Scott “There Goes Cryin’ ” Simon, NPR Nation’s reliably lachrymose Saturday morning sentimentalist, spent a tellingly lengthy, as well as tellingly mild, chunk of the show today conducting the full range of what public radio recognizes as religious discussion. On the one hand, in a segment entitled with gratuitous obsequiousness “Oral Roberts Leaves Personal Miracles Behind,” there were the red state red meat Oral Roberts adherents, who happen to be true believers in some rather specific and rather extreme doctrines. One of them claimed he was, as a child, on the receiving end of an actual healing miracle. (WTF? Is this NPR or CBN!?) And in this corner, representing the blue states, there was Mitch Albom, who declared his admiration for a more Krista Tippett sort of faith, where it’s the faith journey that’s good in and of itself, pretty much regardless of what the beliefs are or how sincerely they are ultimately accepted by their professors.
And that’s really the problem. The latter makes it impossible to robustly interrogate the former. A lack of confidence in one’s own belief system, something of which I’ve accused the public radio upper middlebrow intellectual ecosystem many times before, makes it impossible to offer thoroughgoing coverage of a subject.
An interview subject on a news program needs to be challenged, or what’s the point of having the interview? I admit, Scott soft-balled a question along the lines of “what if your miracle was just a coincidental recovery from an allergic reaction,” but that’s really, really not good enough. A leisurely 30 second googling of the Oral Roberts empire of Elmer Gantry charlatanism will yield untold treasures for the journalist wanting to talk about something of importance.
Here are a few suggested topics that are immediately relevant to Robert’s death:
- What is the prosperity gospel? Is it uniquely American? What does it say about us as a country? Did it contribute to our recent economic downturn?
- There is a spectrum of prosperity gospel purveyors. On one extreme you have Nigerian mountebank “pastors” who are so evil they cause little boys to be murdered in order to increase their own notoriety as witch hunters and thereby raise more money from their gullible flocks. On the other extreme, I assume, you may find sincerely misguided leaders who honestly think god will improve your material circumstances to reward faith and, of course, tithing. Where on this spectrum did Oral Roberts sit? (By the way NPR never covered the “little boy witches” story even though it’s perfect for Gwen Thompkins.)
- Pentecostalism is growing rapidly all over the world. What is it? Why is it becoming so popular?
- And so much more…
But instead of taking on these kinds of questions we get the standard kid glove treatment. Barbara Bradley Hagerty‘s not going to ask them. All she could bring herself to do in her unenlightening and pointless obituary was give him credit for reinventing televangelism and mention briefly his too-notorious-to-ignore-even-for-Barbara claim that god would kill him if he didn’t raise $8 million.
Krista Tippet’s not going to ask them. “Prosperity gospel” is barely mentioned on the Speaking of Faith website. You’d think they’d get around to that a few episodes before Ambian-outmoding esoterica like “Re imagining Sitting Bull“. (Or maybe “Sitting Bull” is a yoga posture? That would explain it.)
Why are they doing such a piss-poor job of this? There are two reasons. First, there is the aforementioned dearth of cojones as either journalists or philosophers that results in an inability to really take on these subjects. Second, they think discussions of religion that are anything other than “nice” are dangerous and unpleasant so they simply choose to pretend that religious activities and ideas that aren’t nice don’t exist.
For an alternative treatment of Oral Robert’s death I strongly recommend Karen Spears Zacharias‘ take on it. She, herself a faithful believer in a teleology a bit more specific and full throated than Karen Armstrongian Neo/Pseudo/Crypto deism, has absolutely no problem calling it like it is. But I don’t think you’ll hear anything like this on public radio, especially not on Speaking of Faaaaaith.
Come on Scott, I know you’d love to interview her. After all, she’s been mentioned in the same log roll with Fanny Flagg, one of your favorites I’m certain.
As a side note I’d like to thank “Entertainment Weekly” reviewer Jennifer Reese for describing Albom as setting “tough new standards for sticky sentimentality [and] insipid moralizing” in “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”. That’s right, a glossy excuse for movie and cosmetics ads puts Weekend Edition to shame, even at the risk of alienating an advertiser.
Public Radio could really use a bit more of this kind of attitude, which is only found on “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” and “On The Media,” and then all too infrequently and inconsistently. I mean I understand the semi-ironic impetus for having on Andy Williams at Christmas time, but come on. The guy said Obama’s a Marxist who wants our country to fail. Now those are fightin’ words which, and this is the point, invite the same, not misty memories of watching Christmas specials last century.