Pax Americana

Culture | New family network shies away from Christ

Issue: "The new school year," Sept. 11, 1999

Lowell "Bud" Paxson deserves a hearty mazeltov for doing more than complaining about the culture. He has used his profits from the Home Shopping Network (which he started and then sold) to create Pax, a network of 86 broadcast television stations (including stations in the top 20 markets) that he hopes "provides programming God would want to watch."

And yet, there's a fundamental flaw at the heart of the fledgling network, a flaw that needn't prove fatal. Mr. Paxson doesn't see his network as Christian, as such, but rather "family-friendly." And so the shows it picks up (Touched by an Angel, Eight Is Enough) and now produces (Hope Island, Twice in a Lifetime) tend to be vaguely spiritual but ultimately unsatisfying.

Certainly, TV shows do not have to be sermons. There's value in Touched by an Angel, a common grace (even in the formal sense of that phrase). Mr. Paxson, who became a Christian in 1986, might not be very far off when he claims that Touched by an Angel "does more for the kingdom of God than all of the televangelists combined."

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He might not be far off, but he is off.

Dorothy Sayers explains in her book, Creed or Chaos: "It is worse than useless for Christians to talk about the importance of Christian morality, unless they are prepared to take their stand on the fundamentals of Christian theology. It is a lie to say that dogma does not matter; it matters enormously.... If we want a Christian society, we must teach Christianity."

The alternative, she says, is chaos, "the flight from reason and the death of hope."

Far better to offer "not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to lovingkindness and uplift-but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and the gate of death. Show that to the heathen, and they may not believe it; but at least they will realize that here is something a man might be glad to believe."

Pax TV's error is best seen in Hope Island, a Sunday evening series premiering Sept. 12. It's a fine show; possibly the best that Christian broadcasting (sorry, make that family-friendly broadcasting) has yet produced. It's based on Ballykissangel, the BBC's highest-ever rated program (it gets a 50 percent share in the UK).

Hope Island is about a minister, Daniel Cooper, who arrives in a quirky island town to take a long-abandoned pastorate. At its best, Hope Island is like Northern Exposure with a soul. It shows odd, endearing characters and relationships we want to see develop. One man is often seen walking his pet crab; the mother-and-daughter team who run the general store haven't spoken to each other since an argument 17 years ago (though they communicate splendidly through notes and a blackboard).

Daniel's beliefs are left vague, and that rejection of creed quickly leads to ethical chaos. In the second episode of Hope Island, Daniel goes to visit a retired judge, a man he's been warned is disagreeable and gruff, and who helped his cancer-stricken wife commit suicide.

Daniel's first reaction is the right one-euthanasia is wrong. But after the show's only real sermon (by the lady barkeep, Alex, who tells Daniel, "Not everyone has to conform to your set of values"), he visits the dying judge and apologizes. Euthanasia, it seems, can be a family value.

Other original series premiering on Pax include Twice in a Lifetime, which is about an angel-like "guide" who lets people go back in time to change a major event in each of their lives. It's a Miracle, starring Richard Thomas (John-Boy Walton), is a reality series about people and "their personal encounters with faith." But both of these suffer from the same affliction as Hope Island-timidity about presenting the actual content of Christian faith.

There is much to commend in Pax TV, especially when it is compared to the sleazy programming on other networks. But it needs better programming. For that, it needs Christian writers, producers, and network heads who will be bold and courageous.


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