Monday, May 27, 2013

A Review of Redeeming the Dial by Tona J. Hangen

Redeeming the Dial: Radio, Religion and Popular Culture in America
Tona J. Hangen
The University of North Carolina Press

Academic writers rarely succeed in writing dispassionately about religious fundamentalism, especially (gulp) American religious fundamentalism. Your average sociologist, political philosopher, professor of English, or (especially) lecturer in media studies tends to regard the Religious Right with a kind of horrified fascination, somewhat akin to children turning the carcass of some dead mouse or bird with a stick.

How refreshing, then, to read Redeeming the Dial, which traces the story of Christian evangelical radio preachers from the dawn of the technology to the beginning of the Billy Graham era. Tona Hangen describes the pioneers of the genre, not only without passing judgement upon their beliefs, but also with sympathy for their human struggles and aspirations.

I spotted this book in Book Worms, a little bookshop in Middle Abbey Street, Dublin. Like all good bookshops, it has a character all of its own. It boasts several shelves full of military history DVDs, a corner filled with incense sticks and New Age totems and tarot cards, lots of showbiz gossip books, and a goodly amount of highbrow literary and cultural works. (Interestingly, and incidentally, it also has a sign forbidding mobile phone use-- something strangely rare in bookshops.) I came across Redeeming the Dial amidst books about Hollywood stars and rock music, and I resisted buying it two evenings in a row before finally succumbing to temptation on the third evening. I was glad that I did.

I love the passage with which the book opens, and I think it perfectly captures the fascination-- even the poetry-- of the book's subject matter:

Imagine a wind-scoured farmhouse and beside it a small barn, huddled together under an ashen gray Montana sky. It is 21 January, the dead of winter, so cold that a widow woman will not venture out for anything but to milk her cows-- and even then, not too early, not until long after daybreak. She is sixty-seven years old, farming alone, tending her herd with stiffening hands that have known hard times...Inside the barn, the air is a little warmer; the cows breathe by snorting clouds of vapour, which hang in the air. The woman sings and prays as she milks, listening to a radio set on a shelf amongst the pails and coils of baling wire. She sings a familiar gospel song, adding her voice to the rippling chords of a piano and a jubilant-sounding choir in sunny Long Beach, California, thousands of miles away. They cannot hear her, of course, yet she sings. Only the cows hear; the cows, and God.

I loved this passage for several reasons. First, because I think that every book whatsoever should begin with a flourish. Scholarly works, however, seem to almost make a point of avoiding this. (My personal "favourite" opening line of academese is from Male Masochism by Carole Singer: "In the wake of Michel Foucault's discussions of the construction of sexualities, much important work has been done in recent literary theory to historicize theory's primarily classic psychoanalytic, and thus synchronic, vision of textual representation of gender difference and, relatedly, heterosexuality and homosexuality." Snappy.)

Secondly, I loved this passage because it captures the magic of radio itself-- its ghostly, intimate, disembodied, transporting enchantment. As this book explains, fundamentalist evangelists were able to make use of this intimacy to make their preaching seem, not the mass media message that it was, but a kind of fireside chat between the preacher and the listener. Listeners were made to feel like they were participating in a cosy chapel service, even when the show was being broadcast from a theatre in front of an audience of hundreds.

Finally, I loved this passage for the idyll of rural American piety that it evokes. Here in crowded, suburban, jaded Europe, I think pretty much everybody-- even the most ardent secularist-- harbours a poetic vision of a vast, spacious, corn-fed, Bible-thumping, God-fearing American heartland, swarming with old ladies in front porch rocking chairs and Norman Rockwell families saying grace around the dinner table. I remember, when The Passion of The Christ was released, how eagerly the media and the general public lingered over stories of churches block-buying tickets to screenings of the controversial film. Everybody--- left and right and all the way in between-- seemed strangely satisfied that Mel Gibson's movie had proved such an industry-shocking success. God was in the Bible Belt and all was right with the world-- or wrong with the world, if you were a secular liberal. But still, wrong in a comfortable and reassuring kind of way.

However, Christian fundamentalism in America has not always had an easy time of it, and Redeeming the Dial describes the lean and anxious years that fundamentalism endured between the two World Wars, and indeed during the Second World War, before the triumphant rise of Billy Graham and the post-war boom of conservative Christianity. This revival, Hangen shows, did not come out of the blue but was the fruit of many years of foundation-laying-- much of it by radio evangelists, whose fund-raising appeals helped to found the colleges, seminaries and publications that were instrumental in bringing about the eventual revival, when it came. This might be a salutary tale for orthodox Catholics in Ireland today!

