Saturday, May 6, 2017

Thinking in Symbols, Speaking in Tongues

Theology, schmeology. Jimmy Swaggart's musical, tribal, shamanistic approach to religion.

What is church without music? Probably not much fun. Even Islam has smuggled in a musical tradition in the form of the call to prayer, which is often a virtuoso vocal performance. The important role music has in most religions is a sign that their gatherings are social bonding events, not scientific conferences. One of the clearest instances is the televangelism of Jimmy Swaggart, still going strong after 45 years. At its core are his amazing piano and vocal abilities, combined with a very tight band and other featured singers. A cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis, his talent was recognized early on, but instead of joining the recording industry, he built his own evangelical empire, whose broadcasts are heavy on the music, and light on the theology. The music is an extremely comforting, a sort of bluesy, (this is from Louisiana, after all), cross between Lawrence Welk and African American Church gospel. The focus is on praise and succor from god ("Take my hand, precious lord", "Jesus, use me", "I'll never be lonely again", "Sheltered in the arms of God", "What a friend we have in Jesus").

It is a little reminiscent of the gatherings of DeadHeads, finding a comforting sacrament of friendship and love in an endless bluesy/country jam, heavy on the sentiment. Yes, the Pentecostal / Swaggart version is a lot more conservative, and its love doesn't come from a puff of smoke, but the equally vaporous triumvarate of holy spirit, Jesus, and god. What theology there is is virtually stripped of any sense, however, consisting of archetypal references to give the whole jam more emotional power. It is, essentially, the power of shamanism.


For example, the creed of the ministry is:
“Dear Lord Jesus, I now realize that I am a sinner. I accept the fact that You died for me on the rugged Cross of Calvary. I now open my heart’s door and receive You as Saviour and Lord of my life. Please take full control of me and help me to be the kind of Christian You want me to be. Amen.”

Why "rugged"? How can Jesus take control when he no longer exists, and we do not know where he is or what he wants? OK, call me skeptical! Anyhow, the answer is always prayer, and the Swaggarts claim "Without a daily communication with our heavenly Father, we will only go so far in this Christian life, which won’t be very far, spiritually speaking." Prayer is the cell phone call to god, keeping Him up to date with what we want, and telling us what He wants. What does this really mean? It means one's conscience is going to do the talking, (at best), and its quality is going to be the tenor of our supposed talk with god. This might expain the problems that Swaggart himself has had in the sin department. It also means that anyone who can infiltrate our conscience and purport to tell us what god wants may end up with a great deal of control over our actions. For example, the ministry offers a wide range of "The truth about..." videos, telling the flock why Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, even Seventh-Day Adventists, are wrong and bad. The "full control of me" formulation could be taken as a little sinister, not just to keep the tribal boundaries clear, but to milk the flock for money, and drive a highly conservative political message that is in many respects rather uncharitable.

And control is surely what is going on here. The bonding is very strong and social, starting with the music and the TV shows, but extending to more intense "Camp Meetings" and other events around the country. Advertisements for youth events gush about how attendees feel the presence of the lord during the event. Theoretically, god is supposed to be everywhere, not anywhwere in particular, so these charismatic settings and climaxes are a clear sign of shamanism, not of any coherent theology, let alone philosophy.

The magazine, aside from advertisements for a rich assortment of ministry products, is full of word-salad theology, with submission urged to the will of Christ, or other spirits, so that the "Blood of the Lamb" can wash over the sinners in the pews, cleansing them of their sins. Sermons and blessings are "anointed", messages are "Spirit-baptized", and the "Powers of Darkness" are fought. This church is the "Bride of Christ", and good believers have "eyes of the spirit" to see "the things that lurk in darkness". The whole thing is a work of art, really- a poetry of metaphor which is highly meaningful without actually meaning anything concrete or real in this world. But when it comes to the prices, things are naturally far more explicit "Your price just $10 each".

Televangelism remains a remarkable phenomenon, drawing on the implicit cultural assumptions in favor of Christianity, on blues and gospel music, and on the power of personal magnetism and group bonding to comfort the lonely and lost. If the message were stripped down to the hymns alone, it would be a positive social force.
"If God Is Dead Who's This Living In My Soul?"


  • Our government, regular people not invited.
  • Even the National Review wonders about inequality. And then concludes that it should be made worse.
  • GOP busy making things worse.. Things which clearly could be better.
  • Making Afghanistan great again.

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