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Monday, July 29, 2013

Review of Swaggart

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Swaggart:

Jimmy Lee Swaggart, by October 1987, was one of the most popular television evangelists in the world. His first broadcast was in 1973, but unlike many of his colleagues, he would prance around the stage, phallically waving the microphone. He attacked Catholics and Jews, New Age theology (an oxymoron if there ever was one), Christian theme parks, prosperity theology and feel-good theology. He especially castigated rock music – ironic, as his cousin was Jerry Lee Lewis – and dancing, but adultery came in for special condemnation: " he seemed piercingly aware that sex had been the downfall of many great men of God." The higher they get, the harder they fall, and when Swaggart was arrested in 1987 for soliciting, the shock waves were substantial. 

The Fundamentalist movement originated in part as a response to the " gospel" movement of the early twentieth century as mainstream churches sought to deal with social problems endemic to an increasingly urban society. The Fundamentalist was a twelve-volume work published by two oil millionaires. It became the Bible for the new Fundamentalist movement, which established four basic tenets: " Jesus Christ is deity; (2) there was virgin birth and a resurrection; (3) there will be a Second Coming of Jesus; and (4) the Bible is without error." Fundamentalists were suspicious of education and science (obvious when we get to their proclivity for inbreeding), most notably the new evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. Glossolalia – speaking in tongues – also became an important tenet of several new Fundamentalist sects. It had a long and troubled history in Europe where the Catholic Church had associated it with Satanism, but Charles Fox Parham of Topeka, Kansas hoped it would help spark interest in his new church and so he held long prayer meetings on the evening of – yup, you guessed it – New Year' Eve, 1900 that resulted in many parishioners speaking in what was reported to be authentic foreign languages. (The idea was glossalalia would be of great assistance in their missionary work. Honest. I'm not making this up.) The time was ripe.

"Glossolalia is often connected with powerlessness, surfacing historically in times of severe religious persecution or decline, or economic privation." One of Parham' students, a black named Seymour, began a hugely successful revival in Los Angeles – much to Parham' bitter jealousy – that lasted for some three years. Known as the Azusa Street revival, it resulted in the formation of the Assemblies of God that Swaggart' family became so much a part of. The Swaggart family was heavily intermarried. Jimmy' great-grandfather had married his first cousin, and his father married his aunt – she was two years younger than Jimmy – which made their offspring " own first cousin' each others first cousins, their parents' first and second cousins, their parents' niece and nephew, their grandfather Swaggart' first cousins, their parents' niece and nephew . . . . [it goes on:]." The family had an unusually high number of musically inclined, and Jimmy Lee was very closely related – how could he not be – to Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Leroy Gilley, both of whom apparently had something to do with country music in the United States:) )

The influence of Pentacostalism on Jimmy from his grandmother Ada, who, after experimenting with several denominations, had a religious experience during a revival meeting and thereafter sought similar happiness for her grandson. Jimmy's later womanizing may have been genetic, for Ada's husband, night marshal, was well known for conducting more secular services in the back seat of his patrol car. He was suspected to be the father of at least four black children in the town. Jimmy's call to Christ came early, at age eight, in a movie theater. Movies were frowned on as being satanic, and it is perhaps ironic that Swaggert' moment occurred in a place of entertainment. Jimmy reported that God spoke to him in a Biblical dialect, and one wonders if Jimmy ever noticed that movie theaters and churches were beginning to converge into a similar reality: " facing a stage where a compelling story is being told." He was giving up the artificial movie stage for a much larger auditorium and audience. Soon he was speaking in tongues and making some astonishing prophecies, preaching from a log altar behind his house: sincerely thought his father, but ostentatiously, too, almost a performance. 

