Monday, March 17, 2008

Palms, St. Patrick and a Pentecostal Preacher

For the last six years, Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter has been an important date in my life. After the double whammy of a cancer diagnosis and the breakup of a 24-year marriage, I returned to the practice of Catholic Christianity with a vengeance, becoming active at Holy Cross Church in Santa Cruz in variety of ways. Under the influence of Thomas Merton's writings, I had converted to Catholicism in the mid-1980s but lapsed when I found my liberal, left-wing perspective on spirituality was uncommon among local parishioners. Upon returning to the Church, however, I began to meet a number of faithful Catholics who put social justice (which I considered the core of the Gospel message) first. And when I helped Fr. Cyprian Consiglio organize Sangha Shantivanam, I was pleased to learn that many devout Catholics were open to a universal contemplative religiosity that honored non-Christian traditions.

The center of the Church year is not Christmas but Holy Week during which elaborate and ancient rituals mark the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the Last Supper with his disciples on Holy Thursday with its foot-washing ceremony, his death by crucifixion on Good Friday, and his resurrection from the tomb on Easter Sunday. New members are initiated into the Church at Easter Vigil. On Palm Sunday, palm branches are distributed (a year later the ash from their burning is used to mark foreheads as a sign of penitence on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-days of Lent before Easter). Every year I have done my best to follow the stories and the tradition and participate in the rituals.

Despite the fact that for a number of reasons I have gradually shed my Catholic identity during the past year, I attended the Palm Sunday service yesterday morning at Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok. At the beginning of the service, Fr. Anthony Sirichai called the congregation outside where he blessed the palm branches (above). Back inside, the Gospel reading for the liturgy of the word was the entire passion story from Matthew with the congregation, lector and priest taking different parts. The second reading was that wonderful passage from Philippians where Jesus "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave." This always signifies to me the radical emptying of self, the transcending of the ego which is the goal of Buddhism as well as of a global contemplative spirituality.

The pews at Holy Redeemer were packed, with electric fans doing their best to circulate the hot and humid air that can become oppressive as the "dry season" here in Thailand turns into the "hot season." The words and the responses of the liturgy were familiar and I sensed the tug and pull to join in. But the ritual felt empty. It was form without content. I could not put myself in it. Missing was the confirmation and encouragement of close friends. Without a supportive community, the claims of Catholic doctrine seem hollow. I found the exclusive language jarring. It seemed as if the mix of Asian religions outside the door were excluded from this very private club. I wondered if I lacked a ritual gene which would allow me to take part in a deeper sense, or if my critical faculties would always get in the way of full participation. Even during my years of membership in the Church, I could never commit totally to the truths signified by the rituals.

Even my conversion was an intellectual process. What I lacked was religious enthusiasm. In its original Greek sense, "enthusiasm" meant the inspiration or possession by a divine spirit. Up through the 18th century it pointed to intense religious fervor or emotion. Today, washed of all religious connotation, the word "enthusiasm" merely means devotion to an idea, cause or pursuit.

Another ritual, perhaps equally empty (unless you're Irish), is the celebration of Saint Patrick's Day -- today. I'm wearing my pale green Luang Prabang tee shirt because when I was young you got in trouble with the kids at school if you didn't have on something green (but not if it was Thursday which meant that you were gay. In Thailand green is Wednesday's color -- go figure). Patrick supposedly drove the snakes out of Ireland, but apparently there weren't any there after the glacial period. So it has been explained that "snakes" metaphorically stood for the Druids who practiced their native animism until Christ's missionaries arrived. I'll be looking for some Guinness and a bowl of Irish stew to celebrate this afternoon. Happy St. Pat's Day to one and all.

The subject of rituals and religious enthusiasm came up after watching "Marjoe," the Academy Award winning documentary film from 1972, directed by Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith, that followed former child evangelist Marjoe Gortner on the Pentacostal tent revival circuit as he exposed the preaching techniques that his parents had drilled into him at the age of four. Marjoe (a combination of Mary and Joseph) in the film is a curly-haired Adonis who later had a brief career as a rock singer and actor. He explained to the cameras that he was "bad but not evil" as he used the strutting style of Mick Jagger to bring souls to Jesus. Called a "preaching machine" by his father, who confiscated most of the millions he made as a child, Marjoe today laughingly calls himself a "Holy Hustler" as he conducts "celebrity sports invitational events" and charity auctions.

