Karen Walker once said on Will & Grace, “You are never closer to God than when you are on television.” Nowhere is this more evident than now, when cable stations have multiplied faster than rabbits and regular people with small town Christian ideals have become the sought-after subjects and stars of reality TV. They’re interior designers, chefs, entrepreneurs and moms whose fertility-on-the-fritz spawns litters of children and audiences gobble up their merchandise and magazine covers with reckless abandon. For many, the faith of these unlikely TV stars is principle among the reasons they tune in each week. These televised everymans wear their religious affiliation proudly and tout God’s importance in their lives by filming their faith in the form of Sunday services, pre-meal prayers and church fundraisers. None of these shows found their TV home on Christ-centric stations either; they’re as mainstream as The Walking Dead, Ru Paul’s Drag Race or the damn Kardashians.
With most of these people, there comes a point when they become so engrained in the public consciousness that they find themselves having to answer questions from TV reporters and magazine writers about their faith-in-practice. Some are able to navigate those questions with grace but we’ve watched as others have imploded under the weight of their own virtues. From hillbillies talking about duck calls in one sentence and spewing homophobic rants in the next to a Christ-centric 19-person-family collapsing under allegations that their son molested his sisters, modern Christian TV stars have had a tough time staying above reproach. Not that this is anything new. For years, televangelists have come under fire for wrongs that range from claims of embezzling parishioner’s money to allegations of sexual assault. All of this has played out on the covers of the tabloids and the top of the evening news.
So let’s call a spade a spade: most Christians on TV haven’t done themselves any favors and they haven’t done other Christians any favors either. They tend to look blissfully out of touch with a progressive world, afraid to incorporate any faction of reason or science into their lives. Most of the time, I sit on my couch wanting to choke these people out while screaming “We aren’t all like that! Not all of us want to make America 1953 again!” I then write fourteen tweets I’ll never send and begin shoveling peanut butter out of the jar into my mouth.
I didn’t grow up with TBN playing on a loop on my television. By the grace of God, I was allowed to watch Power Rangers, Animaniacs and X-Men. However, I’ve long been familiar with the network Paul and Jan Crouch built because that’s where my father could watch the southern gospel quartets he loved. As such, I’d periodically see the pink and gold rococo nightmare on my TV screen and wonder why God’s interior decorator made such bold choices. As a teenager, I visited the Dallas TBN studio a few times as a part of various youth conventions and ate lunch in the gardens outside. Yes, there were gardens. They were intended to look and feel like a Super-Christian Versailles, the hedges trimmed and coifed into shapes while white swans drifted through the pristine holy waters. Extravagant in its dated elegance, it was as out of touch with reality as the TV hosts who commissioned it.
Paul and Jan may have been widely known, but they weren’t my favorite TV Christians. In a backwards way, my favorite was Marguerite Perrin from the show Trading Spouses. As a social experiment, shows about swapping wives for a week are fascinating—there’s a myriad of anthropological insights one could glean from being so immersed in someone else’s world—however, this was a show intended for entertainment, not for study, and as such, the women were dropped into families who were their polar opposites while the producers sat on the sidelines waiting for them to detonate.
Marguerite was a rotund woman whose eyes rested in a permanently bugged-out expression not unlike a Tim Burton character. As large and vulgar as Ursula the Sea Witch, she referred to herself as the queen of the household and spoke of loving her “passive” husband who did all the household chores for her. This enabled her to lounge around the house and expand her bulbous waistline with a steady diet of sweet tea. The episode showed establishing shots of her reading the Bible, praying on the porch and raising her hands to Jesus in the front yard while multiple times over the course of the hour, she extoled her own capacity to hear God. A self-professed “God-warrior,” she looked into the camera and said, with authority, if someone doesn’t believe in Christ, it “bothers her.”
I actually don’t think her spiritual grandstanding was a farce. I believe she felt secure in knowing she was following the biblical instructions to proclaim her faith boldly to all the world and I genuinely can’t fault her for that, especially since I too have felt like God has told me this or that at one time or another. The difference is that I also know God gave me the wherewithal to read the room and to know the appropriate time and audience with whom to share such insight.
Imagine the delight of the producer who was given this woman as a candidate. He or she did exactly what any other producer would do, they sent her to a family that’s more “spiritual than they are religious,” who follow astrology closely and could be categorized as “new age.” Well I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I watched with baited breath, waiting for this Super-Christian powder keg to erupt. Again, maybe that’s backwards, but it is what it is.
