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This would be SO AWESOME.


Weds: Wait, Scott Kurtz calls his podcast the Power Hour?

Eric: Yes he does.

Weds: He named his podcast after Robert Schuller's television program?

Eric: ...yes, apparently he did.

Weds: Does this mean Scott Kurtz has his own Crystal Cathedral?

Eric: ...oh God, I hope so.

Weds: DUDE! I totally want to get married in Scott Kurtz's Crystal Cathedral!

Let us speak then of the dead. It's something we seem to do more and more of. The last time I spoke of the dead, I was speaking of Chris Benoit, and of the conflicted feelings I had as a man I respected and enjoyed as an entertainer had turned out or turned into a monster. This time, I speak of someone we all knew, once upon a time, was a shallow, bad and hypocritical person, and who I speak well of now as a kind and decent woman who, in the end, meant what she said.

A person I, and most of the people who know anything about the last twenty years of her life, mourn now the way we mourn any person who is essentially decent, kind and open, and who did her best to spread a message that on balance was a good and decent one -- far more so than many of the others of her kind and era did.

I speak, of course, of Tamara Faye LaValley, who was known professionally as Tammy Faye or Tammy Faye Messner at the end of her life, and who millions remembered (and mocked) as Tammy Faye Bakker, wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker.

I was a child in the 70's and 80's, living in rural Maine along the Northern Canadian border. I have never needed a Saturday Night Live sketch to tell me who Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were. I had the PTL Club. And if it seems weird that I had watched it, you don't understand what television used to be like, especially in Northern Maine. Until the cable came, our television universe was CHSJ (the New Brunswick Television System) on Channel 6, WAGM on Channel 8, three French channels (two of which barely came in) after that, and MPBN (the PBS affiliate) on Channel 11. Period.

WAGM, in particular, was our gateway into the world. It was primarily a CBS affiliate, but officially it was an affiliate of all three networks. They would (usually) show CBS shows when they were supposed to air, and shows on ABC or NBC would show up at odd times -- the 7 o'clock hour, for example. Or on weekends. But despite this plethora of programming, there was never enough programming to fill the dial. Old, bad movies would play here and there, after Captain Kangaroo and the game shows and the soap operas. And weekends? Saturday morning was the CBS cartoon lineup, and then there was a long void all day. Sunday mornings there were various religious shows, then various crap, then they would pull in ABC's Wide World of Sports.

Why did I watch it? I was a kid living in the middle of nowhere. I had Canadian television, French television I couldn't understand, Public Television, and whatever cheap crap WAGM threw at me. You're damn right I watched it. All of it. I watched Jim McKay excitedly present ice barrel jumping. I must have seen every episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. I watched Hee Haw. I watched It's The Law, Front Page Challenge and The Beachcombers on CHSJ. I watched To Tell The Truth and What's My Line, in the days when Soupy Sales was the high point of those shows. The high point.

And I watched The P-T-L Club.

My parents didn't. They had better things to do, and who could blame them? I don't know if my sister watched it or not, but I don't know how she could have avoided it -- she was even more of a child of the 70's than I was. But I did. I was young, and let's be blunt. This show was amazing. It had music (not like Lawrence Welk, another show I watched out of the 'there's nothing else to do' theory, but more exciting music), it had shouting and gesticulation and sobbing -- let's be blunt. It was a freak show. A spectacle. And kids love spectacle.

And it had Tammy Faye Bakker.

Tammy Faye Bakker seemed too over the top to be real. So heavily made up she seemed greasepainted, always laughing or sobbing at what seemed like near hysteria (for many years, mascara pouring down her face from tears was practically her trademark and calling card), she seemed like a clown. A literal clown. Especially when a kid like me was watching -- I knew from clowns, and I knew television wasn't real. And there was no way that freak was real.

But it wasn't just kids like me watching the show. There had been religious programming for a long, long time, but it was P-T-L (for PRAISE THE LORD! shouted enthusiastically) that inaugurated the television crusade. Billy Graham had been the closest we'd had to a public crusader and evangelist, as once a year WAGM would give over the To Tell The Truth/What's My Line block to him for a week of shouting and praying, but this was something else. This was up close and personal and in your face. Witnessing. Testifying. Exhorting!

