What people learn best is not what their teachers think they teach, or what their preachers think they preach, but what their cultures in fact cultivate.
George Gerbner, 1972
With the eyes of the world spending more and more time on TV and computer screens what hope has religion got of keeping up its ‘ratings’. Integrating seems to be the most popular choice and Christians have proven that they are very good at. An entire movement has been spawned from this new age of “McDonaldization”. The evangelical Christian movement controls a significant portion of religious media.
This type of religion has been accused of providing no more answers than atheism, of being fundamentalist and close-minded and even of controlling the media. Tanya Levlin, former member of the Hillsong Church, set out to answer her questions about her religion in the book ‘Those in Glass Houses’. David Marr writes of her..
She set herself the task of explaining the inner workings of the most successful religious operation in Australia: the joy and despair of faith; the mass hypnosis of worship; the Jesus-centric remedies offered in Hillsong's outreach programs for drug addiction, domestic violence, unemployment and homosexuality; the ideological submission of women; and the bleeding of money from the faithful (2)
These workings that Levlin sets out to ‘expose’ all occur in the media also. Shows like Dr. Phil, Oprah and even reality TV like Big Brother or Wife Swap all have many of these same schemes. Another commonality with reality TV is that religious programs tend to be cheap to make. These shows often have their own channels so they are also not subjected to the same ratings expectations as standard TV. Therefore they not only save money in advertising but have a greater chance at longevity.
To further investigate the growing phenomenon I will review two current Christian television programs.
Give Me An Answer!
In an age where people are continually asking more and more difficult questions about the world around them does religion remain immune to this inquisition? Clearly someone doesn’t think so because ‘Give Me an Answer sets out to answer every question anyone had ever thought to ask about Christianity. It aims to answer the queries that Christians and non-Christians alike have about religion, God and the world. Although its primary target is Christian youth (people aged 15-25) by not shying away for the difficult questions ‘Give Me an Answer’ provides an element designed to attract people of all ages and belief systems.
Each show has a theme around which the questions are based and has two sections. First there is an open-air discussion in which the host, Cliffe Knechtle, invites questions from spectators and encourages discussion. This is usually conducted on a college campus somewhere in the USA. The second half of the show is a sermon but it is carefully portrayed to not give an overt feeling of lecturing. To add to the feeling of viewer participation the website allows anyone to submit a question they’d like ‘Cliffe’ to answer. You can also request that the show comes to your university to film. This format allows Knechtle to create chemistry between himself and the audience in two ways. Firstly during the open air discussion where he can connect directly with the target audience; secondly in the sermon his body and verbal language create a one-on-one feeling.
The ‘shock’ factor of the show, its format and host all secure it a place in the heart of questioning Christian youth. Despite this, or perhaps because if this, Give Me an Answer would have difficulty capturing anything outside of its very targeted audience.
Songs of Praise
As one of the longest running shows on the BBC ‘Songs of Praise’ is “a national institution” in Britain drawing a weekly audience of around 5 million viewers. The show has clearly found a niche market and a successful format and is sticking to its guns. Part of this format is timing, which the ABC has very placed at 11:30am on Sunday morning. Given that most of the audience are arriving home from church at this time it is a wise move.
Each week the show shoots in a different historically or spiritually significant location in the United Kingdom. The host will also attend a church service in the local area and the hymns sung in this service are the ‘songs of praise’ the title refers to. This tends to be a more traditional program than what is currently found on most Christian television. Although there are several different presenters on the show all of them tend to have several things in common. Many are famous in their own right, they are all Christians, educated and involve themselves with charities.
The show works for many reasons. Partly because it appeals to an audience for whom there are not many other shows out there. Songs of Praise also takes elements of other mediums and shows, combining them to create this wonderfully engaging and charming essence. It is part travel show, part reality show, part family show, part history channel and part old school British beauty and ingenuity. The ability to carry across international audiences is another contributing factor to its success.
Fore, William. Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture. SBS Press, New Haven. 1987. Viewed at http://www.religion-online.org/showchapter.asp?title=2236&C=2054
Marr, David. “Hillsong - The Church with No Answers.” The Sydney Morning Herald. August 4, 2007. Viewed at http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/hillsong--the-church-with-no-answers/2007/08/03/1185648145760.html
William Fore, Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture (SBS Press: New Haven, 1987) Chp. 4
David Marr, “Hillsong - The Church with No Answers”, The Sydney Morning Herald, August 4: 2007.