TELEVISION / Fear and loving in LA: Thomas Sutcliffe on new religions

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The Independent Culture
IT IS difficult to imagine Christopher Hitchens yelling 'Give us the answer Lord]' in some extremity of the spirit. In fact it is a bit difficult to imagine Hitchens in an extremity of the spirit at all. His air of rumpled, urbane scepticism would seem to rule out a dark night of the soul; you would hear a faint click as he turned on a flashlight and set about finding out just where he had ended up. Either that or a cigarette lighter.

You didn't actually see him with fag in hand in Divine L A (C 4) but everything else about his appearance - the peekaboo shirt front, the just-out-of-the-shower hairstyle, the loose tie and crumpled suit - seemed calculated to stick two fingers up at L A's rigid morality of self-improvement.

Most viewers will have been this way before but, if you have a taste for the gaudier excesses of religious faith, it is always worth the detour. Hitchens quoted Frank Lloyd Wright's celebrated crack about California quite early ('If you turn North America on its edge everything loose rolls towards California') and added some historical details to back up his suggestion that the city had always been an incubator for new religions. Aimee Semple McPherson established the first media church in L A before the war, broadcasting the Four Square Gospel on the radio from Echo Park. She was broadminded about the best way to spread the word, on one occasion roaring up the aisle on a motorcycle dressed as a traffic cop and yelling 'you're gonna get a one-way ticket to hell'. She eventually succumbed to rumours about her sex-life and the dark suggestion that she had had a facelift.

With this information in mind you couldn't help staring a little suspiciously at the unwrinkled visage of Robert B Schuller. Perhaps it was a result of a serene and sinless life (unlike most of his colleagues, the only stain on his reputation is that he counts Richard Nixon as a supporter) but the Reverend Schuller's nostrils appear to have started on their ascent to heaven well before the rest of his face. The film properly didn't speculate on this, reserving its scepticism for the sermons. 'Think big, pray big' (which presumably came straight off God's bumper) was one of the church's 'more sophisticated doctrines,' Hitchens noted dryly.

This low-cal, caffeine-free theology was the real root of Hitchens' disdain for Californian worship. The 'spiritual supermarket' he called it, conjuring up the mad prodigality of American retail, in which an absurd choice of redemptions is on offer and your own requirements need never be adjusted to fit the recalcitrance of the world.

The worshippers turning up at Schuller's mirror-glass cathedral certainly displayed consumer savvy rather than existential doubt. 'He's not ya basic fire 'n' brimstone preacher,' said one satisfied customer, who had done some comparison shopping before pushing her eternal soul across the counter. Against the gospel of 'the lenient, the bogus, the consoling' Hitchens offered the harder truths of literature, a secular recognition of a world without easy answers, and he did it with such conviction that if the film is ever broadcast in L A they'll probably set a church up for him.