A Basic Cable Pontiff

by awindram

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A confession: I think I may be addicted to basic cable’s religious channels. One night of bored, insomnia-driven channel surfing was all it took; between infomercials for kitchenware starring Mr T,  I stumbled upon GOD TV [1] just as some poor soul, an overweight young woman in a Snoopy T-shirt, was “healed” of a nasty case of irritable bowel syndrome by a Faith Healer. Like all truly awful TV it had that perfect mix of the pathetic and the bathetic.  As someone who subscribes to the belief that you can learn much (perhaps too much) about a culture from watching its worst TV, I was transfixed. The Faith Healer shouted over the girl in the Snoopy T-shirt, laid his hands on her brow, and then, turning expertly to the camera and to applause from those at the gathering, pronounced her spastic colon cured in the name of the Lord. There was no waiting around to see if this spiritual laxative had worked its magic with her bowel movements. No, “you might want to give that a few minutes” instructions from the Faith Healer; just a smug pronouncement of his miraculous (and unverified) success while the poor girl was made to smile sheepishly before being shuffled out of camera shot.

And that was all it took to get me hooked on bad religious TV, and worryingly there’s no let up in the number of pushers willing to supply me with my divinely inspired, basic cable meth; alongside GOD TV one can be berated[2] 24 hours of the day by Daystar Television Network, The Christian Channel, Inspiration Channel, The WORD Network, Trinity Broadcast Network, World Harvest Network, etc.

However, sometimes a person needs more than just endless sermonizing and disappointingly it’s fairly unusual to stumble across a faith healing ceremony.  That’s how the mouthful that is the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) caught my attention. Established back in the 80s by a Franciscan nun called Mother Angelica,[3] EWTN is a Catholic[4] channel and, unlike many of its rival religious channels, it does try to be a bit more catholic[5] with its programming by making a genuine effort to make actual TV shows as opposed to merely filming a pastor giving a sermon.

Tuning into EWTN you may well stumble across a cartoon detailing the life of John Paul II or a children’s show called The Knights of Saint Michael [6]that contains awful skits as well as bizarre little bits of information said with frightening sincerity and conviction – “If you can get your family to pray together then your food will taste better”. If you have ever been curious as to what Oprah would be like hosted by a Friar pushing eighty there’s Sunday Night Live with Fr Benedict Groeschel . At times, things get so Father Ted-ish on EWTN you almost expect Priest Chat to come up during the commercial break. 

This past weekend EWTN’s focus was very much on Britain due to the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI and their coverage of this event saw a number of my interests (or pet peeves) converging: bad religious TV, patronizing “insight” about the UK from American journalists, and Catholicism.[7] Cramped in a small studio somewhere in Birmingham, Alabama was Raymond Arroyo, a journalist who looks alarmingly like Pee Wee Herman’s duller older brother and for whom the word unctuous could have been coined. Here he was joined by one Fr Sirico, a burly-looking priest you wouldn’t want to take on in an arm wrestle, and Joseph Pearce, a Catholic writer, who represented the coverage’s token British commentator. Together the three talked and pontificated[8] over a direct feed of the little Yoda lookalike’s comings and goings. And as they talked, it became very clear that they had a schizophrenic attitude to the UK, their own Catholic take on the familiar Fox News position: “It’s a great military ally, but you wouldn’t  want to live there – too many death panels.” EWTN’s version runs as: Britain has a great heritage…blah, blah, blah…but it has lost its way due to being a secular country…blah, blah, blah…there’s a strong tradition of anti-Catholic sentiment here…blah, blah, blah…this land would all still be Catholic if it wasn’t for Henry VIII’s loins.

Arroyo, smug in the delusion of his own intelligence reminded me increasingly of Edward Casaubon, the pompous and ultimately incorrect scholar from George Elliot’s Middlemarch. To Arroyo[9]the English Reformation is something that the modern secular Briton is not aware of. He recounts to Sirico and Pearce how he recently attended a dinner in Britain and was shocked to discover that those sat near him had no knowledge of the country’s Catholic past. Bullshit, Arroyo. Yes, there’s going to be dunces who have no idea, there probably the same sort of morons that have no grasp of history at all, just as Leno’s Jaywalking demonstrates that there are plenty of Americans who have no idea as to why they’re celebrating July 4th. These people are idiots. I’d wager anyone reasonably educated in the UK is, at the very least, aware of Henry VIII splitting with the Catholic Church and forming the Anglican Church because he wanted a divorce, even if it’s only through some dim remembered school lesson, or from having watched comedies such as Carry on Henry or Blackadder II. But Arroyo’s modus operandi seems to be to talk confidently without going to the trouble of doing actual research. If we were to believe Arroyo then Cardinal Wolsey lived in Lambeth Palace and not Hampton Court Palace, Cherie Blair is in fact Cherie Brown (I had no idea that the Blair – Brown deal also included an informal clause on wife swapping) and that there is a political position called the Prime Minister of England (not sure what happens with the other home nations) and it’s occupied not by David Cameron, but by Nick Clegg who Arroyo seems to labour under the misapprehension is David Cameron. Sterling work there, Raymond.

But, for me, the most fascinating aspect was listening to the token Brit, Joseph Pearce. A convert to Catholicism and a British expat living in the States, everything he said seemed to be underscored by what is clearly a troubled relationship with the country of his birth. Pearce has little time for modern-day Britain, a nation that he claimed had lost its way, a nation he claimed as broken by “soft, secular fundamentalism”. The Britain, or perhaps that should be England, that Pearce spoke reverentially of was an idyll of a mythical Catholic England. I should note, and indeed this was why I was so fascinated by his remarks, is that Pearce before converting to Catholicism was a member of the National Front and served two prison sentences in the 80s after being convicted under the Race Relations Act of 1976. To Pearce’s credit he is open about his past and I suppose we all have youthful indiscretions we now look back on with regret; mine was thinking I looked dapper in a lime-green sweater, his was becoming an active member of a Neo-Nazi White Power movement. Now a Catholic professor he has replaced his image of England from being a nation yearning over a lost empire and subsequent loss of pride with that of an England that has consistently failed to take up its Catholic inheritance. In both cases, this is an England that is not inclusive of all. In both cases, this is an England that exists, and only ever existed, thankfully, in Pearce’s head. 

1 GOD TV is, in fact, fairly new to the US and is the brain child of British Christian evangelists.
2 Yes, berate. My late-night viewing habits mean that I am only interested in the most hectoring and bizarre of preachers, though, in mitigation, it would seem that only the most obnoxious examples of preachers from each denomination get to have a shot at basic cable stardom.
3 As a nun-cum-media mogul, Mother Angelica could be described as being half Rupert Murdoch and half Mother Theresa – a frankly terrifying thought.
4 Note the big C.
5 Note the small C.
6 Imagine Why Don’t You, but hosted by intensely religious kids.  Or, if you’re American, imagine Nickeloden’s All That, but stridently religious.
7 Yes, I did have a Catholic upbringing and education so no matter how hard I scrub I can never entirely wash away all the Catholic guilt, nor have I lost the ability to recite the apostolic creed at the drop of a Bishop’s mitre. I’m a culturally Catholic agnostic.
8 It’s up to you whether you want to class that as a pun or not.
9 As Arroyo isn’t just the lead anchor, but also the producer of this broadcast, I think the fault for his failure to adequately do research lies very much with him.

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