Although it is hard to imagine now-- given the culture war that rages in America, and the popularity of polemical media like Fox News and talk radio-- the early days of American radio were marked by a studious effort to avoid controversy. That religious broadcasting was a public good was generally accepted-- so much so that radio stations granted free air-time to religious organizations. Significantly, though, this "sustaining time" was only granted to mainstream Protestant, Catholic and Jewish voices. Fundamentalists and evangelicals-- deemed to be too controversial, dogmatic and divisive-- were more or less confined to the commercial airwaves. This generally led to them buying airtime, which they funded through direct appeals to their listeners for donations.

And the donations poured in. Redeeming the Dial is not just the story of pioneering figures in American religious broadcasting, but-- just as much, perhaps-- the story of the very ordinary, often impoverished, listeners who kept the show running with their widow's mites. Hangen reproduces many of the fan letters that accompanied these donations (in fact, the letters were often an important feature of the shows themselves). Some of them are so poignant that they moved me to tears: "Like so many others" one letter reads, "the flood took the crop on our small farm, and as it is the only form of income I have, won't have a tithe much longer, so I am sending you this small offering of what I have on hands."

It is touching, too, to read just how much the broadcasts meant to many of the listeners. A lonely widower in Montana wrote: "I walk back and forth from one window to the other. I know no one is ever coming but out of nervissness I look just the same. In the forenoon it is not quite so bad as I can listen to all the Sermons over the Radio."

The book introduces us to a colourful cast of radio preachers, nearly all of them trail-blazing mavericks who felt called to take God's word to the airwaves, and found their own ways of doing so. Catholics will not enjoy reading about Father Charles Coughlin, the fiery Catholic priest who started out with a legitimate message of economic justice but who eventually descended to anti-Semitism and fascism. At one point he drew ten million listeners, but eventually the hierarchy condemned him, and his radio career had ended by 1942. It was Father Coughlin's polemics, to a great extent, that led broadcasters to view religious programming with such caution in this period, and to favour non-controversial material.

The torch then passed to Protestant fundamentalists; the emotional Paul Rader, the glamorous Sister Aimee Semple McPherson (a larger-than-life figure who I had never heard of before), and the much more sober and appealing Charles Fuller, who (along with his wife Grace) created the famous Old-Fashioned Revival Hour show.

Hangen's description of Fuller's preaching style is interesting, given the stereotype of fundamentalist media evangelists: "He spoke simply, without flowery language or much sentimentality. He addressed the listeners directly, calling them "Beloved" or "Fellow strangers and pilgrims"; "Notice this verse", he would say, or "Will you pray with me?". His sermon themes stayed narrowly rather focused around the necessity of salvation and of the individual sinner's responsibility to accept the gospel of Jesus-- although he spoke little of hell and its horrors. Instead he tended to emphasize God's mercies, blessings on the righteous, and promises that their regenerated lives would buoy men and women up to endure their everyday lives."

All of these figures attained enormous success, and drew enormous amounts of donations. But the survival of fudamentalist preaching on radio remained precarious, always vulnerable to shifts in network policy, especially when it came to the soliciting of donations on air. There were continual tussles between mainline religious denominations (Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholic, and Jewish) and fundamentalist sects over religious broadcasting regulations.

At one point, an atheist even got in on the act-- in 1946, a San Francisco radio station gave Robert Scott a half-hour to broadcast his anti-theistic arguments. This was enormously controversial, becoming a cause celebre-- seventy-five per cent of the correspondence the station received was critical of the decision-- and Scott never broadcast again. ("It has always been regarded as contrary to public interest that atheism be promoted", one evangelical leader claimed. America was still not ready for the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, it seems.)

I think the lesson of Redeeming the Dial is that nothing is pre-ordained, when it comes to the place of religion in modern society. Modern technology, often seen as a threat to religious faith, was used effectively to propagate it by skilled and visionary preachers. Religious conservatism, apparently on the wane in inter-war America, made an exuberant come-back after years in the wilderness. The exclusion of fundamentalists from public service broadcasting time, apparently a disadvantage, may well have motivated them to make a better and more aggressive use of the airwaves. I think this a book from which orthodox religious believers can take great heart.

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