What impressed me in the film were not so much the con man techniques that Marjoe used, and which have been elaborated by today's televangelists (their cynical hypocrisy exposed in numerous scandals). What I found moving was the religious enthusiasm of the believers at the revival meetings that was captured on film by Kernochan and Smith. These Christians were both men and women, young and old, black and white, and Marjoe's charismatic preaching, however fraudulent his words might have been, induced in them an obvious ecstatic trance state. Many walked up to receive a blessing or a healing from him in the laying on of his hands, and quite a few collapsed in what can only be described as an epileptic-like seizure. Others began babbling in tongues, nonsense words in no known language which the intellectuals call "glossolalia" and the faithful see as a sign of the presence of the Holy Spirit. Eyes closed, hands waving in the air to praise God and Jesus, the smiles on their faces look real. This was an experience of joy that seemed to elude me.

Years ago, My Aunt Nan and her family joined a Pentecostal church in Washington, D.C., where her husband Sid worked in the Air Force at the Pentagon. Uncle Ted, my father's gay twin brother, used to tell the story of once attending church with them in a converted movie theater, their blond hair and blue eyes in stark contrast to the preponderance of blacks in the audience. When the children, his nephews and nieces, started speaking in tongues he was horrified. Later the oldest son left college after seeing, he said, a devil sitting on the shoulder of one of his professors. While their beliefs were moderated later in life, the father, a severe and humorless man, died an unrepentant Pentecostal Christian.

Let me say that I fear religious enthusiasm, or ecstasy, as much as I envy those whose spirituality is a total bodily experience and not just a head trip. When I opened myself up to the possibility of religious conversion by entering the spiritual path in the early 1980s, I cringed at the thought that God might strike me with lightening and that I might become one of those obnoxious born-again Christians. It didn't happen. Even the Roman Catholic Church now has charismatic services where faith healing supposedly takes place. I have avoided them like the plague. But Marjoe's followers fascinated me. And I felt a teeny bit envious.

After the film was first released, Marjoe was interviewed by Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman for a chapter in their book, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change (1978). The authors define "snapping" as : "An experience that is unmistakably traumatic...Sudden change comes in a moment of intense experience that is not so much a peak as a precipice, an unforeseen break in the continuity of awareness that may leave them detached, withdrawn, disoriented - and utterly confused." For Marjoe, the divine moment of religious ecstasy has no mystical quality at all. It is a simple matter of group frenzy that has its counterpart in every crowd. "It's the same at a rock-and-roll concert," he told he authors. "You have an opening number with a strong entrance; then you go through a lot of the old standards, building up to your hit song at the end." The hit song, however, is spiritual rebirth, or what I am calling religious enthusiasm.

According to Conway and Siegelman, the difference between Marjoe and some of his modern-day fellow preachers and pretenders is that "Marjoe has always held his congregation in high regard. During his years on the Bible Belt circuit, he came to see the Evangelical experience as a form of popular entertainment, a kind of participatory divine theater that provides its audiences with profound emotional rewards." Marjoe told them:
The people who are out there don't see it as entertainment, although that is in fact the way it is. These people don't go to movies; they don't go to bars and drink; they don't go to rock-and-roll concerts -- but everyone has to have an emotional release. So they go to revivals and they dance around and talk in tongues. It's socially approved and that is their escape. It was my duty to give them the best show possible.
But this experience doesn't last. And Marjoe was disheartened when he observed the hardening of the arteries of religious enthusiasm.
When I was traveling, I'd see someone who wanted to get saved in one of my meetings, and he was so open and bubbly in his desire to get the Holy Ghost. It was wonderful and very fresh, but four years later I'd return and that person might be a hard-nosed intolerant Christian because he had Christ. That's when the danger comes in. People want an experience. They want to feel good, and their lives can be helped by it. But then as you start moving into the operation of the thing, you get into controlling people and power and money.
Marjoe was taught to preach at the age of 4 (his parents claimed he underwent a baptismal experience in a bathtub at 2), but never to believe in the God he professed in the revival tent. In his teens he ran away and lived with an older woman in Santa Cruz where he went to high school. In the early 1960s he attended San Jose State College and dabbled in sex, drugs and rock and roll. He returned to the preaching circuit because he was broke and his reputation gave him entré. But disgusted by the commercialization of salvation and the power trips of the preachers, he contacted the film makers and offered to expose revivalism on camera. Later he made a record and acted in films and TV shows, but none of it brought him the kind of success he had enjoyed as the Shirley Temple of the Bible Belt.

Christopher Hitchens, in his diatribe against all religion, god is not Great, finds fodder for his argument in the "mind-numbing story" of Marjoe, the "'infant phenomenon' of American evangelical hucksterism." He was obviously the victim of child abuse, Hitchens' major complaint against childhood conversions. The author writes that
[Y]oung Master Gortner was thrust into the pulpit at the age of four, dressed in a revolting Little Lord Fauntleroy suit, and told to say that he had been divinely commanded to preach. If he complained or cried, his mother would hold him under the water tap or press a cushion on his face, alway being careful, as he relates it, to leave no marks. Trained like a seal, he soon attracted the cameras, and by the age of six was officiating at the weddings of grown-ups.
Hitchens relates the "whole racket of American evangelism" to the selling of indulgences, like pieces of the "true cross," during the Middle Ages. "But to see the crime exposed by someone who is both a victim and a profiteer is nonetheless quite shocking even to a hardened unbeliever."

Based on the film, Hitchens presents his own description of religious enthusiasm: "People weep and yell, and collapse in spasms and fits, shrieking their savior's name." Perhaps he could have said the same about people at Rolling Stones concert during the British group's heyday. Or about the screaming teenagers at a Beatles concert in the 1960s or a Frank Sinatra show in the 1940s. How different is the secular enthusiasm of shrieking crowds at a football or soccer match? Ecstasy is a component of many non-Christian religious rituals, such as Sufi dancing, or the extreme ascetic practices of yogis (seen in the excellent documentary about Kumbh Mela in India, "Shortcut to Nirvana.") And I do NOT want to argue that religious enthusiasm cannot be analyzed critically. The induced hysteria of children pictured in the documentary "Jesus Camp," and the revolting beliefs of Baptist preacher Fred Phelps (his sole message is "God Hates Fags") documented in "Fall From Grace," are to be equally condemned.

But what, I want to know, is the function of religious enthusiasm? I do not see it just as irrational behavior (the rational-irrational dichotomy is too simplistic). Philosopher Michael Polanyi argues for the term "nonrational" to avoid an automatic negative connotation. The appreciation of beauty, and even sexual pleasure, is largely nonrational and disappears when you apply an ethic of calculation. The existence of religious enthusiasm does not guarantee a dogmatic religious explanation. Happiness and joy, for example, might be conducive to health, no matter what their cause.

Marjoe, according to Conway and Siegelman, "displayed tremendous respect for the experience as an expression of spirituality and fellowship." He told them, "I don't have any power. And neither do any of these other guys. Hundreds of people were healed at my crusades, but I know damn well it was nothing I was doing."

Our LittleBang Sangha in Bangkok will view the Marjoe film next Saturday, March 22, and discuss the issues it raises, about fundamentalist Christianity and about the role of religious enthusiasm in other religions, including Buddhism. For more information about this event, if you're in the neighborhood, click here.

WISDOM OF THE WEEK: Jack Nicholson's aging character to Morgan Freeman's in "The Bucket List" (written by Justin Zakham):
Never pass up a bathroom, never waste a hard-on, and never trust a fart.


littlebang said...

The more I reflect on it, the less I blame marjoe's parents. I'd have loved to have an adult, any adult, take an interest in me when I was young. And they were teaching him what they believed was good and right. There is no hint that his parents ever considered themselves conmen of any kind - though they were privvy to all that Marjoe was.

Anonymous said...

Littlebang - If you read the biograhy MARJOE you'll feel differently about the parents. Though credited to Stephen Gaines, the book is really more of an autobiography as Gortner himself was involved in every aspect of the writing. It IS possible that the parents truly believed in the gospel they were preaching, but they definately knew about the art of the con. THEY taught these things to Marjoe - particularly the mother. Reading the book one can get the feeling that the father was swept off his feet by his new young wife - there is no evidence that he used these practices in his first church, or that the famous Gortner forefathers ever evangelized in that manner. Try to locate the book (out of print) on eBay - its a spellbinding short read and makes a great "primer" for the documentary.

Anonymous said...

ooops sorry I mispelled - the bio is by Steven S. Gaines - not ph