After a week of documenting her unfathomable inability to coexist with anyone who thought differently than she, it was time for her to go home and reunite with her family. At the beginning of the week, I sort of sympathized with her. It must’ve been frustrating to be dropped off at a new house and upon entry realize the family doesn’t believe or behave remotely close to what you’re used to. While I’d argue that’s the point of the show and anyone who signs up should know better, it would still be jarring. However, rather than allowing this experience to become a teachable moment both for herself and the other family, she spent the week crying and praying. That’s when I lost any sympathy I had for her. If the driving force in her life truly was to share the gospel, then she should’ve taken a cue from Jesus’ playbook and shared the love of God through kindness, care and a helping hand. Nope. Not Marguerite. She was right, the other family was wrong, and there was no room for an alternate understanding.
Then, she got home.
What I imagined would be a joyful homecoming among her like-minded family quickly disintegrated into a one-woman shouting match. Remember in Lord of the Rings when Gollum went from being gentle and raspy to volatile and toothy? I thought that was just a special effect but as it turns out, it can happen in real life as well. Upon walking through her front door, Margaret erupted into an explosive rage, her piercing voice echoing throughout the house. Her inner Nosferatu was on full display as she screamed like a woman possessed. She pointed at her family and screeched, “I rebuke it in the name of the Lord,” leaving her husband and children with terrified and flabbergasted expressions on their faces. She decimated her own family before turning to the cameramen to chastise them for filming her outburst. She commanded them repeatedly in her southern drawl to “get the Hell out of my house in Jesus name!” It was at this point when I began to feel bad about having added to this show’s Neilson rating. What was unfolding was an abusive human tragedy, not a comedy. She continued to scold her children, crying as she screamed that she needed their prayers and they weren’t there for her. One of the daughters spoke up, saying she did pray for her all week, but that wasn’t good enough for Marguerite. She kept on screaming as the poor girl stared back at her raging mammoth of a mother with confused and broken eyes. My heart broke for that young girl.
My parents rarely screamed at anything, much less me. My father, a passionate Dallas Cowboys fan, yells at the TV from time to time but that’s mostly in conjunction with a touchdown or an interception. They never really shouted at me, even when I was a delinquent, and they certainly never shouted at me on basis of not praying enough. This woman, whose entire purpose for being on Trading Spouses was to show the world what a stellar Christian she was, belittled and tore down her family on national TV because they didn’t pray enough. It was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever seen play out on television, and that’s a list that includes the most recent Republican National Convention and Ashlee Simpson on SNL.
What stayed with me the most was when she commanded to the camera, “Every dark-sided person get out of my house! If you believe in Jesus, you can stay here.” Raise your hands if you’ve been around a group of Christians and felt like this was the vibe they gave off. I see those hands. Mine’s up too. That’s the environment this praying daughter had to exist in. It’s not her fault her mother was trapped inside a monster of her own making, but looking at her eyes full of confusion and despair, I wondered if she thought that’s what Jesus looked like as well. If Christians aim to be Christ-like, then the Christ she encountered in that televised moment couldn’t be farther from the God with whom I’m familiar.
We aren’t fools. We know this is sensationalized television and this woman was the bat shit crazy goldmine TV producers pray for. A logical person knows she isn’t the spokesperson for Christianity, Inc. in America. However, there’s a logic-less and, to borrow her phrase, dark-sided reality to the septic tank spewing out of her mouth.
The rise of reality television has provided platforms for people who would’ve never received them otherwise. Those platforms include all types of people: the good-intentioned, the bad-behaved and the ugly-natured. Most people who sign on the dotted line to be filmed are doing it for reasons of self-publicity, not to prove a point about their atypical lives or show off their ability to hurl a zinger at another person. We, the audience, understand that, which is why I’m so fascinated by televised Christianity within that faux-reality structure. When people choose to use their Christianity as a plot point to get their fifteen minutes, I can’t help but be skeptical.
Real Housewives of Orange County star Tamara Judge said mid-fight to another one of the housewives, “You’re full of shit. I’m a good person and you’re not.” This is someone whose engineered plotline for an entire season included a very public baptism and dozens of references to her faith in Jesus. Again, no one is turning to the Real Housewives franchise for spiritual reflectiveness and meaning, but I have to ask what sort of image that’s projecting to people about Christians at large? If that’s how this woman on TV acts and she’s thumping on the Bible all season, then is that what my Christian neighbor is also like? If the Sea Witch on Trading Spouses claims she’s a Super-Christian, then do the folks at First Baptist act like her as well?
I remember when the Baptists boycotted Disney in the late 90s. I went on a church trip to Orlando during that time and we weren’t allowed to go to the Magic Kingdom on basis of the inclusion of gay people at their theme parks. I was irate. It’s not that I didn’t want to go to the other theme parks in town, but we teenagers wanted to go to Disney while we had the opportunity. The decision was made by one of the mothers that we wouldn’t be going to such an “ungodly” place. That same woman is the reason I, too, was once a Christian on TV.
