In 1987, Augsburg Publishing House, the publishing arm of the American Lutheran Church which the following year would join with Fortress Press, the publisher of the Lutheran Church in America as part of the merger of the Lutheran bodies into the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, published a book entitled Television and Religion: The Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture. The release of such a book could hardly have been more timely – it went to print just as the various scandals surrounding Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were breaking. The author of the book was the Reverend William F. Fore, who was the acknowledged expert at the time on the matter of religious broadcasting. For the next couple of years he was a guest on pretty much every major radio and television talk show discussing the scandal and his book. Rev. Fore, who passed away last July, was a minister of the United Methodist Church, and served as the Executive Director of the Communications Department of the National Council of Churches in Christ for a quarter of a century, retiring from this position shortly after his aforementioned book came out. The fifth and sixth chapters of the book address the message and audience respectively of what he called “the electronic church”. He had already been sounding the alarm about this “electronic church” for over a decade.
Indeed, in August of 1978 Fore gave an address by that very title – “The Electronic Church” – to a meeting of the Seventh Day Adventist Broadcasters Council in Oxnard, California, which was published in that denomination’s Ministry Magazine in its January, 1979 issue. In that address he noted some interesting statistics. Gallup had just conducted a survey of the religious views of both the “churched” and the “unchurched” in the United States. “Surprisingly”, Fore commented, “religious beliefs and practices have undergone remarkably little change during the past 25 years.” What made these findings surprising was that while beliefs in doctrines like the deity of Jesus Christ and practices such as daily prayer did not appear to be declining among Americans, even among the “unchurched”, the self-evaluated importance of organized religion in their lives was. Fore suggested that the incongruity between these two things could be, at least partly, explained by the growth of religious broadcasting and that this was cause for concern. He said:
What worries me is whether this electronic church is in fact pulling people away from the local church. Is it substituting an anonymous (and therefore undemanding) commitment for the kind of person-to-person involvement and group commitment that is the essence of the local church?
As we shall shortly see, this was a legitimate concern and there is far more cause for alarm on this front today than there was back then. First, it needs to be noted that there was another, far more obvious, reason why steady belief in such basic Christian truths as the deity of Jesus Christ might coincide with a decline in confidence in organized religion – and a decline in church attendance, for when Fore was speaking and writing about the danger of “the electronic church” we were already several decades into a period of drastic decline in church attendance, one which began shortly after the Second World War and which continues to this day.
That reason was simply this – that in this same period of time, a great many of the churches had stopped preaching and teaching the basic Christian truths. For everyone who could still truthfully recite everything in the Apostles’ Creed from “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth” to “The Forgiveness of sins; The Resurrection of the body, And the Life everlasting. Amen”, churches whose ministers taught that Jesus was God’s Son only in the sense that He exemplified the way in which we are all children of God and that He rose again from the dead only in the sense that He lived on in the memory of His disciples, and who similarly explained away everything else in the Creed so as to make its opening “I believe” into an “I don’t believe”, were rapidly losing their appeal. Nor did they have much of an appeal to anybody else. Anybody out there who actually wanted to hear a lecture every week about racial and gender equity, recycling and reducing our carbon footprint, and other such trendy codswallop had plenty of opportunity to do so that did not involve getting up early on Sunday morning. Others have certainly noticed the contribution of this factor to the decline in church attendance and affiliation. Here in the Dominion of Canada, where the decline had been much larger than in the United States, two Anglican priests, George R. Eves, Two Religions: One Church (1998) and Marney Patterson, Suicide – The Decline and Fall of the Anglican Church of Canada (1999), attempted, to little avail, at least with regards to the upper echelons of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, to warn the Anglican Church of Canada that this kind of liberalism was killing the church. Others, such as the eminent Canadian sociologist of religion Reginald W. Bibby, have addressed this factor in a more detached manner. Now, the United Methodist Church and the NCCC were both noted bastions of liberalism. The late Dr. Thomas C. Oden had been well within the mainstream of the United Methodist Church prior to his journey back from theological liberalism and political radicalism to “paleo-orthodoxy” through a study of the great theologians of the Christian tradition beginning with the Church Fathers prompted by a challenge from his Drew University colleague, Will Herberg, who had had to make a similar return to the roots of his own Jewish tradition in the Talmud and Midrash after his own break with his early radicalism. The National Council of Churches in Christ is the American organized expression of ecumenism which, as Joseph Pearce has recently observed, “appears to be the willingness to dilute or delete doctrine in pursuit of a perceived unity among disparate groups of believers (irrespective of what they actually believe)” and thus the opposite of what it originally meant when applied in the early centuries to the General Councils that defined orthodoxy and excluded heresy for the entire church throughout the “whole inhabited world”. My point in bringing this up is not to cast aspersions on the personal orthodoxy of the late William F. Fore but to show that for someone in his position, unless he wished to make waves, he had strong personal reasons to turn a blind eye to the connection between liberalism and declining church attendance and to tie the latter to religious broadcasters who, whatever else they might be legitimately accused of - aggressive and dishonest fundraising, the sacrilege of reducing religion to popular entertainment, etc. – were seldom if ever liberals.
