This morning, the batteries on my iPod Shuffle ran out (in the middle of an episode of Tales of the Texas Rangers I think, though I can’t be sure, since I drifted in and out of sleep as I listened) and so I was forced to listen to AM 1710 Antioch on my iPhone (BBC World Service runs Sports World on Saturday mornings; while it’s the BBC, sports are still sports, even on the BBC), a little radio and Internet station in Antioch, Illinois that plays Old Time Radio shows around the clock.
This morning it was Family Theater, an anthology program that ran ten years on the Mutual Radio network from 1947 to 1957. This is the high water mark of American Christendom, and the program reflects its grounding in the Family Rosary Crusade and the desire to encourage family prayer. “The family that prays together, stays together,” is the program’s motto. In case you’ve heard it but had no idea where it came from.
As radio dramas go, it’s not bad. AM 1710 Antioch does two in a row of these half-hour shows, and this morning it was Mel Blanc playing Pinocchio (sounding just like Bugs Bunny, and complete with a host of cartoon references) and then a drama about a newlywed who adopts an orphaned eight-year-old boy from a Catholic orphanage (the man himself was a war orphan in Belgium in 1918, and his young wife is not happy or comfortable with the adoption until the young boy rescues her in an accident — it’s the unloved-until-he’s-a-hero
lie story that I really, really hate).
Family Theater doesn’t try to hide its catholicism — this is, after all, the decade in which Roman Catholics finally became full-fledged, good and proper Americans — but it doesn’t play up the particular aspects of Catholicism either. Prayer is fairly generic here, and it’s one reason I suspect Family Rosary Crusade produced this show under the aegis of Family Theater Productions. Protestants likely wouldn’t have listened otherwise.
This is, in many ways, the very anodyne and meaningless mid-century Christendom I so abhor. Religion is all about social value and social use here. It’s all about how we behave. Now, don’t get me wrong, the behavior being modeled and encouraged here is all good — tolerance, kindness, forbearance, mercy, forgiveness, trust, love. But it isn’t grounded in anything specific. It isn’t grounded in anything God does for us.
It’s not as bad as the public service announcements which suggest that believing in God and attending church every week are the answers to juvenile delinquency. And, to be honest, if the world really worked this way, it wouldn’t be a bad world to live in, a world where orphans are cared for and everyone belongs.
But this generic Christianity is a Christianity without a real story. It’s rudderless not because it doesn’t tell people how to live — it does almost nothing but that — but because it doesn’t really tell them who (and whose) they are. It doesn’t help people meet Jesus. Not really. You cannot have one without the other, and I suspect Christendom for so long assumed the call of God, and God’s assembling the community of followers, that it no longer needed to describe or explain that. It no longer needed to tell that story.
Here’s the problem with that — when life got tough, and the order frayed, without the story of God meeting us, there was no finding the presence of God, or trying to distill meaning from struggle. Problems are overcome — Pinocchio becomes a boy, the young wife finally accepts her adopted son — and all live happily ever after. Because they pray and stay together.
And God looks down upon the world, smiling. All is well.
The world is tougher than the happy stories we tell. (Yes, my bias is showing through here. I do not like stories with happy endings. They strike me as false, as lies.) And faith needs to be tougher as well. Our love needs to be grounded in something very specific — God’s very real sacrificial love for us. And that in itself is grounded in a very real event, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
Because often times, there are no happy endings.
As powerful as the civic was and is, it still chokes on the story of Jesus. No doubt Family Theater wanted as positive a message as possible to as widespread an audience as possible, and too much Jesus, or too specific a Jesus, would get in the way of that (this is Family Theater, and not Unshackled!). But that itself was — and is — the problem.