Okay, so, it’s probably become painfully apparent to all that I wasn’t on Praise The Lord. Or rather, I was not on the main TBN version of the program. If you set your DVRs hoping to catch me talking about Jesus to whoever was hosting, sorry. This misunderstanding was entirely mine.
I was, however, a guest on the local version of Praise The Lord put on here in Indianapolis as part of their local praise-a-thon (think pledge season for you public radio listeners). I was one of four guests, and it was an amazing experience! It didn’t feel like 18 minutes on television! And even though we blew our wad to get here, and the exposure was minimal — really, Indianapolis — I still think it was worth it. Jennifer says I am a natural on television, though she would.
Me? I want to do more of this. Please, God.
I’ve been watching some TBN is preparation for this. It’s been instructive. Aesthetically, I find TBN to be a bit gauche, part of that great middle American, aspirational chuck of pentecostalism that comes out of the Assemblies of God. (Actually, it’s interesting, the Saudi royals tend to decorate their public spaces in a similar style.) It’s experiential, rooted primarily in scripture, and focuses on stories and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
To be honest, I fit right in. I need liturgy, but something like this is probably where I belong.
Like a lot of folks from the liberal end of the religious spectrum, I’m tended to look down on the kind of religion expressed by TBN. But as I have watched, in preparation for my interview, I’ve noticed a couple of things.
First, TBN tries very hard to keep things upbeat. It is not an outrage machine like Fox News. They don’t want their viewers angry, they want them hopeful and faithful. The focus on the healing and redeeming work of God, that Christ changes lives. When it veers into political subjects — like the Middle East, or America’s culture wars — there is some sadness but always the sincere conviction that God can and will change things. This may come off as passive to some ardent conservative culture warriors, but this really is a message of hopeful and faithful trust in the power of God not simply to change and redeem a culture, but to deliver people out a corrupted and murderous society. This is no small thing, and something worth paying some attention to.
Second, guests and hosts on TBN talk a lot about Grace. I hadn’t expected that. But it is an almost never-ending focus on the redeeming power of Christ — that his life, death, and resurrection are bigger than sin, death, and despair. That no life is so far gone that God cannot take hold of that life and use it to His purposes, to witness to a kingdom that is greater than the world. Again, this is no small thing. I have theological issues with TBN — I’m not a zionist, and I dislike a theology which says if you put a nickel into God, you will get a dollar (or whatever) back. I’ve never liked “God as a cosmic slot machine” theology. But at least in TBN’s original programming, that’s fairly minimal.
Third, conservative Christians (especially those from a Pentecostal background) do multi-ethnic and multi-racial ministry way better than liberal Christians can even begin to conceive. One of the guests was an African American pastor here in Indy, and the singer, Sharon Roshell, was not just a black girl, but a big black girl at that! (She has an amazing voice!) From what I’ve watched, and my short time at the Indianapolis affiliate, this seems unforced, and even unconscious. Which shouldn’t surprise anyone, as Pentecostalism has always been that form of American Christianity most open to integration and even breaking some gender roles.
Lastly, to be blunt, they’ve taken my story seriously. And so far, no other group of Christians has. (In fact, my story, as you all likely know at this point, got me kicked out of the ELCA.) I don’t know what to make of that — my book is an interesting story, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, well-written, a romp across the world, insightful, detailed, and a little profane. It ought to be the kind of thing Nadia Boltz-Weber’s fans should eagerly embrace. It ought to be the kind of book (with my observations on race in America, my fairly liberal attitudes toward my former faith of Islam) that thoughtful, liberal Christians would call their own.
And yet here I am, sitting in a cafe in Indianapolis, broke and unemployed and very nearly homeless. The only people paying any kind of attention to my book are those for the central story — meeting Jesus, and how that has changed my life — are those for whom that story is real. Tangible. Visceral. Something they know in their bones.
Honestly, that tells me something. Something I need to ponder.
After the show, several of the other guests came up to thank me for my “amazing testimony.” But one pastor, David Taylor of Joshua Media Ministries, came up, took my hand and hugged me, and said something I’d never heard before. “You’ve got the fire! You’ve been baptized with fire!”
Later, as we walked to the car, Jennifer looked at me.
“Baptized with fire! No wonder you frightened the Lutherans.”
No wonder indeed.