Deconstructing televangelism

IN Books | 22/03/2011
The Hoot book review: It is evident from both the books that Christian evangelism has converted the world into a global village based on religion. In the process it has also influenced other religions and been influenced by them.


Jonathan D. James, McDonaldisation, Masala McGospel and Om Economics
SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd, 2010. Hardback, Rs. 595. pp. 240

Pradip Ninan Thomas, Strong Religion, Zealous Media: Christian Fundamentalism and Communication in India
SAGE Publications India Pvt. Ltd, 2008. Hardback, Rs. 495. pp. 208

McDonaldisation, Masala McGospel and Om Economics and Strong Religion, Zealous Media, published within two years of each other, focus on the growth of evangelism in India especially with the use of different media platforms. Jonathan James and Pradip Ninan Thomas, believe that the rapidity with which evangelism has grown in India is unprecedented. Christian channels dominate the media landscape, which is remarkable, because Christians were only 2.3% of the population, according to the Census of 2001.

 James argues that televangelists are familiar with and exploit various media tools expertly, to reach out spiritually to their congregations with their sermons as well as garner support and donations for their ministry. “Almost all programming has a ‘multi modal’ flavour because products (CDs, DVDs, books, anointed handkerchiefs and religious jewellery) are promoted for sale and viewers are encouraged to download messages and other information, or to purchase products from the respective websites like God TV’s Godshop. …Eight out of ten televangelistic programmes have a local telephone number for prayer and product purchase and some have a 24-hour prayer line.  About 5-15 minutes of air time half-hour programme are spent raising funds and asking for donations on specific projects.” (p.107)  Not surprisingly James's research reveals that thirty-five per cent of Indian pastors (Charismatic and non-Charismatic) attributed the Charismatic influence in India to the media, and named television as a key agent in this whole process. According to them, the influence could be anywhere between 50-60 per cent. (p.106, 136)
McDonaldisation, Masala McGospel and Om Economics attempts a critical interpretation of charismatic televangelism. It seeks to understand “the hybrid phenomenon of Charismatic televangelism and its impact and influence on the Protestant Church and Hindu community in contemporary, urban India” from the perspective of the Christian and Hindu leaders. (p.xviii, 44). James draws parallels between televangelism and the McDonald food chain. McDonalds is commercially successful all over the world because it has learnt to be 'glocal,' i.e., adapt its menus to different cultures by keeping in mind religious sentiments and popular food preferences.  James points out that televangelism is similarly glocal.  
In Strong Religion, Zealous Media, on the other hand, Thomas argues that Christian fundamentalists, like their Islamic counterparts, belong to a "global umma and harbour real and imagined, even delusional, longings directed towards making all of God's people Christian." (p. xv) He sees the rise of televangelism coinciding with the global war on terror that is conflated with the war on fundamentalism--a trend especially noticeable in the USA today. It has resulted in the mushrooming of think tanks, symposia, organizations, conferences etc world-wide with a keen interest in the growth of fundamentalism. He believes that the media has been complicit and has at times played a key role in the "manufacture of and creation of stereotypes, and functions as a conduit for the transmission of tropes from official sources--'Islamofascism' and the 'axis of evil', to name just two signifiers that have global currency today. This "crusadic dimension of religious fundamentalism today is a reality that cannot be downplayed" (p.4-5).

Both authors agree that there are plenty of media avenues available for evangelism. These include dedicated 24-hour television and radio channels as well as secular channels which have space for religion-based programmes. Some of these are

1. Doordarshan, with its religion specific specific programmes like Ramayana and Life of Christ.
2. Transnational satellite channels like God TV, Miraclenet, DayStar and Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), which are available on cable TV.
3. Indigenous cable channels like Blessing TV, Angel TV, Aastha , Sanskar TV and Jeevan TV
4. Secular cable channels like Zee, Star and Maa.
5. Radio broadcasts like Prem Vani  and Brother Dinakaran’s Jesus Calls Ministries that are available over Far Eastern Broadcasting Corporation (FEBC) and Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC)
6. The Internet

It is evident from both the books that Christian evangelism has converted the world into a “global village” based on religion. In the process it has also influenced other religions and been influenced by them. It has also had an impact on the preaching styles of non-Christians. “Content analysis revealed that 90 per cent of all Charismatic programmes are based on the genre of ‘straight preaching’.” (James, p.106)  Some of the more popular Hindu televangelists are Divya Maharaas Leela, Baba Ramdev, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, and Sonalia Guswari who have also established business empires akin to Bill Graham, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyers and Brother Dinakaran.

The books have fascinating analytical insights into evangelism and media in India, but they are also disturbing in one respect. Both authors have chosen to locate the Christian evangelists within the Protestant denomination alone, as if this was the only sort of Christianity in India using media. Secondly, they seem to use “Pentecostal”, “neo-Pentecostal” and “Charismatic” Christians interchangeably as if their common factor was that they are outside the mainstream church denominations. In fact, Pentecostals are a denomination and though they are not one church, they are loosely connected with one theology. They take baptism by the Holy Spirit very seriously and are in their worship and teachings very early church. Almost all Pentecostals are Charismatic but not all Charismatics are Pentecostals. So you can have Roman Catholic or Anglican Charismatics.

Charismatic Christianity is more a movement that takes the role and place of the Holy Spirit (the third aspect of the Trinity) very seriously. They too believe in baptism of the spirit and often their worship is lively and musical. But they are not one and the same. Mainstream churches prefer to see them as one wing of the church and refer to them as EPC churches or EPIC churches (Evangelical, Pentecostal, Independent and Charismatic) as they all have so much in common besides being the fastest growing wing of the churches. It is anticipated that if not already, EPIC churches will be in ten years a majority in Christianity. In fact, some people play it safe and are Protestant (or Catholic) in the morning and go to Pentecostal churches in the evening (a reality in America).

Thirdly, it is also distressing to note that the trend of televangelism has been decontextualized. It has not been seen in relation to a specific socio-economic and cultural milieu. The authors focus on the rapidity with which these movements are gaining popularity in the country across religions, and it is true that it was possible for these channels to establish themselves post-liberalization in 1991. Yet, it was exactly this economic liberalization that led to a breakdown in the well-established and recognized socio-economic structures and created such a churning in people’s lives, a loss of stability. Spiritual sustenance is one way of being able to cling to some sense of normalcy, routine, hope and giving the sense of belonging to a community. Historically it has been seen, whether in eighteenth century England or late nineteenth and early twentieth century America, that fundamental evangelical movements gained strength when the societies went through socio-eco-political turmoil. Industrialization saw the rise of enthusiastic forms of Christianity and mass preaching. It gave dignity and solace to those who had no other support from parish churches or the taste. Even Marx recognized this. Charismatic evangelism is its latest avatar in the current period of rapid and unsettling change.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is a publishing consultant and critic. 

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