And, as you all know, begging. Begging for money. Money to show your faith. Money to continue the faith. Every Church in America "passed the plate" and churchgoers understood that's what kept the church going and enabled them to help the poor and needy (this was a given in these somewhat simpler days -- churches helped the needy. It was most of what they did with their time in between sermons. At least, that's what people assumed back in the day). Well, they were passing the plate to America, and they expected to see it fill fast, brothers and sisters!

And they were a monumental success. They were the vanguard of a boom, informing and being informed by ministries and ministers like Jimmy Swaggart, Oral Roberts (Expect a Miracle!), and later on Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others of their ilk. They were so successful they launched a theme park. A theme park for Jesus. Heritage U.S.A. was another huge success, bringing in crowds of people to ride rides and have good family fun and obey Jesus.

Meanwhile, a few years later, cable done come to my town, bringing with it NBC and ABC on a regular feed, plus what was then called Superstation WTBS, and -- for a glorious twelve hours a day -- a mysterious and exciting new pay cable service called Home Box Office. And with these new, dramatic options, The P-T-L Club followed Hee Haw and Lawrence Welk into the department of "never watched, because damn, man. I have a life." WLBZ -- the NBC affiliate -- in particular held my attention. They still produced most of their own post-soap opera television. Sure, it was crappy movies just like WAGM had been, but they were slightly better crappy movies and they were introduced and presented by Eddie Driscoll, who rocked so hard you could measure him seismically. So I hadn't seen The P-T-L Club for quite some time when scandal rocked it. Jim Bakker had allegedly drugged and raped a church secretary, the ministry had paid her hush money and covered it up, and donations were going to support a lavish, decadent lifestyle for the Bakkers. (As a side-note, Jimmy Swaggart was the man who "broke" the story of Jim Bakker's transgressions, as well as another minster name of Marvin Gorman. This led Gorman to hire a private investigator to investigate this man who was purging "cancers in the body of Christ." That led to Swaggart's own habit of prostitutes coming out and his own fall from grace. I digress, but it's always fun to remember that taking joy in and promoting the fall of your rivals is a good way to fall yourself.)

Bakker's actions were reprehensible, and Tammy Faye was pulled in for the ride. It was just too easy to include her. She seemed at best incredibly naive -- and at this point, no one was ready to believe she could be anything but as venal as the rest of the defrocked. The P-T-L Club had preached prosperity theology and the Bakkers had lived a good life. Too good a life, as it turned out, as financial improprieties came to light and the IRS came a-calling. Jim Bakker went to prison. The pair got divorced. And Tammy Faye Bakker became a footnote and a joke. Just another scandal. Just another flim flam artist.

The thing is? She meant it.

She really did. Oh, she wasn't pure and innocent of all the goings on. There were rumors of prescription medicine and addiction. There was a clear opulent lifestyle she embraced. This is not to exonerate Tammy Faye Messner of the choices she made.

But when she said that God loved you? And loved me? And loved everyone? She meant that. She meant it with all her heart. And she felt that included everyone. The rich and the poor. Criminals and the innocent. The healthy and the sick. Heterosexuals, homosexuals, people of all creeds and races. Everyone. During the heyday of The P-T-L Club in the eighties, when AIDS was mysterious and homosexuality denounced by most evangelists as dirty and sinful -- with the implication that HIV was a divine judgement against them -- Tammy Faye Bakker had gay men and women on her show. She had AIDS victims appear. She exhorted her audience to pray for these people -- not to abandon their sinful lives, but to be healed of their illness, like any Christian should pray for any sick person.

After her divorce and remarriage, Tammy Faye slowly began to emerge. Her message was the same, even as she embraced her (admittedly freakish) public image. She launched a (secular) talk show with openly gay (and HIV positive) actor Jim J. Bullock. She appeared on programs and documentaries. (One notable documentary brought her back to Heritage U.S.A., long abandoned and falling apart. She broke into tears at the sight of it, wishing she could just spend some time painting things and making it look a little nicer).

