I had to buy this book after reading an excerpt from it in Geez magazine. Yes, it’s another one of those “I picked some bizarre challenge and wrote a book about it” memoirs (and yes, it has a front cover blurb from A.J. Jacobs — does this guy spend all his time writing cover blurbs now? Will he do one for me?). But the premise here is irresistible to me — and Nadia Bolz-Weber, a self-described heavily tattooed Lutheran minister who’s engaged in starting an edgy, alternative, inclusive church community — only gives up 24 hours of her life. (Actually, it’s technically 48, because she has to repeat the experience due to a hard-drive crash. But she only writes about the second 24 hour period, the one that counts).
The challenge? Hipster liberal Christian Bolz-Weber volunteers to watch 24 hours of evangelical Christian television on TBN. Her responses to it, and the conversations she has with the friends who drop over to watch with her, are funny and insightful (although, as she herself admits, they get less insightful as she gets closer to the end of 24 hours of uninterrupted TV viewing).
Much of what she discovers is predictable, as are her reactions. The extreme right-wing political bias, the shameless shilling for money, the cheesy production values — all to be expected. What’s a little more surprising to Bolz-Weber and to the reader is the homogenous nature of the message — almost every show she watches preaches some version of a health-and-wealth prosperity gospel, with very little input from any other view of Christianity. Also surprising is the lack of emphasis on Jesus — though His name is often invoked, Bolz-Weber finds few references to His life, His teachings, or even His death or resurrection (and she carefully tallies mentions of Jesus, along with Bible texts and dollar values of all gift offers, after each show).
Perhaps even more surprising are the few moments when Bolz-Weber, a master of snark, finds herself genuinely moved and unable to snark. These rare moments include an interview with quadriplegic Joni Eareckson Tada (as well as some other disabled Christians), and the moment when Bolz-Weber somewhat mockingly calls the prayer line and finds herself being prayed for by a genuine and concerned Christian.
In some ways, the conclusion here is similar to that of Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple, and as with that book, will be no surprise to those of us who are on the “inside” of the conservative Christian world. There’s a lot of crazy, there’s a lot of bad theology, there’s a lot of hypocrisy. But there are also a lot of sincere, loving believers. Nadia Bolz-Weber has no problem rejecting and disapproving of a lot of what she sees on TBN. But she also finds herself forced to accept, somewhat reluctantly, that just as “God blessed both Sarah and Hagar,” God may be active through flawed and imperfect Christians not just in her emerging, gay-friendly community, but also through the evangelicals and evangelists on TBN.
In other words, Christianity is messy, because Christians are human. We can disagree with each other, but there is common ground to be found — maybe even on TV.