It was the time before everyone had cell phones, CDs, or PCs; the world was clearly defined by television and the people on it. On television, everything seemed so intoxicatingly simple. Hungry souls in sixty-three countries watched us daily on the Christian Broadcast Network’s flagship show, The 700 Club with Pat Robertson. Miracles popped up everywhere, slickly documented by our crack team of producers in some of the best equipped broadcast studios in the world. Our viewers loved us. They prayed with us and sent us money. We were rock stars for Jesus, the ministers of joy, examples to the world of the Christian life. That was the simple story in front of the camera. But it was the hustle of reality behind the camera where simple answers broke down and the questions just kept on coming.
The collision of simplicity and complexity began in slow motion, picking up speed as the days and months progressed. It began in our home the day Kai’s eyes were red and bloodshot, when he slopped his coffee over the floor and walked through the spill without noticing.
In the past few years, Kai’s health had slumped along with his insurance career. He decided to start up his own financial consulting business. While he continued to make phone calls, traveled a good deal, and spent a lot of money on all the trappings of success (expensive clothes, a Cadillac, a personal secretary), his behavior had become erratic. He was moody and tired all the time. Kai was a tall, elegant Swedish man, twenty-two years my senior, but lately, I felt more like his mother than his wife, worrying about him and what he might do next. I was a whiz at saving souls on TV, but I seemed to be at a loss when it came to saving the man in my life.
That morning, the bloodshot eyes and slopped coffee raised red flags for me. I knew there was a problem; there were always problems. Whatever it was this time, I would fix it later. Right now I had to be off to work. I had a television show to do. Little did I realize how quickly life at home was spinning out of control.
In my CBN dressing room that morning, our invaluable team, Olivia and Linda, were busy blow-drying my hair and applying my make-up. Their support and cheerfulness each morning went a long way to bolstering my confidence in my new position at CBN and we had become good friends. Terry Heaton, the producer, walked in pinching back his shoulders as if to loosen the stiffness in his neck, his blue suit buckling around the collar. He handed me the show’s format, a bundle of papers outlining the program minute by minute. “You introduce the first piece, about Marilyn Crow, an American Indian woman healed of breast cancer after she prayed with you and Pat last year. Then there’s a satellite interview with Senator Orrin Hatch about prayer in schools, new legislation and all that, and then you interview Bonnie Malone who wrote this book on prosperity according to biblical principles.” Terry plunked the book on my lap, jerked his shoulders again. “See you in Pat’s dressing room in ten minutes?” He brandished a smile, trying to keep things light, but he left wringing his hands.
After Olivia and Linda finished prepping, dressing, styling, and powdering me, all three of us moved to Pat’s dressing room down the hall. One wall was filled with mirrors, the other with pictures of celebrities who made their way to the show: Johnny Cash, Pat Boone, and Billy Graham, among many others. Three high-backed make-up chairs with red vinyl upholstery faced a single television monitor. I found a chair next to Ben’s. Besides being the regular cohost on the show, he was vice-president of Operation Blessing, the charitable outreach program of the ministry. “Hi, Blondie,” he said. Ben was a handsome six-foot-four African American who always wore cowboy boots, a vestige of his grounding in Uvalde, Texas. His bronze skin was dappled with freckles; his smoky Afro and moustache matched a ledge of thick eyebrows. A white make-up towel hung across his chest.
“Hi, Kinch. How’s it going this morning?”
“Super,” I lied, not letting on my concerns at home.
“Tremendous,” Ben gushed with a seemingly bottomless well of joy. “Seen the Baptist this morning?”
Just then Pat Robertson blew into the dressing room, a portly thundercloud in a dark gray suit. The very walls seemed to stand up straighter as the room snapped to attention.
“Speak of the devil. How you doin’ this mornin’, Pat?” Ben’s easy charm broke the ice and you could almost feel the walls relax.
Pat slammed into his chair and tilted his face up for the make-up towel. “Just got our statements in from last year.” He leaned forward as Linda chased his chin with a sponge, his eyes squinting with excitement. “Do you realize we took in close to $300 million last year?”
Ben blew a low whistle.
“Three hundred million!” Pat pumped a fist in the air.
Ben slapped his hands together. “That’s amazin’, man.”
“God is blessing us, there’s no doubt about it.” Pat closed his eyes and settled back in the chair as Linda dabbed his ashen face to warm beige.
“Praise the Lord,” Ben said. I wondered if beneath his overt delight, Ben was really all that enthusiastic about what was essentially Pat’s empire. But then again, he would appreciate the funds since his Operation Blessing department helped deliver books and Bibles and built churches and schools around the world.
“Wow,” I said, trying to wrap my brain around that kind of money.
“You see,” Pat leaned past Olivia, missing the hairspray that lacquered the air where his head had been, “if we ask God for anything, the Bible says He’ll answer.” Pat wagged a finger pointing to heaven and silently mouthed the words, Three hundred million.
