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Church Going

Jonathan Edwards

by Perry Miller
reprinted by University of Massachusetts Press, 384 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Fathers of the Victorians

by Ford K. Brown
Cambridge University Press, out of print

Free Love and Heavenly Sinners: The Story of the Great Henry Ward Beecher Scandal

by Robert Shaplen
Knopf, out of print

Redemptorama

by Carol Flake
Penguin, 300 pp., $7.95 (paper)

1.

They sound forth their message, these New World, and yet not quite to be called new, Gospel evangelists of fame earned and infamy pictured on television, these persons of bold insignificance, masters of inconsequence and befuddlement and reiteration, and yet significant corporate reapers of the efflorescence arising from the spiritual seed packets thrown on the ground of the American South. Or mostly the South, since that is where the insistent saviors have sunk their roots of reinforced concrete or colonial-style brick, built their tax-free parent companies, with subsidiaries of Bible College, schools for little people, costly broadcasting equipment, transcontinental, printing and processing plants for tapes and videos, pamphlets, and magazines, prayers and scriptural siftings, preacher autobiographies, and, above all, administration stations for the handy receiving of telephone pledge and mailed dollar in a daily superlative flow that is never quite enough, merely a few inches of rain when it is a flood of “offering” that God needs as the preachers swing from Pole to Pole, winging on their satellites, a ghostly eschatological companion of Star Wars.

The preachers know, they, they, the millions of lookers and listeners, are out there somewhere, locked to their cable stations or major networks, watching the 800 number, the response number, ever floating its ribbon across the bottom of the screen; and not in haste out of care for the failing eye and uncertain memory: the everlasting number accommodating the “saved” who are asked for a contribution as one might ask a healthy man for a pint of blood for the community, for the emergency, wrongly named since thus far no Gospel corporation has achieved a period of remission. From the “unsaved” the number wants that first tremulous inquiry on the prayer line so that the name may go into the churning stomach of the computer, enter, in the blinking of an eye, the mass-mail prison from which there is no parole. In this meticulous accounting, the Lord and Jesus serve in promotion of product very much, alas, like some empyrean brokerage house.

They are a mannered lot, the evangelists, some of them in a perpetual spit of video distemper and others displaying a drummer’s affability, the smile and chirp of the salesman at the door. Amid the dogwood and the honeysuckle, the shrimp and the crab, the programs unveil a world profligate with the tears of Redemption and pockets profligate with the widow’s mite. The donors, the donors: they will, it seems, once and then once more, send off income to the one who, like the old fad for sitting on a flagpole to set a record, climbs the steeple and threatens to be shipped off to heaven, before what, curiously, he does not consider his due time, for want of a mere eight million; this the antic of the old-timer Oral Roberts. And there is money for the one who is turning back hurricanes and in a whirlwind running for the office of president. They are all here in the green spring and back-yard summer, and being here they propose that the face of the Republic be carved anew in their image, the image of the preachers and the good, plain folk whose claims are ignored by the advancement of science, by the empty victories of hedonism, by all the secular smog darkening the landscape.

The cricket and the frog are silenced by the great roar of the preachers’ petitioning. The Almighty and His Son in their eternity are never to be allowed a moment of silence. The Holy Ones are doomed to an everlasting talking, talking into the preacher’s ear, giving advice on the car, the debts, the offense of colleagues. The Lord and His Son are in the kitchen, on the highway, practical, vocal, clear in their prodding as the sound of a horn on the street; and sleepless They are in the wake of the merciless pleading to “seal the covenant with television,” to mandate this ministry and that, to beam its squall across the states, down to the earth-quake rubble of Nicaragua, to the favelas of Rio, to the dead sand and dry earth of Ethiopia. For the tireless fund-raisers in heaven, there is no pity, no surcease; here, Lord, is a $7 million deficit, here a rival candidate, more than one, here a nearly empty God-built hospital, here a video waiting for processing and transmission; here a healing only He can see may have regressed on the way back up the aisle. Listening and listening, having to take the call; more demands for audience than the great Moses himself. The prayers, mundane as a grocery list, rise in a cloud, a break in the ozone layer; the far-flung planning for the next Crusade, the Lord required to serve as quartermaster, requisition the steeds and armor for battle with a woebegone infidel in earphones.

And the ever-increasing number of Evangels, way, way beyond the discrete settlement on The Twelve, each now nominated by his own designation, each with his style of stagecraft, his act, and all competing, envious, all to be heard and placated and supported unto old age, refreshed by a summer parsonage in Palm Springs, accommodated by a large estate with the great house for the star and Mrs. star and a somewhat lesser dominion for the son, the priestly heir, put forth for observation and admiration, the dauphin in shirt and tie and often a sober mustache; accommodated, too, by a private jet in the hangar, by more than one Mercedes or Cadillac in the ministerial garage. Remorseless demands for expansion lest some hound on the trail overtake, for budgets, for public relations, a pack hungry and feeding for The Glory.

