SELLING CATHOLICISM by Christopher Owen Lynch


Bishop Sheen and the Power of Television
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A thin, unsatisfactory examination of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s rise to television prominence in the 1950s. Lynch (Communication and Theatre/Kean Univ.) sets out to examine how the bishop, the most popular religious TV personality of that decade, made Catholicism appeal to mainstream Americans. Lynch found and analyzed not just transcripts but the actual tapes from Sheen’s Life Is Worth Living program. Because of this, he is able to demonstrate how Sheen played off his audience with gestures, eye contact, and camera angles, showing the bishop to have been a very sophisticated manipulator of the new medium. Lynch also does a nice job in reviewing the content of Sheen’s half-hour monologues; the chapter on his incorporation of Marian tradition into1950s rhetoric on women and the family is the best in the book. That said, Selling Catholicism falls short because it usually fails to connect Sheen to the wider culture, even though he addressed it so handily. Lynch ventures all sorts of general statements about McCarthyism, nuclear anxieties, and class mobility, but he never explains these generalizations in any systematic or analytical way. Such vagueness is due in no small measure to Lynch’s apparent lack of secondary research about the postwar period in America (as indicated in his bibliography). In the third chapter, for example, Lynch asserts that Sheen’s emphasis on the hierarchical, “corporate” nature of society attracted many in the ’50s because the era emphasized the “subordination of the individual,” an intriguing yet undeveloped (and unproven) assertion. Throughout the book, paragraphs culminate with sweeping statements that strain credibility. Useful for its assessments of Sheen’s sermons. Yet Lynch has missed the mark he set for himself: tying Sheen’s popularity to larger cultural trends. (5 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-8131-2067-5
Page count: 216pp
Publisher: Univ. Press of Kentucky
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1st, 1998