Selling Catholicism

Christopher Lynch, Author
Christopher Lynch, Author University Press of Kentucky $35 (216p) ISBN 978-0-8131-2067-6
Reviewed on: 09/14/1998
Release date: 09/01/1998
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Long before millions of faithful viewers turned on their TVs and welcomed Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart into their living rooms, thousands of viewers opened their homes to Bishop Fulton Sheen by tuning into his TV program, Life Is Worth Living. Broadcast nationally from 1952 to 1957, Sheen's weekly program of spiritual advice was so popular that its ratings dethroned Milton Berle's The Texaco Star Theatre from first place in 1953, won an Emmy in 1952 and catapulted Sheen, whose face appeared on the covers of Time and Cue, to celebrity status. Lynch, who teaches communications at Kean University (N.J.), examines 42 episodes of Life Is Worth Living to analyze the Sheen phenomenon. Using rhetorical analysis of the show, Lynch contends that the Bishop's popularity arose as much from his presentation as from the content of his messages. From Sheen's opening greeting, ""Friends...,"" to his parting words, ""Bye now, and God love you!,"" viewers were treated as the Bishop's intimate friends. Such intimacy, according to Lynch, was also created by the camera's close-up shots of Sheen as he kept ""his gaze fixed on the viewers, inviting them to laugh at his jokes, learn from his blackboard diagrams, and change their values."" Having erased the gap between priest and laity, Sheen went on to deliver sermons and spiritual lessons on the strengths of the Catholic church in America, the horrors of Communism and the role of women. Lynch's accessible use of communications theory to elucidate cultural and religious events provides an insightful glimpse into a portion of American religious and media history. (Sept.)
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