Holy Ghost Hypocrisy

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on January 5.]

There are more prominent hucksters in American religion, but perhaps none as honest as Marjoe Gortner. “Charlatan” is a word custom-made for him. I’m not sure why I hadn’t come across the 1972 Academy Award-winning documentary Marjoe before I found it on Sundance Now (you can also see the full film on YouTube here). After watching it, I was all the more surprised I hadn’t seen it—until I found this fascinating interview with the director, Sarah Kernochan, who says it was all but lost until 2002, when she came across an original negative of the film. (Another essay by her is here [although her misspelling of “Pentecostal” and her facile connections make me grimace].) Even so, maybe because he was before my time, I’d never even heard of Hugh Marjoe Ross Gortner.

Marjoe is the real-life Elmer Gantry, though perhaps more restrained in his pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh. He’s the embodiment of everything skeptics assume to be true about old-time-relijun, revivalistic, faith-healing Pentecostalism. And he is, in the most literal sense, a hypocrite.

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The Inexplicability of Evil

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on December 29.]

There are only so many explanations for evil that can be given. Think of every single thriller/murder/crime book, show, or film you’ve ever read or seen. I don’t care how long it takes to get to the answer or how many twists there are before the detective solves the crime, you can count the number of motives on one hand.

We tend to think sin is exotic and dangerous, walking the razor’s edge of excitement. In reality, sin is as banal as it gets. It’s murder, sexual immorality, or greed. Try to come up with something else. On these three, the entire breaking of the Law seems to hang.

In order to tell a story that people will read or watch—that is, in order to make money—there has to be a solution. We don’t like leaving the theater or a book without having our questions answered. It’s easy in fiction to bring the story to a satisfactory conclusion. And because we are so used to having neatly concluded stories in fiction, we can’t help but seek answers to our questions when evil confronts us in real life. We ask why, and we expect there to be an answer, even if it doesn’t seem apparent at the outset.

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Nostalgia Ain’t What It Used To Be

[This appeared first at The Jagged Word on December 22.]

I used to like sentimental-type movies (think Lifetime Channel, tug-on-your-heartstrings, push-your-emotional buttons-type things). Or it would be songs like Randy Stonehill’s “Christmas at Denny’s.” At some point I got tired of having my feelings manipulated and I wanted something real. If that’s your thing, fine by me. I’m not judging. (Well, maybe a little, now and then.)

Christmas is almost the worst time for sentimentality—or best, depending on your view. Who doesn’t have at least one memory from some Christmas past that inspires some sort of nostalgia? Nostalgia has its place. At its best, it’s related to C.S. Lewis’ conception of joy, for which he was always searching. Surprised by Joy resonates because it’s an experience true to life. And Christmas is connected to an almost universal experience (although, I suppose Jehovah’s Witnesses or Jews would quibble with that point). Otherwise, why would nearly every musician and band—Christian or not—produce some kind of Christmas album? Why do debates about Christmas movies rage every year? Why are there a billion movies about some sort of Christmas magic? Something clearly appeals about “this time of year.”

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