Jan/Feb 2004 Salon


by Stanley Jenkins

My Calvinist tradition is very word-oriented. Rituals are surrounded by a lot of language, much of it meant to be descriptive or explanatory, as opposed to performative (until fairly recently my official title was "Teaching Elder"—these days, for anyone who is interested, it's "Minister of the Word and Sacraments"). In addition, my position as officiant makes it difficult to participate in the same way as the congregation (I have to keep tabs on all the tiny little shot glasses and cubes of "wonder" bread).

But there are moments.

Last night, against the loud protests of my wife, Ms. Mary (who is, of course, Catholic, and insists that Protestant Communion is not "real" Communion, what with the grape juice and store-bought bread, but who, most of all, is scared of polyester suits and hairdos... but then, again, who could blame her?)—against such staunch resistance, and out of some sense of perversity, even in the grips of the perverse, I watched Jimmy Swaggert on TV.

True confession: I've always been fascinated. I'm not proud. I'm just saying.

I had to watch.

He started out singing a bayou-fueled white gospel number, accompanying himself on piano (and let's be frank, he's no slouch on the ivories and gives his cousin, Jerry Lee, a run for his money). It rocked. Like Elvis. Like the Killer. Like Robert Johnson with hellhounds on his trail.

Then it was on to the sermon. The boy is old—he huffed and puffed, he lost his train of thought—but there was still fire: a holy remnant. He shouted. He pleaded. He waved his Bible like a tear-soaked rag. I couldn't look away... my Christ-haunted ancestors were restless.

And there were spurts of ecstatic dancing—that unfettered jig on the carcass of sin—and the weird whines and growls I remember from my Great Big Mama's church.

The congregation cried out, and demons were whupped right then and there, and the preacher was pleading like a rain dog, defiant, contemptuous of lesser struggles: fierce pride like the old Scots with their "and the bush was not consumed" stubbornness. He was David victorious over Goliath. He was a thousand share croppers saying, "You ain't no better than me." He was every sullen stare a body’s ever gotten for being a white yankee and having shoes.

He was the return of all the hillbilly/whitetrash/slack-jawed citizens America delights in feeling superior to—and "Praise God!" he was going to have his say.

I was riveted. These days the forces of religious reaction whip themselves up with "state of the art" music systems and "Praise Choruses" and "the power of positive thinking" (we live in the age of the second coming of Norman Vincent Peale). Watching the old warrior, I was startled to see the roots revealed. Mr. Swaggert is an anomaly, a relic. But he never lied about what he was—no matter what you think about what he was: that he was a hypocrite... and a sinner. No, he didn’t lie, just like Jerry Lee fully expects to wind up in a lake of burning fire.

These days the religious right barely even mentions sin, never seriously gives ole Satan a tumble (two out of three falls wins), never gets their hands dirty or ever, ever has to seriously consider being marginalized or flung into the outer darkness. Oh, they play at being the victim, and they build their identity on fighting the Goliath of "secular humanism," but come the end of the day, they know who has the power—Jesus! Don't they live in a swell house?—they know who can afford righteousness.

In any case, Mr. Swaggert ended his sermon with another ghost-binding, white gospel set—Can I get a witness?—and then his son came out to work the altar call. The camera panned the congregation. White men in white, short-sleeved shirts. Pear-shaped women with their hair covered for the sake of decency. Faces like the photographs of citizens at a Barry Goldwater rally. Arms, whose antecedants had strung up such strange fruit; ears, which had heard the final question, "Where is your brother Abel?" reaching out to soak up the Holy Ghost. Tears were dotting the faces of men who on Saturday night would poleax you before admitting to a tender emotion—except perhaps toward their mothers.

And there was release and relief. There was speaking in tongues (though that seemed just a sideline). There was the anger and resentment that is much more a part of historical America than the Left (of which I consider myself a part) seems capable of understanding.

And there was the dream gone sour—a lifetime of hours digging ditches for someone else, or driving someone else's truck, or running a store that just don't never make no money. There was a million new used cars. There was the echo of every murmured, "Well, at least I ain't colored..." There was the refusal to die. There was the terrible insistence upon clinging to love even if they mangled it and distorted it and crushed it in their grip.

Man, I just bawled, just started sobbing, like a little baby. I'm not kidding. Such a tidal wave of revulsion and heartbreak, regret and loss, nausea and ecstasy, hatred and affection... the ghosts were stabbing at my heart with rusty butter knives.

Church. What to make of a diminished thing?


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