The form of Jimmy's evangelism had a long history dating to the First Great Awakening that began around 1720. Jonathan Edwards, its founder, won many converts to his idea that personal religious experience was required for personal salvation. He did it in a traditionally American manner: by creating a market and introducing entertainment into the sales mixture. The First Great Awakening died out by 1750 to be replaced by the Second, after the Revolution. The religious establishment was in disarray, many of its leaders having been tainted by their close association with the British monarchy, and by the end of the 18th century, 95 percent of southerners had no church affiliation. While the First had stressed the lack of free will and hence the need for grace, the Second Great Awakening preached the importance of free will. Its audience was the vast number of settlers moving west, and circuit preachers would gather people in large camp meetings, forerunners of the tent revivals of the twentieth century. Often these meetings were the only form of social gathering for many of the isolated settlers and a civilizing influence on a society that was most often inebriated: babies were fed alcohol because water was considered to be devoid of food content; one-third of all brides were pregnant, violence was commonplace, and debauchery rampant. Music came to play an important part at these events as part of the entertainment, much as music was an important part of Jimmy and Jerry's lives. Both played the piano well and learned to imitate and incorporate the new beats of the black musicians and rock music that was beginning to become so popular. "Television was the perfect medium for evangelists. It did what they did: simplified and magnified the message for easier digestion." Protestant format was especially amenable to this medium because it concentrated authority in an individual. The personality became all important. 

Unlike the Bakkers, however, who seemed to amplify the flashy materialism -- Tammy's fake eyelashes were so long and mascara covered that a popular T-shirt featuring huge smudges wore the legend "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall" -- Jimmy established a reputation for sobriety and Frances, his wife, eschewed her more sensational clothing after they moved to television. Their television presence blossomed. The more stations they added, the more money came in, the more stations they could add. This new visibility brought media scrutiny with it, and Jimmy, who was fond of saying that in his chain of command he was every link, came under ever more pressure. The Swaggert ministry had been known for its fiscal propriety, but now huge sums of money were being spent on buildings and fancy television equipment, making many of the faithful employees very uncomfortable, but anyone who questioned Jimmy or especially Frances, was summarily fired. This visibility also meant that traditional Pentecostal doctrine (goods works will not help achieve salvation) sometimes expressly anti- Catholic, ("Most Catholics are Catholics two times a year: once at Mardi Gras and once at . . . I can't remember) irritated many Catholic parishes. When he attacked priests, saying "they pestered survivors to say prayers for the dead; that bordered on heathen ancestor worship," in a predominantly Catholic city, pressure was put on some television stations to drop his broadcasts. He learned quickly that this often increased donations to his ministry. 

The Assemblies of God community was rocked by one scandal after another in the late eighties. The Pentecostal format had an almost sexual fervor to it, but there was no appropriate way for preachers to deal with sexual issues. "There was little study of how to prepare, or what to do if the preacher's own state of arousal starts to take a sexual expression. Moreover, Pentacostals play with fire, channeling the arousal into touching, hugging, confessing, and laying on of hands." If you had a problem, you were supposed to pray about it and it would go away. That rarely helped, and Jimmy, like many others, was tormented by his longings, and his inability to talk about his problems; counseling - - not that it would have done any good anyway - - was not an option. There was deep religious antipathy against counseling in the Assemblies of God. "You just sucked it up and believed God, and if you died, well-- you just didn't have enough faith. It's a terrible way to tell people to live, and it's an even more terrible way to die." Politics, power, rivalry also played an important part. The Bakkers by this time had an immensely rich and huge network of television ministries, anchored by the PTL club. That property was envied by many of the others. 

When rumors began to surface about Jim's homosexual activities and the payoff to Jessica Hahn, the vultures began to circle. He was brought down, but that made his accusers more vulnerable because revenge then became a motive for those who had lost their power base. Despite the unwillingness of the Swaggarts to assist in this biography, Seaman has portrayed them quite sympathetically. You can't help but feel sorry for the man, trapped by conflicting emotions, but trying honestly to do what he thought God was telling him to do. It becomes obvious that that belief can easily become corrupted by power and money and perverted into thinking that anything one does is at God's beckoning.

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