I realize that many Christians don’t follow fundamentalist Christianity. This post is mainly about the fundamentalist Christianity that I grew up with, the type of Christianity that is probably the fastest-growing type of Christianity in the US. For people within the movement, it’s described as “being alive” (full of emotion, speaking in tongues, religious experiences, etc), in contrast to a pew-sitting, boring version of Christianity. Unfortunately, it seems to be among the least reality-informed version of Christianity. It leans heavily towards literal interpretations of Genesis, promotes faith healing, and tends to evoke “religious experiences” in people. When I was in high school, I began to think that these religious experiences were much more psychological and sociological than having anything at all to do with anything divine. A good preacher and a willing congregation could work themselves up into an emotional frenzy. Unfortunately, because people have “religious experiences” in these situations, they believe that it has something to do with God.
Now, I don’t think that all preachers and evangelists are greedy crooks or anything like that. I think there are some who know they are working the crowd into a religious frenzy, but they sincerely believe in God. They exaggerate their stories a little bit, they hone their intonations, they setup the conditions to evoke “religious experiences”, and they think something real is going on. Some of them cheat a little bit here and there, but it’s all for God’s glory, right? If they cheat to can make things seem a little more miraculous, well, they’re only helping to “lead people to God”. In many cases, I think preachers get carried away by the crowd and the crowds “confirm” the divine nature of the whole charismatic movement.
In the following videos, there are some evangelical preachers. The first one is Peter Popoff – a very popular preacher in the 1970s. He was caught by James Randi using a radio headset to get “miraculous” information about people (broadcast by his wife). Obviously, he was cheating and he knew he was cheating. People in the crowd didn’t know he was getting information offstage from his wife, so they perceived his “amazing insights” to be divinely inspired information. Perhaps Peter Popoff was cynically playing the crowd, or maybe he just thought it was okay to cheat a little bit if it leads people to God. Either way, he produced a false sense of divine intervention, and he knew he was cheating by getting radio transmissions from his wife. If, like me, you don’t believe in the Christian God, then these videos show how someone takes something that they believe, cheats to help other people to believe, and essentially sets-up a conduit to lead people to believe in a false God.
What’s really disturbing about some of these evangelical stage performances is when people walk up to the stage and throw their medicine bottles onto the stage (not shown in this video). They are praying for healing, they are demonstrating their faith by not taking their medicine anymore, and are depending on God. (“And [Jesus] said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” Matthew 17:20)
Touching on more of the stage performance aspects of evangelical Christianity, we have Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe was in a documentary (“Marjoe”) back in 1971 that ended up winning the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary. He had a long history of preaching – going back to the age of 4 years old. Excerpt from wikipedia:
Marjoe Gortner (born January 14, 1944 in Long Beach, California) is a former evangelical minister who first gained a certain fame in the late 1940s and early to mid 1950s when he became the youngest ordained preacher at the age of four, and then outright notoriety in the 1970s when he starred in an Oscar-winning, behind-the-scenes documentary about the lucrative business of Pentecostal preaching.
When Marjoe was three, his father, a second generation evangelical minister, noticed his son’s talent for mimicry and overall fearlessness of strangers and public settings. His parents claimed Marjoe had received a vision from God during a bath and began training him to deliver sermons, complete with dramatic gestures and emphatic lunges….
Until the time he was a teenager, Marjoe and his parents traveled the rural United States, holding revival meetings. As well as teaching him scriptural passages, Marjoe’s parents also taught him several money-making tactics, involving the sale of supposedly “holy” articles at revivals which promised to heal the sick and dying. By the time Marjoe was sixteen, he later estimated, his family had amassed maybe three million dollars…
In the late 1960s, Marjoe suffered a crisis of conscience — in particular about the threats of damnation he felt compelled to weave into his sermons — and resolved to make one final tour, this time on film. Under the pretense of making a documentary on the evangelical and non-denominational faiths, Marjoe assembled a documentary film crew to follow him around the Southern United States during 1971; unbeknownst to everyone else involved — including, at one point, his father — Marjoe gave “backstage” interviews to the filmmakers in between sermons and revivals, explaining intimate details of how he and other ministers operated. After sermons, the filmmakers were invited back to Marjoe’s hotel room to tape him counting the money he collected during the day. The resulting film, Marjoe, won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary, although the distributor refused to allow it to be screened in theatres south of Des Moines, Iowa, for fear that it would spark a backlash from The Bible Belt.
In his documentary, he talks about working the crowd into a frenzy, how to setup the conditions for people to have religious experiences, practicing his techniques like a performer, and getting people to trust him. For Christians wanting to believe in the emotional evangelical movement, he is simply a false prophet. For those of us who have left the church, it shows just how much of this is a performance. I don’t believe that anyone is having a real religious experience, but I do think that there is a set of conditions that can be setup to make people feel like they are having a religious experience. I thought it was interesting, for example, that he talks about bringing someone up on stage, gathering a small group of people around them speaking in tongues in order to get that person to speak in tongues, and then touching them abruptly in order to make them be “slain in the spirit” (i.e. fall over, ostensibly due to the overwhelming power of God). I think that preachers use this fact – not necessarily cynically (as Marjoe does in his documentary), but either because they get themselves swept-up in it, or maybe because even when they have doubts about its authenticity, they believe the experience actually “leads people to God” (which is a good outcome in their minds). Based on the quotes before and after these videos, they were obviously uploaded by actual believers eager to simply categorize him as a “false prophet” rather than going deeper and questioning the authenticity of these experiences in general. It does, however, raise the question: “If this self-acknowledge fake can evoke these types of responses in religious people who believe he is a true believer, doesn’t it show that it’s possible for these experiences to be conjured up by psychological and sociological means? Doesn’t it show that religious experiences in these conditions cannot be used as evidence of the divine?”