All of that having been said, Fore’s concern that for many people “the electronic church” was taking the place of local churches was a legitimate and valid one. In his address to the Seventh Day Adventists in 1978 he said the following:
Radio and TV – especially TV – tend to produce a substitute for reality that eventually can begin to take the place of reality itself.
He illustrated this point by referring to an article in Broadcasting Magazine that described a television program entitled “Summer Camp” that purported to give kids the “summer camp” experience “without leaving home”, a particularly poignant example as it is difficult to conceive of an experience further removed from that of watching television than summer camp or a greater exercise in missing the point than trying to translate that experience into the television medium. He went on to say:
My point is that exposure to the media tends to separate us from the world of reality, creating for us, in fact, a new reality…The situation, I predict, is going to get worse.
Before we take a look at just how true that prediction has become, let us consider the contrast he drew between the local and the electronic church. He said:
[The purveyors of the electronic church] are building huge audiences that bring them fame, wealth, and power, but which in doing so substitute a phantom, a non-people, an electronic church, for the church of real people, with real needs and real gospel to share in the midst of their real lives.
It is no accident that the local church, the koinonia or community of believers, is such a central part of our Christian faith and life. This is where we find Christ; this is where we confess our sins and find forgiveness and regeneration; this is where we act out our faith and where we shore up one another when we slide back in the faith.
The years since 1978 and now have seen an explosion in the development of electronic communications technology. Personal computers and cellular phones have become more compact and affordable and therefore ubiquitous and, indeed, have now merged into smart phones that place the internet, which itself has evolved rapidly and exponentially in this period, at one’s fingertips wherever one happens to be. The “electronic church” has evolved along with these media and in 2021 the “online church” – services viewed over the internet either while they are occurring through livestream or later if, as is usually the case, recordings of the stream remain available – has become a much larger part of it than the services broadcast on radio and television forty years ago. Indeed, for almost a year now, the “online church” has been the only “church” available throughout most of the world as governments everywhere have used the pretext of the spread of a coronavirus notable more for its novelty than its severity to throw off the shackles of constitutional restraints and protected rights and liberties and conduct an insane social experiment in which they forbade in-person social interaction in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to contain the spread of the virus. The leaders of the churches have, for the most part, opted to obey man rather than God and support this vile experiment by closing their doors and making services available to their parishioners only via the internet. Thus, for the last year, the “electronic church” has more fully and completely replaced the real church, than Rev. Fore would have imagined possible in his worst nightmares back in the eighties.
