Dec 14, 2013

The apocalyptic vision of Christian TV

The world's largest Christian television network was conceived as a short-term project. That's because when the first TV satellites began broadcasting, founders Paul and Jan Crouch were anticipating the apocalypse. 

They had their hopes, actually, that their network would be the fulfillment of the prophecies necessary for Jesus Christ's second coming and the end of human history.

Paul Crouch died last month, 40 years after he and his wife began Trinity Broadcasting Network. He was 79 years old and at his death TBN reportedly had 84 satellite channels and about 18,000 television affiliates. According to industry website TVNewsCheck, TBN has the third largest reach of American broadcast networks. By that measure, it's bigger than CBS or FOX. TBN's broadcasts are available all day, every day, in about 46 million US homes. The network is continually beamed across the globe and has been since 1978, when TBN's first satellite TV station was anointed with oil from Israel. It broadcasts to every continent except Antarctica in fulfillment of the vision Crouch had when, he said, God spoke one word to him in 1975, and the word was: "satellite."

That vision was an eschatological vision -- a dream of the return of Christ, the rise of the antichrist, a final clash of cosmic good and evil -- of the end of human history heralded, if not prompted, by the beaming broadcasts of evangelical TV around the world.

Crouch claimed, in fact, that the TBN satellite was foretold in Revelation 14:6-7:
Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth ... saying with a loud voice, 'Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come.'

Much of the attention following Crouch's death has been on the scandals and controversies attached to his life and ministry. There are many. Though Crouch was never as famous as the many prosperity preachers who have populated the airwaves he and his family owned, he had his own televangelist scandals.

The scandals, along with the aggressive fund raising, gaudy excess, and bad taste, are often thought of in the context of the prosperity gospel.

There has been a whole range of shady financial issues, for instance, from questions about the ethics of fundraising to legal issues about how the money is handled. TBN has gotten in trouble with the Federal Communications Commissions more than once, including the time the FCC found TBN had created a sham "minority" front company. There have been an assortment of serious allegations of sexual misconduct, though none have been proven. Recently, there have been family disputes with volleys of accusations, including accusations that some family members framed other family members for embezzlement. Always, TBN's reputation is troubled by questions of how the network rakes in money and what the owners do with it.

The network had it's first fundraising telethon on the third day of broadcasting and raised $50,000. When it was opened in the mid-90s, TBN's new headquarters were described as "Gone With the Wind" meets Ceasars Palace. The place was a melange of classical columns, mirrors, marble, and faux gold.

Such details certainly grab attention, and the Crouches certainly believed and taught that faith activates victory and success. Understanding this context and these controversies is not unimportant to understanding the rise of evangelical TV in the 20th century, generally, and the genesis of TBN in particular. In his autobiography, Hello World!, Crouch himself focuses on the fights and scandals. The narrative is organized around financial crises and the many conflicts between Crouch and erstwhile partners, disgruntled employees and FCC bureaucrats.

Crouch, however, sees all those fights in the context of spiritual warfare, and sees the spiritual warfare in the context of the end times. This apocalypticism underlies everything else.

Crouch opens the book with a note to his sons, laying this out. He writes:
I can tell you now ... the FULL story of how God brought us through the deep waters, the fiery furnaces, the lion's dens, even what seemed to be the pits of hell itself to establish perhaps the greatest voice for God in the history of the world. I'm sure some will take issue with that statement, but I speak not only in the spiritual sense, but also with the knowledge that this great voice is able to access multiplied billions simultaneously around the world! This is, indeed, the first generation that has had the technology to accomplish this.
This reference to a "generation" evokes Jesus' statement about the end times on the Mount of Olives. In the gospels, Jesus is asked "what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?" He answers, "Assuredly, I say to you, this generation will by no means pass away till all these things take place." That phrase, "this generation," might be read -- and has been read -- as a reference to the hearers. For many 20th and 21st century evangelicals, however, the phrase was understood as referring to those living in the times "when you see all these things" come to pass. The establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 was one important sign, it was thought.

There were other signs expected too. For example, Jesus says in that same passage that "this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come."

Crouch believed that technological changes had made the fulfillment of that verse possible for the first time in history. It seemed clear to him that Jesus was talking about TBN and that "GOD'S MIRACLE OF TBN!" was a solid sign of the end of the world.

Photo: TBN
"With all of the awesome technology at our disposal," Crouch writes in the 2003 memoir, "we finally understand God's great master plan to reach every single soul on planet earth with the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ! ... I truly believe that this could be the FINAL generation."

Technology fulfilling apocalyptic prophecy was a theme Crouch returned to in his 2004 book, The Shadow of the Apocalypse: When All Hell Breaks Loose. He reviews Jesus' end times predictions in the gospels, as well as the apocalyptic prophecies of Daniel and Revelation, and finds them full of references to futuristic technologies. "To be quite honest, some of these prophetic images have been difficult to fathom until now," Crouch writes. "A hundred years ago, these words must have seemed like the stuff of myth and fiction. Today, technology has turned these ideas into current headlines and daily fare."

The story of the fulfillment of Jesus' prophecy of the end of human history, Crouch believed, was the story of technological development. More specifically, it was the story of the technological developments that his broadcasting network used to become the largest Christian television network ever.

Darren Dochuk notes in From the Bible Belt to the Sun Belt that when the network went global, the first live telecast was from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. This was not a subtle choice. The message was being sent that this broadcast, and this expansion of the evangelical broadcast network, was being done in fulfillment of what Jesus said on this spot: "this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world ... and then the end will come."

TBN returned to the Mount of Olives last year. As the LA Times reported, the context of the move was Crouch's apocalyptic beliefs. "If the Messiah descends from the Mount of Olives as foretold in the Bible," reporter Edmund Sanders wrote in the fall of 2012, a year before Crouch died, "Christian broadcasters are well-positioned to cover it live thanks to recent acquisitions of adjacent Jerusalem studios on a hill overlooking the Old City."

From the beginning to the end, Paul Crouch's end times beliefs were the underlying context of TBN's mission.

Sometimes pundits worry that end times fervor will lead to a kind of nihilism, where people just give up and do nothing. It's argued that apocalyptic expectations undercut the will to do anything big, anything long term. That may be true in some cases. In Paul Crouch's case, though, the short-term thinking of apocalypticism resulted in TBN, the largest Christian television network ever, which will be beaming religious programing all over the world, every day, all day, long into the foreseeable future.