Comment Opinion & Features

Why I’m hooked on televangelism

(Getty)

When, as deputy prime minister, John Prescott punched a protester during the general election campaign in 2001 it nearly ruined his career.

I remember it well because I was a political correspondent at Westminster at the time. I was on the Conservative leader William Hague’s battle bus.

We journos covering the Tory end of the story could only watch the news in envy as our colleagues covering the Labour campaign witnessed Mr Prescott getting into a sensational spot of bother during a visit to Rhyl in north Wales.

Prescott, who had been criticised for using two Jaguar cars, went from “Two Jags” to “Two Jabs” in the ensuing row. The headlines were priceless.

He reacted instinctively, he later explained, because in the split second he was hit by an egg he thought the protester was really going to hurt him.

I couldn’t help but think of “Two Jabs” when I saw footage going viral on the internet of Pope Francis slapping away the hand of a woman who reached out and grabbed him during a walkabout at the Vatican.

People do react instinctively when they are grabbed by a stranger. Self-preservation kicks in. Public figures must live with the fear they might be set upon at any moment.

But all that being so, it did occur to me that the Pope missed a golden PR opportunity. In that split second, had he been able to organise himself better, he might have used the incident to demonstrate to the world that God always responds positively to any demonstration of faith:

And Jesus, immediately knowing in Himself that power had gone out of Him, turned around in the crowd and said, Who touched My clothes? But His disciples said to Him, You see the multitude thronging You, and You say, Who touched Me? And He looked around to see her who had done this thing. But the woman, fearing and trembling, knowing what had happened to her, came and fell down before Him and told Him the whole truth. And He said to her, Daughter, your faith has made you well. Go in peace, and be healed of your affliction  (Mark 5:30-34)

The woman who grasped at Pope Francis could be seen as bad mannered, or she could be seen to have demonstrated great faith. Either way, it would have been wonderful if the Pope’s reaction had shown the world something inspiring.

***

Keeping up morale is important. I’m always fascinated by how others stay positive. While channel-hopping recently I settled on the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), which describes itself as the world’s largest Christian television network, and out of curiosity I began to watch some of the latest American televangelists. Quite in spite of myself, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

These sorts of preachers may have earned a bad rep for money-making in the past, but there are good ones.

All of them, in my view, are essential viewing in one respect: their enthusiasm for the Gospel is infectious.

This whooping and shouting of “Amen!” is not what Catholics do, of course. But every now and then I confess I do get envious of the happier-clappier denominations.

With the West becoming increasingly secular, I’m glad the Americans are still doing this sort of thing.

As a child I camped at Coventry airport to see Pope John Paul II. Standing in the blazing sunshine on May 30, 1982, with 300,000 other people of my faith was an experience I will never forget. Such opportunities are few and far between.

I admit there is a part of me that would like to visit Joel Osteen’s stadium-sized Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, where I might sit in a believing crowd of thousands as he broadcasts to millions, and whoop it up a bit, you know, just to bolster my morale.

Osteen has been criticised for preaching a “prosperity Gospel” – wealth and success are yours if you follow Jesus. But if you listen, while he says you may ask for whatever you want, and trust in God to bring it, he cautions that if He doesn’t then you were never meant to have it.

While a lot of these sorts of sermons verge on lifestyle advice, they’re served up with generous helpings of Scripture so at least you learn your way around the Bible.

And it’s all available on YouTube, where you can watch as much or as little of it as you want, when you want.

Those of us who prefer the sanctity of church may scoff, but anything that shows Christians as united, cheerful and positive is a good thing, surely. And say what you will about the internet, it puts us in touch. YouTube-ready preaching may be the future, whether we like it or not.

Melissa Kite is a contributing editor of the Spectator