something deeper.

Texas is home to a lot of things, not the least of which is Christian broadcasting outlets. From the same suburbs that gave us the Dallas Cowboys and "King of the Hill" comes Kenneth Copeland Ministries. The main man is likable enough – electric smile, well-cut suit, trim physique and that brillantined coiffure also favored by fellow Lone Star fundamentalist, Rep. Tom DeLay aka the Hammer.

Copeland holds forth in one of those massive evangelical churches stuck out in the middle of strip malls and bog. The interior design is all to the greater glory of middle-class whiteness. At the front is a capacious stage upon which he can strut and storm against the devil and his ilk. But more often than not, Copeland delivers a parsing of Scripture that, courtesy of his silver tongue, is forthright and measured. Copeland is a class act and he knows it.

I’m less enthusiastic about his wife, a flinty-eyed creature named Gloria. According to the biography provided at their Web site, the Copelands studied at Oral Roberts University after enduing years of poverty, but the lady has the haughty air of an embittered prom queen to her.

While Ken cools down after his performance, we join Gloria in the parlor of some sort of phony manse that might well have been a set for "Dallas." She leads the camera in prayer before peddling her contribution to the considerable video library of the ministry, "Health and Fitness as it pertains to Life and Godliness." God wants you trim and Gloria wants to serve you as his Jane Fonda. Then it’s back to Ken for a wrap-up pep talk and preview of next week’s lesson.

Also hailing from Dallas-Ft.Worth is the Trinity Broadcasting Network. Their logo is almost as rococo as their sets, adding an offbeat kitschy quality to the proceedings. One night, I tuned in just as actress Jennifer O’Neill was making her witness about her failed marriages, drug addiction and sundry other follies of the no-longer rich and famous. Her setup man, a young, blow-dried gent, seemed suitably enthralled. At his behest, she addressed the camera and "all those who have given up hope."

For a full two minutes, O’Neill looked long and deep into the broken heart of the audience, offering words of succor, words of comfort. How ironic, I thought, that television, in order to mask its mediocrity, teaches us to revel in inauthenticity. And so when authenticity of emotion, of experience, comes calling, we are blind to it.

Sometimes even the most sincere words are not enough. In those moments, there is Diane Bish, high priestess of the evangelical organ and the blue rinse brioche. What is most off-putting about televangelism is the feeling that the backwoods revival tent is not far removed from the fresh-scrubbed facade. Bish’s masterstroke is that she incorporates the classical repertoire of spiritual music into her ministry, thus giving it a cultural gravitas available nowhere else on the dial.

And far from the sun-dappled Crystal Cathedral of Robert Schuler, so California it hurts, Bish conducts her business in more traditional, less vulgar venues such as the Freiburg Cathedral in Germany, home to four of the world’s most daunting organs. Considering her virtuoso flair and showmanship, it would be easy for the casual viewer to chide her as a female Liberace. Yet when she plays Bach, her frilly gown sweeping against the pedals, the listener has a sense that she is surfing on his wave to the heavens. Occasionally Bish duets with guest musicians to whom she is serenely generous but never pandering.

I love everything about her. I love the way she can inspire a heathen to lend an ear to God’s music, bringing him out of his desert and into her oasis of faith.

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