And then she got sick. She got cancer. Colon cancer. She left the talk show, and worked on fighting it -- and seemed to win. It went into remission, and she stuck to the edges of popular culture. She traded on her image -- in a move almost stunning in its self-understanding, she appeared as a recurring guest star on The Drew Carey Show as the mother of an overweight, heavily made up caricature of a character named Mimi Bobek. And most famously (or infamously), she appeared on a season of VH-1's freakshow of the has-beens The Surreal Life, appearing alongside porn star Ron Jeremy and Vanilla Ice, among others.

And a whole new generation of people -- and an old generation of skeptics -- discovered they really liked this woman. She was honestly, truly kind to everyone. She was unafraid to espouse unpopular opinions but those opinions weren't ever exclusionary or mean spirited. She declined to accompany her castmates to see a psychic or attend a nudist resort, but she didn't condemn them for their choices. Co-star and Baywatch babe Traci Bingham described the experience of knowing her and hearing her speak on the show as life altering.

And then she got sick again.

She was seen undergoing treatments on her son's documentary series, One Punk Under God. She needed oxygen and had to stop making appearances for the most part. In telephone interviews, she described her hospice care and told people to never live their lives in fear but only feel hope. On July 19, she and her husband Ron Messner appeared on Larry King Live, and she was almost shockingly thin -- the woman parodied and known for being heavyset having dipped below seventy pounds, the skin loose on her skeletal body. It was known she was dying, but her appearance was hopeful and full of faith. From the transcript:

KING: Now you've always been so upbeat, the feeling of god being with you. Does that remain?

T.F. MESSNER: That remains consistent. I talk to God every single day. And I say, God, my life is in your hands and I trust you with me.

KING: We have an e-mail from Renee in Strongsville, Ohio: "I admire you for your unshakeable faith. Do you believe when you leave this Earth, you're going to go to a better place?"

T.F. MESSNER: I believe when I leave this earth -- because I love the Lord -- I am going straight to Heaven.

That was the tone. That, and excitement over having gained five pounds, and really looking forward to biting into a burger, which she had been craving. And expressing love and thanks to everyone who had spoken for her. She mentioned the gay community, who had "opened their arms to her" when the bad times had come and who she would always be thankful to. And she said she was mostly unafraid, thanks to her faith, but that she was afraid for her children and the sadness they would feel if she died. But that she continued to have hope.

That was July 19. On July 20, she was dead.

And with her dies a little bit of my childhood. And with her dies what might be the shining bright spot in the midst of a darkness that had spread over Christianity in the 80's, with cynicism and hypocrisy and avarice and scandal. In the decades since all that happened, Swaggart's been found with another prostitute (and unlike his first time, he flatly told his congregation that God told him it was none of their business) and said that if any gay man looked at him with lust, he'd kill him. And Jerry Falwell, who presided over the fall and the end of the P-T-L Club, though having brought a certain humor to his ministry, also brought intolerance and hatred and ignorance. Pat Robertson recently apparently called for the assassination of Hugo Chavez in God's name.

Tammy Faye? Just wanted everyone to love each other and accept each other and live without fear and in faith.

I'm not a Christian, but I suspect Tammy Faye -- though she would certainly have witnessed to me -- would have accepted me and been charitable and kind to me and assumed only the best and only had hope for me.

If there is a Heaven, I am confident Tamara Faye LaValley is in it. Very likely singing. And Earth is a slightly brighter place for her having lived, and a slightly sadder place for her having passed.

And that, in the end, is exactly what I think she would have hoped for.

Eric: Apropos of nothing? Buck Owen died.
Weds: I know.
Eric: Hon? Ray and Beef tore down the Acres... and then immediately, the creator of country music's Bakersfield sound died.
Weds: Holy crap. They killed Hee Haw.
Eric: They fucking killed Hee Haw.

I am the only person in the world (apart from possibly Jan Crouch) who is excited about the new TBN channel.

The appallingly named Smile of a Child launches 24 December on American cable and satellite. I'm hoping very hard that it also gets streamed online, as with the other TBN stations. See, as the name implies, the channel is all kids' shows, all the time.

All Christian kids' shows.

