Life through my myopic eyes.

Snake Oil Salesmen


Cover of "Religulous"

Cover of Religulous

After my post about the evangelical posers and pretenders I was watching some of the uploaded shopping channels on YouTube from television. I suddenly realized that the ‘sales staff’ for the shopping channels could be the first cousins to the evangelical ‘sales staff’ especially in their method of delivery and the attitude of, ‘I know a secret that you don’t.’

Of course when I was growing up in Arkansas, there was a never-ending parade of southern preachers who went on television to let us know their secret. In those long ago days of youth, all the preachers sounded the same:

“Come on up here-uh, Brother-uh and Sister-uh! You too-uh can be saved-uh!” All this was delivered in a sweaty paroxysm of heavy breathing and excited shouting. You just knew that this messenger from God knew something you did not. I can well imagine that it was some secret of crowd control.

Now watching the shopping channel doesn’t have quite the same entertainment value. For a start none of the presenters faces the camera and calls the viewers ‘Brother-uh or Sister-uh’ and they are not sweaty or breathing hard or shouting. The one thing they do have in common is the ability to make us believe that they know something we do not.

In their sales pitch, they make sure that we know that the waterless cookware that they are flogging is best thing since sliced bread. Either they have personally used this new product or someone they know or a member of their family have.  They are letting us into this secret and giving us the chance to purchase this new ‘wonder’ product (which usually will not be available in stores) for a great ‘knocked down’ price.

Bill Maher is an American stand-up comedian, television host, political commentator, author and actor. He also produced and starred in the 2008 documentary Religulous. Religulous looks at Christianity and questions whether it’s telling the truth about what happened all those years ago when Jesus walked the earth. Maher also looks at how a lot of Christians have a sort of smugness about them.

This smugness says that they know something the rest of the world does not. In essence they believe that in the area of spirituality they are superior to non-believers or non-Christians. While Maher’s film got a lot of flack from Christian groups it did sell a few home truths about religion and the attitudes of the more devout.

Now I don’t agree or disagree with Maher’s film’s findings or the possibility that the whole bible is a sort of ‘urban myth’ that has been perpetuated over the centuries. I do believe that once men got involved with translating the bible and its message, that men’s opinions have convoluted the message.

This convolution is over and above the inherent problems built into translating and transcribing any book from the original language that it has been written in. I remember clearly a man who worked for my father finding out through his prayer group that a certain verse in the bible had been translated incorrectly. The original language had been translated into Greek and somehow the meaning had been altered.

It was not a big problem as the meaning had not been so mangled by the mistranslation that generations of Christians were doomed because the bible verse had been incorrectly written. But men’s opinions and personal beliefs have always altered the message of the bible. Why do you think there are so many different churches and cults and branches of churches?

Someone in a congregation decided that the message meant something different from what their church was teaching so they broke away and found ‘like-minded’ folks to join their new church. Something that was going to happen regardless of the original message or intent of the bible.

Step right up!

Sorry, I seem to have wandered off topic, but I am heading back to my point. I titled this post Snake Oil Salesmen. The reason for this is that both the shopping channel spokesperson and the televised evangelical preacher are both selling a product. Just like the snake oil salesman of western days, who travelled from town to town with his miracle cure stashed in his wagon.

Of course the main reason the salesmen of old moved around so often was that their product was fake. It consisted of alcohol, a few herbs and spices and possibly some sort of cheap medicinal product to make it at least look genuine. The snake oil salesman would make claims about the ability of his medicine to cure damn near anything. That he had this secret thing that would improve the lives of all who took it.

Of course the main reason the salesmen of old moved around so often was that their product was fake. It consisted of alcohol, a few herbs and spices and possible some sort of cheap medicinal product to make it at least look genuine. The snake oil salesman would make claims about the ability of his medicine to cure damn near anything. That he had this secret thing that would improve the lives of all who took it.

Keeping one step ahead of the townspeople he had tricked into buying his useless concoction, the salesmen would move onto the next town and hope that word of his product had not preceded him.

These salesmen of old have been replaced by shopping networks with a myriad of channels and products. You can buy a ‘fat-free’ steak grill or waterless cookware or even vibrating sex toys, depending on the channel you tune into or the time of day that the channels airing.

The shopping channels first cousins, the evangelical channels all seem to work on independent channels or some of the lower frequency channels that make up a lot of local public or community channels. There seems to be little to no regulation of these smaller stations. But like the spokesmen on the shopping channel the evangelist follows the same route of ‘knowing something that we don’t’ and that their secret is better than anything else you can buy off the television.

You too can have not only eternal peace when you die, but if you pay in some money (the more the better) your life can improve on earth while you’re waiting for your spot in heaven to open up. These snake oil salesmen have a pretty good thing going. They cannot be sued for false advertising. How many folks do you know who have come from death stating that their way into heaven was denied because they’d followed the wrong evangelist?

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is room in the world for shopping channels and for televised evangelical preachers. If nothing else they can provide a certain amount of entertainment. Just don’t be surprised if you should literally buy into any of the products they are selling and find out that they are not what they were advertised to be.

Personally I think that anyone who asks me for money, in the name of religion, to secure a place for me and my loved ones in heaven or to improve my family’s life here on earth is the worst sort of con-artist. I’ve read the bible off and on for quite a few years now and I don’t remember reading anywhere that I had to pay for a prayer to be heard or that payment was required to purchase a one-way ticket to heaven.

Be careful of these modern snake oil salesmen, we may not be able to run them out-of-town on a rail in these more sophisticated times, but we can definitely keep them from taking our money under false pretenses.

I am sure that both products can be found a little closer to home and probably for a lot cheaper. Sure I may not be able to buy a pocket fisherman at my local Wal-Mart, but I think I can live without it. And the last time I checked, mankind’s faith and believes are free.

Hidden Crucifix in Buddhist shrine in Japan

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Categorised in: Personal, Philosophical, Reflective, Religion, Television

9 Responses »

  1. Not sure what to say about this one, Mike, but I do like the way you say it.

  2. Excellent as usual. One thing I hate about sales, legitimate or not, is this over-inflated aura of excitement or urgency salesmen feel they have to put on. Even if a product is indeed the most amazing thing ever I get turned off when a Billy Mays wannabe shouts it in my face or goes into a long spiel over the phone without letting me get a word in. In most cases, I know what I want and I wish the salespeople would just answer any questions that I have and then get out of my way.

  3. Well said, Mike! At least with the snake oil salesmen and home shopping gurus, they sell tangible goods/wares (fake/”too-good-to-be-true” or not). These days it seems for every aspect of experience – faith, hope, happiness, love, creativity – there’s someone or some group who’s found a way to make it a commodity – to package it, slap a label on it and sell it for four easy installments of $9.99.

    Nice reference to Religulous, by the way. I found that a really fascinating look at the whole subject – and Bill Maher pulls no punches!

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