[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.
As an epithet, people use “hypocrite,” more or less, as a synonym for someone who does something he himself condemns. That use is not quite accurate. A hypocrite is not simply someone who happens to be caught, usually with his pants down. That person may be an idiot, a sinner, weak—he may even be a hypocrite. But the true meaning of hypocrite is a person who does something directly opposite of what he says he believes, not just in a moment of weakness. He is an actor, wearing a mask of one sort, while underneath he is of a completely different sort. Everyone is at times a hypocrite of the first type; it takes a special kind of cold-heartedness to continue for more than a short time as a hypocrite of the second type.
Marjoe doesn’t appear to have the vices of Elmer Gantry (although he does seem to like women). Gantry, in fact—at least in the novel—appears to truly struggle with his actions. Marjoe has only a hint of a qualm about what he’s doing (and it appears mostly in the form of not wanting to talk about sin and hell). It is literally a show for him, an exhibition of high emotion and good feelings akin to what he apparently found in the hippy culture of southern California. He likes the sound of his voice and all the activity on the stage, but he doesn’t believe a word he says (except when he tells people to pull out the biggest bill in their wallets or purses and put it in the basket).
What is most striking is the nonchalance with which he talks about not believing. He says that even when he was a child, he doesn’t remember actually believing in God. But that doesn’t stop him from making money off his celebrity. One telling scene is when he sits down to dinner with a preacher’s family and the wife is telling Marjoe that people respect and listen to him because they can trust him. Some people are just after the money, goes the discussion. But not Marjoe. And that’s why they keep having him back. In fact, Marjoe, why don’t you fill in at the church while we go to Brazil? I just might do that, he says, but I’d rather be going with you!
If you’ve seen The Apostle (which I wrote about here), you’ve seen a lot of Marjoe, though he doesn’t appear in the film. I know Robert Duvall watched a lot of these sorts of preachers to prepare for his role, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he had seen this film in particular. There are multiple scenes in Marjoe where I experienced deja vu because of how good Duvall is. He nails the spectacle of this sort of preaching. When Marjoe says, “I appreciate ya,” I hear Duvall’s voice. And it turns out that what Marjoe really wanted to do was be an actor or rock star. He wanted to be Mick Jagger, and incorporated some of his “moves” into his act. It’s an amazing juxtaposition to hear Marjoe say that, and then immediately there’s footage of him telling the audience that just moving around isn’t the Holy Spirit, but carnal.
It’s easy, especially after Jim and Tammy Faye, Robert Tilton, and Benny Hinn to feel that this is a familiar story and to assume that this is how most TV preachers and traveling evangelists are. In fact, in the interview to which I linked above, Kernochan says, “I wish we had found a preacher that I felt was genuine, but we just never found one. They must be out there. But we didn’t go out of our way to find crooks.” I suspect that’s the most common, if not the only, sort of response to the film.
I have my own Scriptural and confessional reasons for opposing any sort of revivalism, whether promoted by preachers who really believe it or by those who do not. Charles Finney, at least, seems to actually have believed that his formula (used successfully by Marjoe and hundreds of others) was the proper way to connect people with the Holy Spirit.
But I wonder if there’s something more here. According to Kernochan, someone asked Marjoe whether Jesus might not actually be working through him, which reminded me of Philippians 1, where Paul says that there were some at his own time preaching the Gospel from “envy and rivalry” (1:15-18). In the midst of all the repetition, Marjoe actually manages to get the real Jesus in there occasionally.
Nevertheless, there are harsh words in the Scriptures for those who preach for monetary gain (see 1 Timothy 3:1ff.; 6:10; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; and I suspect Peter’s words to Simon in Acts 8:20-23 might apply as well). Further, such “preachers” harm the hearing of the proclamation of true preachers of Jesus. However, false preachers and teachers have been around since the beginning, and they aren’t going to disappear any time soon.
Marjoe is—whatever the intentions of the filmmakers—a warning against false teachers and an unusual glimpse into the mind of one who epitomizes the false teacher’s hypocrisy. By the end, Marjoe Gortner seems to have grown tired of his deception but is, by his own admission, addicted to the attention and the money. It was due to his own desire to be free that he found someone to make this film so that people would know the truth and stop inviting him to their churches.
Besides exposing the charlatanism that runs rampant among these sorts of “evangelists,” Marjoe exposes something at the heart of revivalism, which is dedicated to the overwhelming of the individual by his or her own emotions while attributing the experience to the Holy Spirit. And it also exposes the desires of the sinful flesh native to any preacher: the desire to gain attention for oneself; the desire for gain by giving the people what they want and expect to hear, rather than the full counsel of God; and the emptiness and futility at the heart of propping up a facade for any length of time. Besides all of that, it’s simply a fascinating documentary.