“You know a Gallup poll showed the number one problem among Christians is loneliness? Well, we cut right through that loneliness with the Word of God. And He’s blessed us.” Pat sat back under Olivia’s hairbrush.
I thought of Detroit and Pittsburgh and the hundreds of other places I had preached and the lonely faces I saw there. I wondered if Christian TV hadn’t fostered that isolation, giving a false sense of community without the human touch. But I didn’t say that. I wondered if people who looked for God on TV grew accustomed to getting tidy answers to life’s messy questions in sound bites. I wondered if God really wanted celebrities as Jesus stand-ins. And why did God answer CBN’s prayers for money but not my father’s wartime prayers for peace, or my alcoholic husband’s prayers for peace of mind? But I didn’t say that either. I didn’t say anything.
There was no denying the fact that people seemed compelled to give to the television ministry. Every dollar was a vote of confidence. And millions of dollars poured in. Superficial answers to complex questions eliminated any shade of gray and gave comfort in an increasingly uncomfortable, complicated world. It was just good business. Why should people pay money to a ministry that doesn’t deliver the goods?
Part of delivering the goods came with a cosmetic price tag—targeting the Jesus demographic, essentially white people between twenty-five and forty-five who found the Lord, improved their lives, and radiated health and wholeness. All CBN producers clearly understood that Christianity was to be synonymous with attractiveness. Their stories often concluded with a request for a donation to the ministry. The mantra “If you give, you will get” was a powerful motive to be a good Christian.
Terry came into the room carrying a pile of videocassettes for us to preview ahead of the day’s program. He popped the first tape in the playback deck; it showed a couple who couldn’t make their house payments, choosing instead to donate $100 to CBN. God returned the favor: the husband got a new job and the wife received a windfall inheritance. Soon, they owned their home.
Pat nodded. Terry sighed an audible relief.
“Next,” Pat said, staring impatiently at the dark monitor as Terry slid in the next videocassette.
“This is the story of a woman who was healed by the Word of God. She was a paraplegic, but is now able to get around in a wheelchair—”
Pat leapt from his chair and tugged the towel out from under his collar. “Brother, I thought we talked about this. No wheelchairs! No crutches! No nothin’! God heals perfectly, every time. We can’t show half-healings. That’s half-faith.” He threw the towel at the chair. Linda and Olivia quickly retreated from the room.
“But Pat, God can heal us a little bit at a time, too.” Terry wrung his hands. “I mean, the woman couldn’t move her arms and now—”
“No. No. And no. No wheelchairs. Period.” Pat stood glaring at the monitor, waiting in judgment for Terry’s next installment of divine healing. There was no room at the inn for anyone with a progressive illness, who was overweight, or who faced challenges that were too hard to overcome. There were no facial blemishes and no disabilities that could not be healed. I learned early on that it was bad television to have unhappy endings.
Terry ejected the videocassette from the recorder, exchanging it for another. “Okay, this next one is a woman who was completely healed through prayer several months ago on the show.”
The video showed a woman in her sixties who said she had diabetes. She claimed a healing when Pat prayed on the show for a diabetic. She said she no longer has to take insulin. In gratitude, she sent a check to CBN to carry on its good work. Ben shot me a glance, put a hand to his mouth, and leaned back into his chair out of firing range. I took his cue and kept quiet.
“Terry, brother,” Pat laughed, but it wasn’t a good laugh. “I told you, no fat people.” His voice squeaked in frustration.“No unattractive people. No one over fifty-five. That’s not our audience. No one is going to relate to this person.” Pat reached over to the VCR and pushed the pause button. “Look at her!” He pointed his pudgy finger at the image of a woman’s face frozen on the screen.
Did it occur to him, I wondered, that he was over fifty-five and not in the slim blossom of youth? Producers worked for weeks, winnowing the telephone calls and letters from viewers who said they were healed by one of our “words of knowledge,” and then passing them across to our volunteer team of nurses and a CBN doctor to verify an incident of possible healing. The producers then travelled across the country taping the stories and spent hours in the editing booth. These stories typically cost thousands of dollars to produce. But it was just money, and if Pat didn’t like it, it was dead. Nevertheless, Terry fought for every one of them.
“Look Pat, God loves fat people too, and God healed her,” Terry said.
Shaking his head, Pat chuckled and glanced at Ben and me for support. “Terry, it’s not going to air and that’s that. Let’s go, we’ve got a show to do!”
We shot up like toy rockets and trailed Pat out the door.
Like Ben, Pat wore cowboy boots, though for the life of me, I didn’t know why. I liked to think of those boots as Pat’s human side, his connection to all that was natural and honest and good, the side of him that was not only tough as leather, but also as soft. Unfortunately that notion was like faith, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Pat took long strides and the heels of his boots pitched him forward, forcing his upper carriage into a slight tilt, giving the impression of a charge. We scurried behind him into the studio and television land, into the hearts and minds and souls waiting for the human touch from the Black, the Blonde, and the Baptist.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish