Let the Buddhists have their mandalas; give the Muslims Mecca; we have The Price Is Right. Five days a week at 11:00 A.M., soaring audio and video levels, howling graphics, and dizzying camera shots herald the appearance of a ministry as fervent as any in the world. The names of the chosen few are called out in demographic perfection—a black or two, Latins, perky coeds, Marine sergeants, and Sun Belt retirees. Exhorted to “Come on Down!” they spring from their seats like human Pop-Tarts and race to take their places at the bidding rostrums. Released from purgatory, they have taken the first step on the path to ultimate redemption in the Showcase Showdown.

When they have settled in, the name of the All-Powerful One is finally intoned; the stage doors part, the congregation rises, and Bob Barker—High Priest of the temple of Conspicuous Consumption—strides on stage, his impeccably tailored suit fluttering lightly in the breeze. His crop of snowy white hair lends him an aloof yet benevolent air. I am touched by the transformation of the man from the cynical, satanic persona I once saw on Truth or Consequences to this present magisterial incarnation. His canonization marks a minor triumph of one of America’s greatest inventions: the reinvention (see Reagan and Nixon).

Now, the emotion heightens another notch as ravishing models emerge to serve as Guardian Angels of the Sacred Treasure. Their semi-erotic enthusiasm for the first item—a trash compactor—is so compelling that it seems to lead the first group of bidders astray. Priest Barker subtly chastises them for their wayward bidding, and finally a devout Latin shopper triumphs and ascends to the altar. To prove that she is worthy of the Church’s redemption, the Heavenly Host demands she recite her catechism: how much is this sunscreenhotsaucemiraclcgrowsnugglefabricsoftenervelamint? She displays a woeful ignorance of the sacred pricing structures, but skillfully manipulates one of the Church icons—a golf club—to make a long putt, propitiate the gods, and win a red Subaru.

Two bidding rituals ensue and it’s time for a major Church sacrament—the spinning of the Prayer Wheel. Manipulation of a giant wheel inscribed with numbers will determine which penitent has the best relationship with the Gods of Fate and will thus proceed to the Showcase Showdown. A hyperventilating Black Priestess, a stoic thirtyish male Initiate, and a pert Vestal Virgin in a short white dress all spin, under Host Barker’s supervision. They spin for our sins, but regardless of whether our contestant wins—like the Vestal Virgin—the Host still wants us back; he bellows; “Write for tickets! Join me in Southern California—dream capital! Spiritual locus!”

Our next devotee arrives wearing a sexy halter-top, and a concupiscent gleam lights up Priest Barker’s brow. Leering affably, he’s the People’s Priest—sexist and paternal. The Angels roll out a stove for the audience’s adoration, along with some sacramental Rice-a-Roni (the Saint Francisco treat). Doris the grandmother bids last and wins. Overwhelmed with The Spirit, she can barely mount the stage and gets lost approaching the host. Alas, Doris loses at “Squeeze Play” and the general morale plummets, but cameras pan the crowd, “Applause” signs flash, and spirits soar once more. No place for depression in The Temple!

George ascends next. He sports a natty white moustache, white polyester clothes of the retirement sort, and long, roguish sideburns—the “Fallen Rector” look. In order to gain access to the Church treasury, he must acquire giant tablets by correctly bidding and skillfully drop them into a giant maze. But the Devil seems to have his paws on the huge wafers, for they all fall with a thud into worthless slots. The Rector slinks off, hoping for later redemption at the Big Wheel.

With no contests left, the cameras pan the losers, forcing them to assume courageous smiles while their paltry consolation prizes come up on the screen: Dessert-of-the-Month-Club memberships, multivitamins, and Fi-Bars with semi-discredited oat bran. We have one more go-around at the Giant Prayer Wheel and Doris triumphs. This means the Matriarch must confront the Vestal Virgin in the culminating ceremony.

Priest Barker now presides over the final and most austere ritual of the service—the Showcase Showdown. The first showcase is wondrous—Lakers season tickets, a computer, and a car. Will a bid of $12,500 get Doris into the Sanctum Sanctorum? The second showcase features the disconnected legs of a model emerging from a huge black bathtub, a bedroom set, and, finally, a houseboat.

By the grace of the Television Gods, the more photogenic Vestal Virgin bids closer to the mark and is declared the winner. Canned music swells and, with the bounty of the Church treasury as backdrop, we close out the service with High Priest Barker gazing out over his flock and joking contentedly with the nubile Temple Angels.

We viewers must now brace ourselves for a jarring descent from the sacred to the mundane—the midday news. Our only solace lies in knowing that approximately seven hours later we will be able to reconsecrate ourselves by observing the austere rituals involving another Sacred Wheel—this one presided over by the great goddess Vanna White.