Sunday, January 4, 2009

(No.3) Falling From Grace in Baton Rouge: being hugged by Jimmy Swaggart

"I drive in from Lafayette about 50 miles west,"  said the elderly lady who introduced herself to us as Alice.  "I started coming here about 6 years ago."  I wondered to myself: was that after Jimmy Swaggart fell from grace?

Some people collect stamps or spoons.  For many years I have followed television evangelists rating them as one would professional entertainers:  from the mediocre (the late Rex Humbard) through the preciously weird (Ernest Angley) and the outrageous (Oral Roberts) to the criminal (Jim Baker).

But in my view there is an American televangelist who stands apart from the rest --  Jimmy Swaggart of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  I have long considered him to be the best 'stump preacher' of them all, the most artful talker and effective platform performer in an increasingly crowded field.

Brother Swaggart, as he refers to himself, had a fall from official grace some years ago.  After the first time police picked him up with a prostitute he was able,  relying on tearful public repentance, to save his denominational affiliation with the Assemblies of God -- but not after the second time it happened.

The congregation attending services at his Family Worship centre in Baton Rouge thinned dramatically as did his evangelical reach.  I watched a televised Swaggart service 'after the fall' where the congregation was so embarrassingly small it could not be hidden by judicious use of camera angles.  On stage Jimmy seemed diminished in his public personna, almost lacklustre.

Pat and I used to visit Baton Rouge periodically and did so several years running prior to Hurricane Katrina.  This part of Louisiana is (or was) an area with much that attracted us. Because of my interest in Swaggart we made a point of seeking out his Worship Centre and attending Sunday morning services in his huge church which seats several thousand on two levels.  The first time we attended I noted that attendance downstairs was vastly larger than I had seen soon after his 'fall from grace' (and it grew year by year) with younger as well as older worshippers and many black as well as white congregants.  The music was upbeat and of professional calibre, the enthusiasm high and TV cameras prominent to tape the service for later broadcast.

At the front of the church were seated the members of the Resurrection Choir plus several featured singers, musicians and to one side were arranged arm chairs in which sat Swaggart family members and church worthies.  After the first rousing song was well under way Jimmy slipped in by himself and sat down, picked up a hand microphone and began injecting his own "hallelujahs" into the service.  A bit later his wife Frances came in and sat down to the side.  Their son Donnie, also a preacher, was present from the outset and had gotten the service under way.

As it happened,  at the initial service we attended,  Jimmy's 69th birthday was marked with a special financial gift from the congregation.  At the beginning of the service, watching Swaggart half-slumped in his chair, I wondered if he was slowing down;  he wasn't.  One of the things which helps distinguish Swaggart from his televangelist competitors is his talent as a singer, musician and composer,  a professional level of musical talent comparable to that of his cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Mickey Gilley.  To watch and listen to Swaggart at the piano playing and singing never fails to remind me of the mature Jerry  Lee Lewis.  To listen to him lead his highly polished singers and musicians in  "Jesus on the Mainline"  is to be reminded of what old time rock and roll could sound like -- although Swaggart himself has consistently rejected 'Christian rock' as unacceptable.

The service lasted more than two hours, with 45 minutes or so given over to Jimmy's rambling message, videotaped and edited for later television and radio broadcast.  Indeed Jimmy told his congregation that morning that he needed to raise $432,000 by the end of the week for a payment to another television station.

When it came time for Swaggart's message it soon became clear that he had lost none of his 'in person' edge as a preacher/performer.  He talked for 3/4 of an hour without a single note or hesitation.  He began pacing the thrust stage, open bible in hand, then moving down to floor level and walking up and down the aisles.  In his traditional style he used histrionics and emotion judiciously but effectively, humour selectively and always had the rapt attention of his listeners.

Brother Swaggart's 'sermon' would not likely receive a passing grade for theological coherence or correctness or even internal consistency but then he obviously does not care; he's not preaching to the graduating class of the Yale University Divinity School.  He knows his audience and they clearly know what they are looking for from him.

He covered a wide range of topics, from the physical abuse he suffered as a child before his parents were 'saved' to his assertion that "Buddhism,Islam and Mormonism hold no answers for me" nor does "humanistic psychology"  through the evil of child molestation and even touching on how being born again makes you 75% smarter.

His pithy lines rang chords from his audience:  "the modern gospel" as it is preached in some churches teaches that "it doesn't matter what you believe so long as you're sincere";  "put a live chicken under a dead hen and pretty soon you've got two dead hens";  "you say [to me] I know some saved people who act half-looped -- think what they'd be like if they hadn't been saved".

Swaggart never missed a beat in nearly an hour of continuous talking. My favourite moment in that service came when he walked up an aisle, took the hand of an elderly woman and declared,  "I've got more confidence in her spiritual knowledge of things than in President Bush's advisors".

At the services we attended Pat and I apparently stood out somewhat in the congregation as visitors.  The last time we attended,  a church elder approached us and, having determined that we were "all the way down from Canada" insisted that we stay and meet Jimmy after the service.  We did,  Pat receiving a Brother Swaggart embrace while I was content with a handshake.

The closest Swaggart came in the services we attended to referring to his 'fall from grace' was when he declared that "the scoffers are starting to say 'I was for you all the time' ".  It matters not one jot or tittle whether one regards Swaggart as a rogue or a prophet to be able to see him, as I did again on a Sunday morning in his home setting of Baton Rouge, as a smooth performer of a specialized art.