As with their secular counterparts, many of these shows involve puppets. For some reason, I can suspend my disbelief enough in order to accomodate dealing with the puppet's lifestyle issues, or even when it becomes keen to explain matters of theology. However, particularly in mixed human/puppet environments, actively considering the puppet's salvation or having it engage in prayer strikes me as slightly dubious. It's not so much that I can't grasp the idea of a fictional character having a fictional soul, goodness knows, but the spiritual crisis later in life must be rather on a par with Santa Claus. It's bad enough trying to determine whether or not your pets are going to heaven; what the heck are we supposed to make of, say, anthropomorphized hamburgers? How do we even account for anthropomorphized hamburgers in any form of Christian theology? Really, my issues with talking animals just pale by comparison.

That said, I can cope with thinly veiled allegory, especially when it comprises a chunk of high school TV nostalgia. One of SoaC's launch programs is the Canadian high-fantasy puppet show Kingdom Adventure, which was sort of kinda impressive almost fifteen years ago. At the time, it was an interesting stab at straddling Christian and secular children's markets, something we wouldn't see take serious hold until Veggie Tales came along a few years later. I found the idea of the experiment fascinating, and kept hoping that the execution would grab me.

Unfortunately, as with any syndicated kids' show not bent on selling hot product back then, you only got to see it insensibly early in the morning. I used to watch it in the mornings, when the reverse insomnia kicked in and it was too early for anything else but County Calendar and weird, babbling nuns. Lacking reruns of Rocket Robin Hood and the Trans-Lux Hercules, what else are you gonna do?

The answer? Mostly, build up a tolerance and miss Newton.

Unfortunately, the production company -- Crossroads Christian Communications, best known for 100 Huntley Street -- didn't do the best job in retrofitting effective metaphor to their high-concept agenda. There's a bunch of cute little elfy characters in cute little woods. And a bunch of cute little ugly monsters in the service of evil. And a cute, beloved Prince. And that Prince's Bride.

The Prince dies. Then the Prince comes back. Gosh.

While there's really only so many times you can watch the Gelflingscute little elfy things expounding on how much they like the Prince, how much they need the Prince, how bad it is that the Prince is gone, &c., it's not without brain candy merit. Anyone who gives you guff about how unsubtle the various Chronicles of Narnia were? Point'em at Kingdom Adventure, where cute little elfy things are yelling from the cute little treetops: "I SAID, IT'S TOTALLY BEEN THREE DAYS AND I WONDER WHERE THE PRINCE IS! GOSH, I HOPE HIS BRIDE IS OKAY!"

There was also a sword involved. And bad animation (Kingdom Adventure made an admirable effort to combine puppets and 2-D animation on an insufficient budget, but it just didn't pull together very well). Mostly, though, I remember the highly marketable Lolly, all red yarn hair and pug nose. She really should have grown up to take over the cute little elfy world. Unfortunately, as is so often the case, the Prince preferred blondes.

Honestly, I'm kind of sketchy on a lot of the details. I haven't seen this in years, and there's not a lot around to punch up the memory. The show faded into utter obscurity in North America. Kingdom Adventure was dubbed for the Russian market, and the only reference I can find to the show at Crossroads's website concerns demand there for an overtly evangelical tie-in colouring book. You can find the show on video, at least in theory, but there's nothing on IMDB to indicate that it ever really existed. I know it's not for me, but it must have been for someone.

At the time, I'm sure I found the show utterly forgettable. Right now, though, I'm kind of looking forward to catching it on SoaC, if only so that I can remember how forgettable it really was. Give it a week, though, and I'll totally be praying for the batty technology and grievous heresies of Superbook.

We're both sick. I came down with a cousin of Eric's bug a couple of days after he was struck down, although a lesser one, and have wanted to do very little other than sleep and take drugs.

(Nyquil and Nurofen Plus. You people. With your insinuations that you haven't even made yet.)

This is the kind of mood which lands me in orgies of TBN-watching. See, we don't have cable anymore, and terrestrial analogue television is seven kinds of dire. I can't seem to justify the cost of a freeview box or other one-time decoder mechanism just to have access to The Daily Show reruns one day out of sync -- if it's good, everyone will tell me via LiveJournal, fourteen and a half times, each, and I'll go find the clip on the Comedy Central site. One wonders why we pay for a TV license if we're not going to have cable, really.

