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Quality-challenged TV


To the skeptic, what Christians define as a “miracle” can be seen as a form of divine seduction.

In Feodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the cynical brother Ivan tells a story -- which has somehow made its way into philosophical textbooks as the beginning of existentialism -- of the Grand Inquisitor who, when Christ returns to 16th century Seville, arrests him. The Inquisitor proclaims that there has been a pact between the church and devil wherein we all have traded our freedom for security.

Basic to this trade-off is our faith in miracles. Although Christ himself wanted our faith to be free and refused to save himself by miraculously descending from the cross, our faith is not that strong. We demand signs and wonders as the price for our belief and bow down before the “miracle of the quack and the witchcraft of the peasant woman,” and surrender our autonomy, hand ourselves over to the control of the church.

The seductive power of the Inquisitor’s harangue is its grain of truth. In moments of crisis or great pain, we ask that the normal laws of Providence not apply to ourselves. To some degree we call on biblical imagery -- the lame walk and the blind see -- and hope blindly that these stories apply to 2001. We ask that tumors shrink, that CAT scans and MRIs and biopsies come out clean -- hoping that somehow God will intervene and contradict what technology has decreed.

Meanwhile, HBO has decreed that it will make a name for itself by producing sensational documentaries. On March 21, its documentary chief, Sheila Nevins, appeared on both the “Charlie Rose” program and in The New York Times to make the case for its documentary series, which has both dabbled in soft-core pornography by its investigations of topless bars and whorehouses and won Peabody and Emmy awards for its exposés on war crimes and youth violence.

Now, in the Easter season, as a liturgical bow to Holy Week in which Christians celebrate the miracle that many see as the foundation of their belief, HBO has taken on “miracles.”

It is not hard to imagine the board meeting at HBO in which someone asks, “There’s this Easter coming up, and whatta we got to plug in that’s religious for Easter?”

And someone speaks up: “We got this documentary about the two phony faith healers. That’s religious.”

“OK. We run it on Easter Sunday.”

“Miracle” is an exposé of two world-class “miracle” healers. Or should I say heels?

Benny Hinn, a Canadian Palestinian, and Reinhard Bonnke, a German who crusades primarily in Africa, according to this show, exploit millions of helpless dupes by filling stadiums in America and Nigeria with the most desperate dregs of society. They empty their pockets, are whipped into a frenzy where they believe the spirit has cured them, and are paraded before the screaming audience and TV cameras as miraculously cured. The camera achieves its impact by focusing on what is grotesque or, in the larger sense of the word, obscene.

Benny Hinn’s Portland, Ore., stadium crowd is mostly white and middle class. But they are desperate, many grossly overweight, in wheelchairs, spastic, blind, drooling, staring blankly into the lights, their heads lolling off to the side. Some, like the boy the film focuses on, have tumors; others have chronic illnesses like diabetes and arthritis, which are more susceptible to “cures.”

Hinn’s method is to parade those seeking cures across the stage, as he croons gospel jargon into a hand-held mike, and then to strike them down, zapping them back into the arms of attendants who keep them from hitting the floor.

I have heard this described as the charismatic practice of “slaying in the spirit.” HBO doesn’t seem to know this and offers no explanation. All we see -- and the “Charlie Rose” show used these clips -- is a preacher knocking enthusiastic men and women down like tenpins.

Meanwhile, over in Benin City, Nigeria, Reinhard Bonnke, we are told, has been clever enough to tune into African beliefs in witchcraft and evil spells. He whips his crowd of a half million poor Nigerians into a frenzy. The HBO crew films his operatives backstage interviewing desperate men who want to dance up on the stage and proclaim themselves cured, selecting only the most convincing contestants.

Back in America, HBO tries to follow up on the 78 “miracles” whom Hinn presented on the stage. They can track down only five. All were fake. Sadly, the young Hindu boy with the brain tumors, whose parents became Christians and promised $100 a month to Hinn in the hope of a cure, soon died.

Hinn and Bonnke give HBO access to their rallies and submit to interviews, foolishly not sensing that there is no way an HBO documentary team specializing in sensational stories will do anything other than humiliate them. Binn tells the camera with a straight face that he uses donations raked in at the rallies to buy himself a private plane because this luxury will enable him to “last longer” and do more good.

Finally, to give the documentary depth, HBO brings in neurologists to explain mob psychology, the frenzy a charismatic speaker like Hitler (or an evangelical preacher) can create, and the placebo effect in which the mob’s enthusiasm can convince a susceptible sick person that he or she has been healed.

My problem is not that these so-called religious healers have been mugged. They deserve a public thrashing. My problem is that they are an easy target. Sinclair Lewis’ Elmer Gantry and editor and critic H.L. Mencken told us all this 70 years ago.

If the HBO documentary team wants to take on a tough assignment, try one that does not already play to the sensibilities and prejudices of those who can afford pay TV.

Meanwhile, a journalist friend has offered me a better contemporary understanding of miracles in which we don’t ask the Lord to reverse the law of nature that he has decreed. A miracle is doing the right thing that, it seems, could not be accomplished simply through human power: An otherwise hopeless alcoholic recovers through God’s love; parents refuse to abandon their hopelessly deformed child.

Now flash back to that board meeting at HBO. A lonely voice asks, “Won’t sincere Christians be offended by our denigrating miracles in Easter week? After all, a lot of them think the resurrection is a miracle.”

“Not to worry,” the producer replies. “We’re tacking on three minutes on Lourdes. We say that’s where we find real miracles. They’ve only cured 66 people in over 100 years, but the real miracle is in how you feel after you go there.”

“Great,” says the Head Guy. “Go with it. And have a nice Easter.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is Jesuit community professor of the humanities at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail is raymondschroth@aol.com

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001