Not long after we were refused access to the Disney parks, the acapella ensemble I sang in was invited to sing on a regional Christian network during one of its programs. Invited is a flexible word in that the mother of one of the girls, the anti-Disney mother, had finagled our way into singing on this program. We were told it was an invite, but the reality was she’d booked us with the caveat that her daughter got to sing a solo on the show as well. Imagine that.
There wasn’t anything to dislike about this mother; she loved her daughters and her church family, she gave of her time and never missed a performance. She also happened to be a classic stage mom. She’d vehemently deny this, but she was calculating in whatever way would get her daughters the most time in the spotlight. Once, she organized an extra rehearsal for her youngest daughter’s drama team and then invited me, the director, to attend. “If you care at all about your team, you’ll be there,” she told me. Not only did Stage Mom make me feel obligated to show up to this extra unnecessary rehearsal, but she sat in a chair next to me and critiqued and changed things at will. She made me feel inept and small.
Our foray into televised Christianity was made to sound like a church-sanctioned activity but that wasn’t the whole truth. She’d independently set it up and facilitated the trip, leaving our fine arts directors in the dark. I didn’t know they weren’t involved until they weren’t in the vans with us. Stage Mom’s father was a pastor who had connections with the small town station, so we were to sing live on the program Saturday night and it would re-air the following morning. It taped in Arkansas or someplace far enough away to warrant staying overnight, an expense we had to foot, and then we’d drive back on Sunday, arriving at the church just as our youth choir rehearsal was to begin.
We arrived at the motel, changed into our suits and dresses and headed to the station. Much like the TBN station, the décor was over-the-top and unnecessary. We sang our three minute song, Stage Mom’s daughter sang her solo and we sat quietly to listen to the preaching that followed. It wasn’t that I was disinterested in the mechanisms of live TV, but I was disinterested in being trotted out like a show pony to sing on a network that gave a platform to televangelists peddling holy water, prayer books and various forms of monetized Christianity. It felt odd and disingenuous.
The following morning after watching ourselves on TV, something I’ll admit was cool to see, we left for home. The problem was, we left late and were still on the road when choir rehearsal was set to begin. In the mid-90s, before teenagers carried cell phones, we had no way to let anyone know what was going on. I sat panicking in the back seat over our tardiness because even then, being late was never an option. I was a leader in the group, I’d been given responsibilities that I took seriously and not for granted. I felt like the wool had been pulled over my eyes so that Stage Mom’s daughter could have her solo moment to shine on TV. As I asked again what our arrival time would be, Stage Mom placated me, telling me not worry about it. She said we’d been in ministry and our pastors knew how important that was.
Well that wasn’t the case at all. When we walked in incredibly late, it was to the frustrated looks of our director and the other students. We’d left them in the lurch, which was maddening to me but Stage Mom didn’t care. She even went on to interrupt our director mid-rehearsal to tell her in front of everyone—including the teenagers who hadn’t been invited on the trip—how great we’d been and how effective we’d been in ministry. It felt so forced and so fake and it embarrassed me. I apologized profusely to our director after rehearsal that afternoon. I hated how icky the whole thing had turned out and how that ick subsequently covered all of us who’d been on that trip. There weren’t reality TV cameras following us that weekend, but if there had been, they’d have seen a bunch of teenagers duped into singing on a weird local Bible Belt TV station and a Stage Mom who pulled the puppet strings in order to gain the publicity she sought for her daughter.
There’s nothing wrong with the cameras catching the faith that plays out in their daily lives, but logic has all but disappeared from the outward facing Christian equation. Maybe it’s because we live at a time where the worst representations of people are on full display, but I find myself continuously shocked by what people of faith do and say in front of the cameras. Rather than presenting Christians as smart, discerning, loving individuals, they’re showing themselves to be archaic and ineffective at operating in a real world. What’s more, many show themselves to be flagrant hypocrites, winding up more at home in gossip magazines and courtrooms than in their church pews.
That’s how I felt that Sunday—like a hypocrite. Stage Mom, and the rest of us by association, had put being on television before our commitments and while I don’t compare singing my bari-tenor part in an acapella song to Marguerite unhinging her jaw on TV, it felt just as disingenuous and icky to me. I understand faith is an integral part of people’s lives and some of those people end up on TV. I also understand people of faith are flawed just like everyone else. But I’d rather live with my integrity intact and never be on screen again than be a Christian on TV doing more harm than good.
Ryan’s book of essays, I Really Like My Hands Today, is available now on Amazon.