Anyhow. TBN -- Trinity Broadcasting Network, an American-based Christian channel which broadcasts everywhere these days, streams their content in Windows Media and RealVideo formats. For free. (By way of comparison, if I'd wanted to watch the UK's GOD Channel on cable, I'd have had to pay an extra fiver a month. Which, as I recall, is about the same as one would pay to get one of the porn channels.) Some would argue that you get what you pay for, but this stuff is like trashy comfort crack to me. I'm happy to curl up with my hot water bottle, orange juice, and eMac to watch this while recuperating.

I get asked, every so often, what appeal I find in trashy Christian media. (No one inquires about my amusement at trashy Pagan media, but there's not quite so much of that.) I'm not a Christian in any recognizable sense of the word. Even if I was one, I wouldn't find myself represented in its television shows, or in most of its books or music. I only barely found myself represented in the various fringes or countercultures there when I did qualify, and even then, the conditions were so strong as to nullify any identification.

When I snark Chick tracts, which only really represent the extremes of one stripe, I get the same question again and again: how can you talk about this stuff? I got similar reactions from friends and acquaintances when I was reading through the core Left Behind series, then comparing it against Salem Kirban's 666/1000 duology. This is dreadful. You don't agree with it. It's fueled by hatred, anger, and disdain for others. It's not even well-crafted. You bitch about it. Why give it your time? Why legitimize it by doing so?

Well, I'd give even odds that most of the people who ask me this sort of question have their own comfort trash media -- sitcoms, reality shows, soap operas, tabloid news, blockbuster explosion movies, whatever. I bet they keep with them for the trainwreck appeal, even if they find some aspect or another reprehensible. Maybe the female characters are sexist twaddle; maybe no technical research has been carried out; maybe it makes a mockery of a given profession or culture. Most of them probably bitch about the downturns of their favourite shows, too. If they don't have a television show they feel this way about, perhaps it's a comic series. They couldn't keep from reading Peach Girl or Happy Mania; they're totally buying Infinite Crisis; their Sluggy bookmark remains stubbornly inert. Someday, they'll find the Best Fetish-or-Orientation-Specific Literary Erotic Collection $ANNUM anthology or My Life in Ponderous Alt.Comix Format tome which isn't full of dismal, pretentious twaddle, really, they will, but for now it's all so bizarrely compelling...

Everyone's got something that they keep on staring at, even though it's dire. Everyone's got a trainwreck. Trainwrecks don't have legitimacy; they just exist. The more you rubberneck at them, the less horror they contain.

There are other reasons. I'll get into those some other time, perhaps, if anyone cares. Maybe. Right now, the trainwreck is the salient factor.

On Saturdays, TBN runs children's programming. Most of it is utterly forgettable. Find here a template for innumerable low-budget programs: the characters are ensconsed in a rural, possibly Old Western, village. The community centres consist of a general store, a diner, and possibly some sort of hardware-related shop. There is a barn. For no apparent reason, many of your fellow villagers -- human and animal alike -- are puppets; if your village had been advanced enough to pull in any sort of television signal, you would realize that they had been modeled after early episodes of Sesame Street, but were not quite so convincing. The puppets all talk, regardless of species, but you don't think much of it. Most of them make inane, Scripture-related puns, laughing maniacally all the while.

There are actual humans in your midst, most of them curiously bloated adults, and almost all of them male. For no apparent reason, they have not mastered -- or ever heard -- very basic words, like "forgiveness" or "wisdom" or "respect", so you have to spend a considerable amount of time explaining these tenets of faith to them. Curiously, they all fail to know the same concepts at once; given that you're all of the same religion, you all presumably obtained the same education, and you happen to know this stuff, this makes no sense. You think nothing of it.

Sometimes, you all sing songs together. On cue. You blame the puppets.

(If you are considering making this show: please don't. No one will remember what you did, you won't win any significant number of converts, and you'll constantly get referred to as Gospel Bill. Trust me on this. Even I barely remember Circle Square, and I got up early to watch it last week.)

