“If you believe you’re playing well because you’re getting laid, or because you’re not getting laid, or because you wear women’s underwear, then you ARE! And you should KNOW that!”

So sayeth the great sage Crash Davis in the great film Bull Durham, which contains so many of the answers to life’s mysteries.

That scene would be worth watching just to hear Susan Sarandon spit out the words “English 101 and Beginning Composition.” But it’s so much more than that.

“Come on, Annie, think of something clever to say,” Crash continues while Annie stands there stunned. “Something full of magic, religion, bullshit. Come on, dazzle me.”

(Wait a minute, Beau. Didn’t a decade at USA TODAY cure you of these indirect, anecdotal leads? Isn’t this a post about some Christian book?)

Sorry, but this one’s a journey, not a destination. It’s all about exploring the mysteries of faith in unlikely places.

Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber explored such mysteries in one of the unlikeliest places of them all. She watched 24 hours of televangelical cable network TBN and wrote about it in Salvation on the Small Screen?: 24 Hours of Christian Television. She followed up a few years later with Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People, which I’ll have to read next.

Some people in my church’s adult forum would surely say Bolz-Weber herself is an unusual person in whom to find God. We’ve seen two videos of hers in the terrific “Animate” series, and some of my fellow congregants are still struggling to get past her snarky Gen X tone and all her tattoos. (To be fair, we’re not the most diverse group. I’m often the youngest person in the room. Some people in the room are suspicious of everything from Islam to yoga. I haven’t managed to tell them about all the mainline and evangelical Christians in my yoga classes. I’m not big on tattoos, either, but if I got any, I’d put my kids’ names on my ankles so I could read them as a reward for doing yoga.)

So the hook for her book is obvious — it’s a study in contrast between a well-educated liberal Lutheran and the snake-oil salespeople who peddle the 21st century equivalent of Catholic indulgences (perhaps not coincidentally, a practice torn asunder by Luther himself — and also taken up by WKRP).

Bolz-Weber possesses a formidable wit. A couple of her best quips:

With the litany of multi-million-dollar corporate jets and mansions owned by the likes of White and Creflo Dollar, the Crouches (TBN founders), and many other prosperity preachers, I’m beginning to become convinced that the income earned by preachers on TBN is inversely proportional to the amount of theological education completed.

(You may know Creflo Dollar from John Oliver’s televangelist takedown a few months ago.)

I’m not sure the word “literally” means what she thinks it means because, Paula honey, no matter how much Pentecostal you sprinkled on your breakfast cereal this morning, I’m still sure you don’t really believe we literally turn into seafaring vessels. …

There’s a great episode of the animated sitcom King of the Hill in which thirteen-year-old Bobby joins a Christian rock band. His dad, Hank, says, “Bobby, you’re not making Christianity better, son. You’re just making rock and roll worse.” I’m with Hank.

But she’s also smart enough to make this something other than a solo venture. A parade of spiritually diverse people takes turns watching with her, offering some banter and occasionally some enlightenment.

And so Salvation goes beyond its hook of a progressive Christian version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, especially when Bolz-Weber and her guests start questioning whether they can learn anything from what they’re seeing.

TBN’s target audience isn’t me or Bolz-Weber. It’s people who have a longing for something that isn’t being addressed elsewhere. Bolz-Weber and some of her fellow clergy understand that their “mainline” churches too often aren’t filling this need. They’re not even getting out and visiting their elderly, unhealthy congregants, some of whom end up watching TBN so they can get a sense of belonging.

The TBN theology may not be sound, but it’s seductive. If you believe what TBN is selling, you get a sense of real-life spiritual struggle — and you’re on the winning team!

Is that such a bad thing? Bolz-Weber grapples with that question and even wonders whether she has any right to criticize the frequent calls for cash on the network when she and her husband survive on the money their churches pay them. She’s probably a little hard on herself — her “expensive jeans” are surely far cheaper than Benny Hinn’s weekly makeup bill, and her NPR coffee mug is certainly not the equivalent of the baubles TBN peddles — but she hits upon some intriguing thoughts along the way:

While maintaining that the prosperity gospel, the rapture, and Christian Zionism (all TBN fare) are up there with the selling of indulgences and the existence of purgatory as the stinkiest Christian ideas in history, I still must admit that God’s redeeming work in the world does not happen only when we get all the theology and method right. …

My full immersion into the world of TBN and a Christianity that can seem like it’s from another planet entirely, rather than strengthening my confidence in the sufficiency of my own tradition, has actually weakened it. I see the holes.

TBN’s faith is ripe with paradox. The faith healing of Benny Hinn, which even Bolz-Weber’s most conciliatory friend sees as scripted, relies on a tricky bit of psychology. Your brain can indeed be trained to block out pain and appear to be “healed.” But you have to believe in it, which is difficult when it’s so easy to poke holes in Hinn’s show.

Education. Always getting in the way.

So the question we have to ask here: Is this sort of faith harmless? Even helpful? If, as Crash Davis said, we’re winning because we’re getting laid or not getting laid or buying some sort of trinket from a TBN preacher, then is that victory worthwhile?

At times, certainly not. TBN’s “news” shows peddle dangerous propaganda, stirring up prejudices. If we’re winning, then someone must be losing, right? Or we must be defeating someone — Israel’s enemies, Muslims, homosexuals, liberals, etc.

But Bolz-Weber’s theology holds that we are all “saints and sinners.” That includes Muslims, liberals, drug addicts … and TBN preachers.

Some people are just watching for the entertainment value. My childhood theology was a little tangled — a lot of Anglicanism, a bit of pantheism, a few weeks at a YMCA camp that taught us to be good little Christians by beating the crap out of each other — and yet my biochemist father still occasionally watched the TV preachers for the fun of it.

But it’s still frightening to think some people watch this without Bolz-Weber to illuminate the theological nightmares of Joel Osteen’s “magic prosperity piñata” or the notion that some soldiers survive because of our prayers while others die because … we didn’t pray enough?

So this book is necessary. And hopefully not just preaching to the choir.

Other notes:

  • Salvation is a surprisingly sloppy book, particularly in the Kindle version I read with disjointed formatting. I wonder what it would take to produce a new edition. Maybe sell a few of TBN’s Faberge eggs?
  • John Oliver shut down Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption because people were sending semen. You know … seed.
  • I couldn’t find the clever Genesis Jesus He Knows Me video on YouTube, but it’s on Daily MotionI don’t know what’s sadder — the fact that it’s not on YouTube (or MTV’s site, unless you get around the geoblocking) or the fact that it’s still so apt.