Suddenly, as it were, truly prostrating embarrassments of a peculiar squalor even the All-Seeing could not be prepared for by Paolo and Francesca or Bruno Latini. The old demons of the American evangel circuit, the cigarette, the bottle, the rouged cheek, the dance hall and the movie house, are swept away by a female serpent under the street light with her key to the motel room. Screams on the celestial line—Oh, Lord, counsel me now.

Premillennialism, Pretribulation, Revival or ruin, as the Reverend Falwell exclaims—all are upon us. Sometimes the screen indicates a sort of theological exhaustion with waiting for what must be. Armageddon—the great fire, the seven seals, the white horse, the black horse, and the red horse, and the pale horse and its rider. Awful, but the faithful, by contribution, have bought their ticket, and many are getting on in years. And yet Renan’s gentle Jesus on His donkey might wish to linger in heaven before His Second Coming, since the Event is to be filmed by the clerical presidential candidate, perhaps in Jerusalem, and He is to serve the thousand-year reign on earth with the garrulous Reverend from Tulsa, Oklahoma, His self-deputed vice-regent, there throughout the long years, until all is at an end.

Say what you will, it is no religion for a gentleman.” Charles the Second on the Calvinists. The Calvinists, in the natural waning of the impractical notions of Election and Predestination, are today a mild and reasonable denomination, recessive in the manner of the other traditional Protestant churches. In the current aggressive landscape of Fundamentalism, Evangelism Charismatic, Pentecostalism, the theological foundations are united by “inerrancy,” whatever that may mean about the opaque Word of God and its triumph of rhetorical suggestiveness and metaphorical grandeur. The evangelistic groups are divided by what are really matters of deportment, such as “speaking in tongues” and the curiosities of faith healing by a pat on the head and an assertion in the vernacular of “It’s gone!” as in the advertising contest between pain killers. Some Fundamentalists reject the performance of miracles; reject or not, miracles still are notable for the way in which they serve the furtherance of business, Gospel business, all without the old empirical Roman Church practice of the devil’s advocate, rightly, if thought of at all, to be seen as a hazardous delay in the recognition of the instant-healing-brew and likely to disease the thoughts with the contemplation of just who, in these miraculous negotiations, is the Devil.

No differences in the evangelical groups bring to mind the great beauty and difficulty of the Scriptures; nothing recalls the dense and painful, morally painful, studies and disputes of centuries past. Neither the Higher Biblical Criticism nor the old local religious turmoils can give pause to the narrow liveliness of the celebrated Falwell Old-Time Gospel Hour, the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Possibility Cathedral in California, the Swaggart Ministry in Louisiana. Anyone who has lived outside the big cities can remember the social peculiarity and isolation of the little Church of the Nazarene, meekly standing by the road; and the Assemblies of God Church, plain as a garage; and the bashful believers who gathered of a Sunday morning or for the Wednesday night prayer meeting. At the present time the Assemblies of God Church is said to be the fastest growing in the country. It is clear that the narrowness of doctrine is itself the source of the prosperity of the denomination. The Pentecostal churches, with the unusual gravity of their prescriptions, are nevertheless lighthearted, hands uplifted, fulfilled, with the sense of certain escape from the source of handicap and retribution, sin.

There is a tragic aspect to the shattering intellectual and spiritual energy of Jonathan Edwards, to the intense scholarship and depleting passion he brought to doctrinal and personal controversy. The acts of this individual soul in a violent confrontation with the Scriptures, with, as Frank Kermode phrases it, “the gnomic excess of Jesus,” have obliterated the obscure writings of Edwards, and few would wish now to read them, although he lives on as a figure, disfigured too from the greatness of his mind, as a generation before Cotton Mather, in his way, has been also.

The horrors of Arminianism, that sweetening of traditional Calvinism, occupied the days and nights of so many. If God can elect whom He wishes and, should He wish, fail to elect any, God was, for the Arminians, the author of evil. They could not allow that He be a capricious executioner, condemning without trial to eternal damnation. To poor Edwards this doctrine seemed an unacceptable diminishment of Hell, that vast abyss over the border of life, the abyss of which he was the master imagist. As Perry Miller writes in his brilliant and difficult book about the tormented complexion of Edwards, the extraordinary preacher “coils a monstrous accusation against mankind.”

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God—horrible it was and not suitable to the new republic, except for a time.

God holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else…. You are ten thousand times so abominable in His eyes, as the most hateful and venemous serpent is in ours.

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