The Video Messiah
Jerry Falwell's greatest legacy? For me, it will always be his Institute of Biblical Studies.
By John D. Spalding
While TV shopping for ab rollers, psychic phone pals, baldness cures, and diets guaranteed to make me lose 30 pounds in 30 days, I used to ask myself when televangelists were going to break into infomercials. They have the talent for it, they have outlets, and they are not coy about asking for money.
My question got an answer one summer from none other than the Reverend Jerry Falwell, when I discovered him on cable delivering what at first appeared to be a fire-and-brimstone sermon on heeding God's call. "Let the truths of God's Word," he urged, "the truths that have guided kings and princes and presidents and shoeshine boys for centuries, invade your life!" But when he started reciting lines like "act now" and "just four easy payments, all major credit cards accepted," I began to realize that this was not Falwell's standard Sunday broadcast from the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia.
No: it was a half-hour pitch for Falwell's "brand new and revolutionary" Institute of Biblical Studies - "the finest biblical studies program ever developed." The Institute, I learned, is a six-videocassette study series that, "in just twelve hours of anointed teaching," explains everything you will ever need to know about the Bible "from Genesis to Revelations." "This new program," Falwell beamed, "actually allows you to go to Bible college right in your own home." Why is it so special? "Because 25 years ago I founded Liberty University, and I can assure you this program was developed from the exact same material used in the world-famous introductory courses here at Liberty. That's how good the Institute of Biblical Studies is!"
An infomercial is effective if it argues compellingly that a product is: (a) essential; (b) easy to use; and (c) affordable. By these standards, Falwell's pitch rated an A plus. First, necessity: "The Institute teaches you wisdom, it teaches you character traits that can actually help you succeed in business or at home. I'm telling you from my heart, if you are going to do just one thing this year, take one step to improve yourself, I urge you to take advantage of this special introductory offer." Next, simplicity: "I want to make it abundantly clear that we have absolutely gone out of our way to make this simple enough, and easy enough, so that anyone can complete it, regardless of age, educational background, or any other factor." Finally, cost: "If you went to Bible college, not only would you have to commute back and forth to school, but you would probably pay well over $1,000 in tuition costs alone. [The Institute of Bible Studies] is only $295—that's less than a dollar a day for a year of study!"
Partly to satisfy my curiosity, partly in my self-appointed role as consumer watchdog, I bit. Because I ordered right away, I received a special $100 "scholarship," plus an extra discount for paying the whole cost at once, via my credit card. The package arrived promptly: six videos and a 62-page study guide which included not only "helpful charts and maps" but the final exam I had to complete and return to earn a diploma. Even more helpfully, the guide also provided an answer key for the exam.
Three tapes each are given to the Old and New Testaments; the instructor is Dr. Ed Hindson, described by Falwell as "one of the greatest Bible teachers to ever teach the Word of God." Popping the first tape into my VCR, I was greeted by Dr. Hindson, a clean-cut, fortyish guy wearing a dark suit, bright red tie, and aviator glasses. Dr. Hindson outlined our mission: "When we sort out the difference between Abraham and Jacob, when we can tell the difference between a Hittite and a parasite, when we can tell the difference between Damascus and Babylon, all of a sudden you'll begin to realize these are real people, these are real places."
In the first lesson one learns that the world of Genesis was "a very different world than the world in which we live today." In those days, "people lived to be 900 years old" because there was a "vapor canopy" that enveloped the earth and "filtered out the infrared and ultraviolet rays and kept people from developing cancer and prevented fermentation from taking place." It was "a world in which dinosaurs could have survived" and "people could have grown to an enormous size. And yet all that changed with the flood."
In later tapes I was told the deeper meaning of the Exodus story about how the Israelites painted their door posts with blood to prepare for their escape from Egypt. "They began, without even knowing it, to make the sign of the cross—the indication of the redemption through the blood atonement of Jesus Christ that shall ultimately come." I was given an answer to the liberal scholars who suggest that the Red Sea through which Moses led his people was only a knee-deep swamp: "You don't drown [Pharaoh's soldiers] in water that's knee deep!" The Book of Esther was neatly summarized: "...the story of how the Jews are spared by a young girl who wins a beauty contest."
The New Testament tapes offered similar insights into the people of Jesus' day. The Gnostics were "kind of like New Agers before there was the New Age." The Herodians were extremists, the Pharisees were compromisers, and the Sadducees were liberals: "They were 'sad, you-see,' because they didn't believe in the power of God."
It's on the tape—honest.
A notable difference in the tapes on the New Testament had to do with the larger quota of sermonizing. Speaking of Jesus, Dr. Hindson says, "You can study all about him and know all the details of his life, but until you know, in your own heart and soul and life—him personally, as your own lord and savior—it's just so much information. And I'd like to urge you, right now, before you go one step further, to take a moment to acknowledge your sinfulness, your need of a savior, your need of salvation, and give your life to the Lord Jesus Christ, who will come in the power of his spirit and indwell you with the glory and the power and the life of God himself." I have to acknowledge, in my sinfulness, that too many lengthy passages in this vein reminded me of the power of the fast-forward control.
The best parts of the program were the Q&A periods—"Tough Questions and Timely Answers," in which Falwell himself replies to questions in an auditorium filled with "Liberty's brightest students." He is as lively and engaging as ever, so that it is only from the students' stilted questions that you can tell these allegedly spontaneous sessions were completely staged.
Q. "Were there dinosaurs on the ark?"
A. "I'm no scientist, but I believe that men and dinosaurs were here together. I don't know what caused the extinction of dinosaurs, but their remains are here and the fossils are evidence without question. So, I believe that there was a healthy pair of dinosaurs on the ark and that they took up as much space as they wanted."
Q. "How old is the earth?"
A. "I flip on the TV sometimes and there's Carl Sagan talking about something that happened 40 billion years ago. On another program there's some agnostic or atheist saying that this rock is four billion years old. And I cannot help but smile, because we have without a doubt a young earth. We have a record that the earth has been here 6,000 years....People forget that God created Adam a fully grown and mature man with age built in. So God could have very easily built in the strata and the carbon dating and the fossil evidence."
Q. "Is capital punishment correct today?"
A. "The Old Testament is very clear: 'An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.' But there are many who say that under the new covenant...there's no place for it because Christ died on the cross. But the fact is, his death on the cross is the greatest evidence that capital punishment is acceptable today. If ever there was a platform to cry out against capital punishment, our Lord had it on the cross."
"My dream, my vision," Falwell explained in the infomercial, "is to actually put this program—listen!—in the hands of 50,000 families and individuals. And what I am going to do to achieve this vision is to give [the special offer] to the first 50,000 people who pick up that phone."
At $159 each, that's a gross of some $8 million. It's an incredible deal.
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John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com. His last piece was God Talk.
Excerpted from "A Pilgrim's Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City, by John D. Spalding, published by Harmony Books, an imprint of Random House, in 2003. Reprinted with permission of the author.
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