The electronic church serves as a mouthpiece; but it should not be confused with the whole body.

The program’s preliminary speaker is a skilled Assemblies of God pastor from Maine with a lyrical Irish accent. He begins calmly, “I just want to share a few verses of Scripture with you here, and then I’ll be done.”

The story, from I Kings, becomes less a retelling than a 20-minute dramatic performance. His arms flail the air. He falls to his knees. “God will take your nothingness and through it do anything!” he shouts.

A crowd erupts into applause. In front of them a well-groomed, smiling man in a vested suit nods his head enthusiastically, holding his hands high and clapping to encourage applause, pantomiming “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.”

To the right, off camera, is a formal living room setting, with a plush blue carpet and baby blue walls accentuated by cream-colored Corinthian columns. Jim Bakker, 38, host of the PTL Club (“Praise The Lord,” or “People That Love”), sits behind a desk there, shuffling through papers, studying the lineup of guests who will appear as soon as the preacher finishes.

Miss Illinois of 1959 is clearing her throat, waiting for her entry cue. Four cameras mounted on silent electric carts—$80,000 cameras, the best in the business—sweep the scenes, focusing now on the preacher, now on an intense listener. Overhead, a bank of 300 computer-controlled lights swivel and adjust.

Other people flutter around the studio, dodging cameras and stepping over electric cables thick as an arm. Beautiful, stylishly dressed women whisper instructions to the next guests while a make-up expert freshly powders their noses. The smell ...

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