Monday, February 15, 2010

The Trouble with Televangelists

Ever wonder why Plato wrote his Dialogues the way he did? They're narratives; they read like stories, generally about dialogues that took place between Socrates and philosophers or students in and around Athens. They are timeless, as good a-reading today, if you are interested in the subject, as they ever were.

Compare them with Aristotle's Metaphysics and the vast majority of written matter on the subject of philosophy, which is completely cerebral and dry as the dust that coats them in libraries. No one reads them except academics, a condemnation not shared by Plato.

Apart for abounding good taste, why did Plato write like this? The answer may be found in one of his Dialogues called "Phaedrus." In it, Socrates has traveled to the countryside outside the walls of Athens, where he engages in his familiar verbal jousting (called "dialectic") with his young friend Phaedrus.

The storyline is generally about the benefits of rhetoric versus philosophy. But one of the lines of questioning concerns the benefit of writing. Socrates tells Phaedrus a myth about an Egyptian god, Theuth, who, according to the myth, was the inventor of writing.

Theuth brought his invention to King Thamus, hoping that all the Egyptians might make use of it, claiming, "This . . . will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories."

King Thamus told Theuth that he was mistaken. Writing would not benefit memory at all. Rather, it would weaken it.

"This discovery of yours," said the King, "will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. . . .[Y]ou give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality."

Socrates is saying here (through King Thamus, and Plato through Socrates) that you don't really learn anything through reading alone.

Another problem with the written word, says Socrates, is that it can't further explain itself to the reader.

By way of illustration, Socrates compares speeches (the main subject of the dialogue) to paintings: "The creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence."

The same, he says, is true of speeches. And once they're written down, "they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves."

Plato's problem with writing, then, is that it's products are useless by themselves as teaching tools. Learning requires interaction with a wise teacher--"a parent to protect them"--for its seeds to take root.

How ironic that Plato would advance this argument in a narrative format that was meant to be written down. It's a problem for him and the narrative form, so different from most other philosophical writing, is a way around this inconsistency.

Not only does the narrative dipiction of Socrates in dialectic mode give some context to the philosophical subject matter under discussion in the Dialogues, but on full display is the character of Socrates: his gentleness and courtesy, his fearlessness and commitment even unto death to his principles.

Plato's use of the term "parent" in the quoted passage is apt, because not only do parents provide their children with knowledge, the children learn wisdom through interaction with their parents' character.

In other words, Plato is saying that philosophical teachings in the hands of those who don't have access to the knowledge and wisdom and character of the teacher who propounded them is likely to be misunderstood.

Isn't it interesting that neither Socrates nor Jesus nor Buddha nor Krishna (Hinduism) wrote down anything at all themselves? (There are contrary examples: Mohammed and probably Moses, e.g.) They chose to teach through direct contact with disciples. And the written texts of those disciples, and of disciples of the disciples, in all of these religions has given rise to misunderstanding and division, just as Socrates presaged.

The same principle is stated most eloquently in the Bible. The book of James says, "Faith without works is dead." (This is a common paraphrase of James 2:17). In other words, your theology can be perfect, but it's your character embodied in what you do, how you live, that brings life to your belief system.

That's where televangelists come in to play. Their message may be perfectly fine. The trouble is, we don't really know who they are. We don't know how they live their lives, their character. And that's really the life of any faith, not its theology.

Televangelists are a product (and sometimes a symptom) of the 20th and 21st century image culture. Through the fiction of television sound stages and carefully manicured appearances and well-crafted websites, their private lives can be far different from what the public is allowed to perceive. And so nothing of any real value is ever transacted between orator and audience. No learning ever really takes place. It's a nice idea but it doesn't work.

This effect is not limited to televangelists. Pop stars--actors and singers and reality TV stars--all have their own various messages too. They may call it "branding" or their personal "narrative" and it may represent a philosophy that is empty as the grave, but that's their message and it helps keep their coffers full.

And we're so surprised when one of them turns up with a substance abuse problem or ditching a wife of many years or any number of other falls from grace. The surprise comes because we didn't really know them. Otherwise, we probably wouldn't have bought into their philosophy and rushed out to find her CD or run to see his next movie.

That's why I've decided to have a guy with a webcam follow me around, so you can see just how boring, make that contemplative my life has become. That way you'll know me better and you'll feel more comfortable trusting what I have to say. We should ask all televangelists and would-be spiritual teachers to take up their webcams before we're willing to follow along.

No, I've changed my mind. I want to switch it back to boring. That's what you're looking for. Go out and find the most boring person you can find who also has peace and joy in his or her life, because what that means is that his or her source of peace and joy comes from some other place.

Park yourself beside that person because you're going to learn more about spirituality in just a few minutes than you ever will from any televangelist or far-off spiritual teacher, and they may never breath a religious utterance one.

That's because spirituality can only be learned through this sort of osmosis. When I was growing up, we lived across the street from the home for the elderly where my grandmother lived. Later in life, she had both her knees replaced and because of arthritis she didn't move around very much.

But she had an unmistakable spirituality about her, that old time Gospel kind of spirituality. She read her Bible every day but she hardly ever talked about it. She didn't have to.

That's the sort of osmosis I'm talking about. That's the kind of light that never leaves you. The kind that televangelists, if they have it, can't project long-distance.

Your comments are welcome.


  1. I like your suggestion to "Go out and find the most boring person you can find who also has peace and joy in his or her life, because what that means is that his or her source of peace and joy comes from some other place." There's is a very interesing and heartfelt book called "Divine Nobodies" by Jim Palmer that comes to mind when I read your article. Jim was on the fast track to becoming a Televangelist when he became very disillusioned with the whole thing and quit, finding more wisdom in a Waffle House waitress and other "divine nobodies."

  2. That's not the Hall of Fame pitcher for the Orioles Jim Palmer, is it? I'm just kidding, Colleen. It's not the same guy. But it sounds like it is the same idea. Thanks for the comment. I hope you had a great time in STL.


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