In recent years, this sort of show has tended to involve goofy CGI animals and a lot more dancing around. Less sittin' around, more Romper Room. Evangelism to giant alien bugs and their robots. Crayons. It doesn't help. It's a mercy they also show reruns of Davey and Goliath, really.

There's also Frank Peretti's show, Mr. Henry's Wild and Wacky World. The formula there is nothing special. Mr. Henry's a sort of renaissance geek who hangs out in his house all day, muttering absently about devices and burbling about the day's subject. Sometimes, he shows the kids somewhat witty dramatizations of the New Testament. It's a polished show, though, and Peretti's shockingly well suited for this sort of job. He's dynamic, amusing, and nerdishly charismatic. He's fun to watch as he bounces around his lab, even if you want to go away when he plays his banjo. He doesn't push too hard or get too ridiculously exuberant. He doesn't condescend. I'm no fan of his writing at all, but I think he missed his calling somewhere down the line. He really should have been up north, on the CBC, becoming a beloved kids' show host for the post-Mr. Dressup generation.

This is not to say that nothing stands out as a colossal bogglement. The classic Japanese-American time travel cartoons are still around, for example, although only The Flying House is on at the moment. (You can get Superbook on DVD, though. If it scares you, send the discs to me.) Two kids and their robot travel back in time, wander through Biblical events, then get very confused and upset when they can't actually make any alterations. Last week, the kids were devastated that they couldn't get Jesus freed instead of Barrabas. You know, because it's only going to invalidate their entire belief system and alter the course of Western history beyond all telling if they can change how the Gospels turn out. It's a very odd thing to show on this sort of network. That's not even getting into how the professor/inventor at the Flying House is obviously Lupin the 3rd in exile, far from any barber.

(Today, Davey, Sally, and Goliath found a time machine in some old guy's cabin. They just watched different versions of themselves throughout time. No interference. Sure, the biblical David looked a lot like the contemporary one, but no one was trying to extract him from the embrace of Bathsheba.)

I've also been gobsmacked by Kids' Ten Commandments (K10C). If you saw The Prince of Egypt, you know from this formula (and I'm surprised that they don't appear to be related projects): teach the kids scripture using Disney-style songs and animation! In this case, the ten commandments are played out through little incidents amongst the Hebrews who followed Moses out of Egypt. And their talking animals.

Their. Talking. Animals.

One of whom has Jodi Benson's voice, I might add. Benson's a lamb. And a single mom, and an adulteress, but not all at the same time.

(When Goliath talks, it's pretty laid back. Not unlike the sorts of things we pretend that pets say to us. He doesn't concern himself with the affairs of the village, or concoct cockamamie schemes to retrieve the adulteress's brooch. He toils not, and neither does he spin. Much.)

They're pretty much going through the gamut of Potentially Recognizable Voice Actors Who Are Between Jobs, incidentally. The pseudo-Ashman/Menken score, the rotoscoped swing dancing, and the excessively fluid body language would all have dripped right off of me if it hadn't been for the voice cast, or Susan Blu's direction. Maurice LaMarche? Rene Auberjonois? John Schneider? And how did they not only manage to get Tim Curry, but steer around the obvious?

And, while we're on steer, did I mention the talking animals? Like, not the miraculous Balaam sort of ass, but farm animals and a bearded rat? There are conspiracies against anthropomorphic mice. There's a cocky, self-assured calf who gets asked to model for the golden calf idol. There's a balding camel. Achewood, this isn't, although the balding camel did make me pine for Cornelius Bear. I can't decide what's more sacrilegious: post-Eden talking animals (who, admittedly, aren't trying too hard to talk to the people) gossiping about Moses, or time-traveling kids trying to mess with the course of Scriptural events.

Actually, no, neither of these things. It's the rotoscoped swing dancing.

I mean, people. Dance about if you must. Sing your theological lessons if you must. But there comes a point where even the most banal Western village is preferable, and that point is where Tim Curry's angular character is smoothly dipping some vacuous harlot in front of the golden calf.

(I could get into Bibleman, but that's for another time. When I've seen more Bibleman. If there's one thing we feel strongly about at Websnark, it's that we should have lots of data to hand when we go off about superheroes.)

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