Beyond 'Becky Goes to Bible Camp'

GREENVILLE, Ill. - After 35 years of work in television and sports, Bob Briner is a pro at spotting doors of opportunity in the numbers churned out by media-research firms.

So he wasn't surprised that the new Internet-based Digital Entertainment Network is poised to cybercast a show called "Redemption High." This post-MTV drama will, according to USA Today, center on "several Christian teens, a group almost completely ignored by broadcast television. ... The teens grapple with problems by asking themselves what Jesus would do in their situation."

The twist isn't who is producing "Redemption High," but who is not.

"It's stunning that the people at a hip outfit like DEN would see this opening right there in the demographics," said Briner, co-founder and president of ProServ Television in Dallas and a global pioneer in pro tennis and other sports media. "But of course they saw it! It should be obvious this audience is waiting out there. ... What's so amazing and so sad is that Christian people still can't see it."

The former basketball player and football coach laughed and waved his giant hand, like he was backhanding a pesky gnat. "Let's face it. Most Christians still won't get behind a project in the entertainment business unless you're gonna make 'Becky Goes to Bible Camp,' " he said.

Briner is a conservative churchman and he doesn't enjoy making this kind of wisecrack. Nevertheless, the 63-year-old entrepreneur has - beginning with a 1993 book called "Roaring Lambs" -- grown increasingly candid in his critiques of the religious establishment. His work has had an especially strong impact in Nashville, the Bible Belt's entertainment capital.

Now, after writing or co-writing seven books in six years, Briner is working with even greater urgency. The early title for his next book is "Christians Have Failed America: And Some of Us are Sorry" and he is writing it while fighting cancer.

Most Christians, he argues in the first chapter, are sinfully content to write for other Christians, sing to other Christians, produce television programs for other Christians, educate other Christians, debate other Christians and to only do business with other Christians.

"Shameful," he writes. "We have failed and are failing America. I am sorry. In failing to show up ... in the places that really count, where the moral, ethical and spiritual health of our country is concerned, we have left our country exposed and vulnerable to all the ills we now see besetting it. We have not provided a way of escape, even though we profess to know the way."

It's a sobering message. But the key is that Briner is a both successful - an Emmy winner who has worked with Arthur Ashe, Dave Dravecky, Michael Jordan and many others - and the kind of generous mentor who has voluntarily helped scores of rookies. A few years ago he sold his homes in Dallas and Paris and moved here to central Illinois to work in a one-stoplight town with students at his alma mater, Greenville College.

"Bob is a gadfly - but one with tremendous grace -- who prods the Church along and asks that we take risks, practice excellence and humbly direct praise to God," said Dave Palmer, an executive at Squint Entertainment in Nashville. Briner, he said, keeps stressing that work must be "recognized on its artistic merits first and not ghetto-ized by any confining terms."

Still, most believers find it easier to blame the secular media for all of society's ills, rather than doing the hard work of funding and creating quality alternatives.

"Basically, we continue to take the easy way out," said Briner. "You can't offer the gospel to people if you aren't there in the marketplace and if you have never earned the right to even talk to them. We have failed to give people the chance to choose good things instead of bad things. We have not offered them the best that we have. ...

"Producing a 'Chariots of Fire' every 25 years or so won't get it done. We have to produce a 'Chariots of Fire' every week or every day if we are serious about giving people an alternative worldview to what Hollywood is selling them."