Words are a pale substitute for the live feed. But here we have a culmination of sorts. Here we have the power and expanse of the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). Founded by the Rev. Pat Robertson in 1960, CBN broadcast It’s Time to Pray, America!—a televised and amplified call to “seek God’s forgiveness and His mercy and favor”—on September 17, 1976. Part civil religion, part evangelical speech act, part promise to expose the mechanics of celebrity piety, “the soul-stirring radio-television special” invoked a God who blesses with fame and secures secular law by which fortune is accrued, a standard evangelical trope and one that begs the question of why anybody would bother to pray at all.
Malcolm Boyd is, perhaps, best known for being an early supporter of gay rights within the Episcopal Church (publicizing his homosexuality in 1977). Boyd had become an Episcopal priest some twenty-five years earlier, having had a successful career in advertising and television. In his 1958 Christ and Celebrity Gods, Boyd argued for the necessity of seeing the world as it is from a “Christian point of view”—building a bridge between theology and life. He arrived at this point having concluded that preachers and parishioners alike were enmeshed in “communication webs.” Boyd, known as the “espresso priest” for his poetry readings at the hungry i nightclub in San Francisco, was a freedom rider and civil rights activist, angered by white hypocrisy and those who pray for “one hour a week inside expensive Gothic or Colonial buildings” and then manipulate a “white power structure to keep Negroes in housing ghettos and interminable second-class citizenship.”
Stereophonic records contain two audio channels. A groove has two sides jutting up at 45 degree angles. One side of the groove carries the left channel and the other side carries the right channel. The music encoded on each side of the groove is an intimate stranger to the other. Stereo equipment has a pickup with two piezoelectric coils (at right angles to each other) so that each channel can be decoded and amplified separately, then mixed together.
As stereophonic sound achieved a mass audience at mid-century, so, too, did Norman Vincent Peale. The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) defined, and still defines, the contours of spiritual flourishing for many an imagination. Understood in terms of its reception history, The Power of Positive Thinking is a spiritual machine, a processing engine of the highest order. One could even argue that Peale’s frame filtered and retooled much of the utopian ontics of nineteenth-century America for the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
A local favorite from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Marlene Hershey and the Hershey-ettes were masters of disharmony, perhaps the logic of prayer. Hershey hosted her own Christian-themed variety show—“Hearthside Hymns”—for 17 years on WGAL-TV in Lancaster. She also had a radio program on WBYO-FM in Boyertown, Pennsylvania, called “Musical Moments.” As her website proudly exclaims, “People still recognize her on the streets many years later.”
One is reminded here that celebrity is next to godliness, in that recognition—aimed directly at you, manifest in the particularity of people and their compliments, yet originating from an unrecognizable entity such as the public—is akin to mystical correspondence. Fame is a walking state of prayerfulness, in that fame confers upon the person a double-bind. On one hand, there is the sense of fulfillment and the capacity for self-recognition. On the other hand, there is the sense of evacuation and the encounter with dread. For, as in the act of prayer, the inexplicability of the transformation of self is directly proportional to the release of one’s image to the other and its subsequent circulations. This act, as Hershey reminds us, is best undertaken slowly, softly, and in a whispering mood.
Whenever someone says to me that they believe in a higher power, I squirm inwardly. Why should this be so? Am I not post-secular enough to respect such a general invocation for its potential individual substance?
The squirm is, I admit, is initially a rebuke of the phrase’s voracious use by celebrities.
Invoking a higher power seems to be a requisite keyword for film premiere red carpets, Rolling Stone interviews, and Grammy Award speeches, a signal from the famous speaker that however mega they might become, they too submit to something (something ephemerally awesome, something that always seems quite focused on the success of their particular starry lives). “I’m very close with my higher power. I have a very strong connection with it,” explains Black Eyed Peas lead singer Fergie. “I believe in a higher power. I believe in inspiration,” explains pop queen Janet Jackson. “My trust in a higher power that wants me to survive and have love in my life, is what keeps me moving forward,” explains Footloose crooner Kenny Loggins. Talk of a higher power in this sense seems only to draw attention to the media height of the speaker, and to the beneficence they receive from whoever might be further up Olympus.