What is most troubling about this, apart from the whole submitting to godless totalitarianism aspect of it, is that whereas forty years ago, church leaders whether orthodox or liberal, would have largely shared Fore’s concern that for many people the “electronic church” was becoming a substitute for actual churches in which real people meet and worship and fellowship together and would have agreed with him that this was not a good thing, today, the church leaders who are saying “Amen” to the government officials who insist that we must sacrifice the mental and social wellbeing of all members of our communities, and the economic wellbeing of all except the most wealthy, in order to prevent people who are already at the end of their natural lifespans from dying a natural death a very short time earlier than would otherwise be the case, are now developing theological arguments for why the “electronic church” is a real church after all. While the idea of a spiritual fellowship existing between all believers in different places is neither new nor unsound – this is a part of the meaning of “the communion of the saints” in the Creed – it is a different matter entirely to treat the act of praying and singing along, from your own home, while you watch a service that is taking place elsewhere through your computer screen, as if you and those actually participating in the service were somehow together in some virtual “place” that the internet has generated. Doing the latter is far closer to living in the kind of artificial “reality” from which in the movies a “red pill” is required in order to escape than it is to the orthodox doctrine of the “communion of the saints”.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born in Russia a year after the Bolsheviks, a murderous gang of criminal revolutionaries, fanatically devoted to building what they believed would be an ideal society based upon collective ownership, materialism, science, and atheism regardless of whatever cost in human lives and suffering had to be paid in order to bring this about, seized control of that country, murdered the Tsar and the rest of the royal family, and began its long, but mercifully unsuccessful, war of extirpation against the Russian Orthodox Church. His mother raised him, as best she could, in the Orthodox faith, while the Bolshevik state did its worst to indoctrinate him in its ideology. Ultimately, after Solzhenistyn was arrested while serving in the Red Army in World War II for criticism of Stalin, and sentenced by a secret tribunal of the NKVD to the work camps administered by GULAG, his Orthodox rearing won out, and in his writings he became a fierce critic of the oppression of the Soviet system. While his writings were initially well-received in his home country while Khrushchev was repudiating the legacy of Stalin, when he turned his pen against the Communist system and underlying ideology as a whole, he became persona non grata, and soon his writings had to be published by samizdat in Russian, or smuggled out and published in translation in the West where they helped remove the blinders from the eyes of many who still thought of the Soviet experiment in romantic, idealistic, terms. Eventually, the Soviet regime tired of him and on the twelfth of February, 1974, he was arrested again and sent into exile.
On the day of his arrest he released a notable essay, advising that in the face of a violent, oppressive, totalitarian ideology such as that which then ruled in Russia, the least that people could do was refuse to participate in the lies by which the totalitarian ideology of the state covered its violence.
“And this is the way”, Solzhenitsyn wrote, “to break out of the imaginary encirclement of our inertness, the easiest way for us and the most devastating for the lies. For when people renounce lies, lies simply cease to exist”.
The title of Solzhenitsyn’s essay, “Live not by Lies”, was borrowed last year by Rod Dreher, for a book advising Christians about how to live in the face of a new soft totalitarianism. While Dreher admirably strained out many of the totalitarian gnats of “woke” ideology, he swallowed in its entirety the camel of masks and lockdowns and public health orders.
We can and must do better than that.
Sadly, I expect that very few of our church leaders will be willing to show the same faith and obedience to God rather than man as Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church in Edmonton, Alberta, who was arrested by the RCMP last week for holding regular church services and remains in police custody as of the time of this writing, or Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist Church in Calgary, who held a service last weekend in solidarity with Pastor Coates. While Coates’ arrest demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that I have been right in everything I have been saying since last March about how these public health orders are the latest manifestation of the anti-Christian, anti-freedom, atheistic and materialistic, spirit of Communist oppression and are utterly out of place in a Commonwealth Realm in which the basic rights and freedoms these orders treat as inconsequential are supposed to be the guaranteed Common Law property of citizens as Her Majesty's free subjects, this is not really my point here. If most Christian leaders can’t find the balls to do what Pastors Coates and Stephens have done, a rather predictable consequence of the widespread ordination of women due to a previous generation’s departure from the clear teachings of the Scriptures and church tradition on that subject, then the least they can do, to borrow Solzhenitsyn’s language, is to refuse to participate in the lies covering up the totalitarian violence and oppression of the lockdown measures. Specifically, they can reject the lie that the “electronic church” of today is somehow different and better than the “electronic church” of forty years ago, because it is online rather than on television. This lie rests upon the underlying notion that the internet is an actual space where people can really meet and actively participate in something together rather than the mere passive viewing which is all that the voyeurism of television makes available. I am inclined to say that this notion, too, is a lie, although it contains the element of truth that the internet has an interactional element that was not there in television. Along with that element of truth, however, it contains the assumption that this is an improvement rather than something that moves us closer to the dystopia of the Matrix. That assumption, I would say, is at the very least, highly dubious.