• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Phallic Pulpit

The Puritans were the heirs of Augustine’s frankness (which he defended, for the squeamish, by noting that their very uneasiness at discussion of these matters is a sign of the Fall and its consequent embarrassments).13 Puritans are not alone in their awareness of the unpredictability of sexual response. By convention one of the least appropriate places to become sexually aroused is in church. Naturally, those who spend a great deal of time in church are the ones most alert to this problem. Giorgio Vasari, the Renaissance artist, has left evidence in his writing of the fact that statues and paintings designed for church were inspected with an eye to the danger that they would be sexually suggestive. Confessors could testify that nuns found a nude Saint Sebastian inflammatory, so it was removed.14 One artist, told to create a Madonna that would not be alluring, sardonically put a beard on her.15 Even the crucifix, necessarily offering a naked body to the view, has disturbed viewers in the heightened states of awareness created by convents or monasteries. The Catholic poet Alexander Pope has his Eloisa take vows as a nun looking at Jesus but seeing her lost and castrated lover, Abelard:

Yet then to those dread altars as I drew,
Not on the Cross my eyes were fix’d but you.

Later, in the sensuous atmosphere of a high mass, Eloisa has an orgasm in church. Joseph Warburton, the eighteenth-century critic, praised the piety of this scene,16 without suspecting what the “swelling organs” rouse along with the soul:

When from the censor clouds of incense roll,
And swelling organs lift the rising soul,
One thought of thee puts all the pomp to flight,
Priests, tapers, temples, swim before my sight:
In seas of flame my plunging soul is drown’d,
While altars blaze and angels tremble round.

This is just what the Puritans objected to in papal liturgy. They banished statues, organs, incense from their churches. They took away the stained-glass windows, the disorienting patches of color and dim light, replacing them with clear panes to read the Bible by. Yet churches, however plain they can be made, remain mysterious (and therefore titillating) to the believers gathered in them. By taking away the “automatic” graces of liturgical ceremony, the Protestant chapels focused not only on the Book being preached at the pulpit but on its Preacher. The interpreter of that book carries the entire responsibility for the experience. His sermon is the service. The charismatic preacher must create, moment by moment, the authority that was diffused through the “bureaucratic” structure of ceremonial churches (Anglican as well as Roman and Orthodox).

Thus American evangelicalism is a collection of superstars and their followers. Sectarian identification matters less to many people than does identification with a person. People are Falwell Christians more than they are Baptist-Church-of-Thomas-Road Christians. The drama of salvation is played out in the emotional turmoil of a leader like Jimmy Swaggart, who sweats like a fisherman at his net to bring in souls.

In a liturgical church the fall and redemption of man are played out in the seasonal orchestration of moods; the church is darkened to the gloom of Lent, brightened with lilies and candles at Easter. These mysteries are lived through in American Protestantism by one man standing at an unadorned lectern. Even our secular judges wear robes of office, but Billy Graham comes before the mind’s throne of judgment in a business suit. It is not surprising that, with words alone at his disposal, the evangelist’s words should be emotional. The individual is to be saved here, by conscious choice, which means the individual must take responsibility for his or her sins. To be saved, one must recognize that one is by birth depraved. One’s sins must be called before one’s eyes. But that returns us to the quandary of Pope’s Eloisa. To call up one’s sins in any vivid way is to risk reignition by the memory:

I view my crime, but kindle at the view.

Moments of repentence saved for the confessional in Catholic culture were dragged out into public view at revivals. Instead of saintly statues to arouse the congregation, there were live people “testifying” to their past sins, which everyone could relive together in imagination.

People who find television’s preachers overemotional do not remember how Billy Sunday would wrestle with the Devil for hours in front of the masses. Revivals went on for days, fatigue joining the other forces that broke down one’s ordinary responses. The emotions were summoned, wrought upon, dwelt on. The whole self had to be reshaped. The body responded in agony to its inner renewal, swooning, “quaking,” rolling—all spontaneously to a single person’s improvised calls of the moment. There was an unpredictability of emotional response that added to the excitement. Any person engaged by the Spirit could become the holy spectacle, cueing others’ devotion. But unusual feelings might swing people in dangerous ways as well—seizures from which they needed “talking down.” Once labored up, these feelings could turn erotic. The Great Awakening of the eighteenth century had a crop of bastards as the less heralded concomitant to its harvest of souls. As Pope’s Eloisa puts it, ecstasy breaks down barriers:

All my loose soul, unbounded, springs to thee,

Inciting yet controlling these responses to the Spirit is the task of the lone preacher, whose own emotions are supposed to be inflammatory yet exemplary. More than other religious leaders of the past, the Protestant preacher in an individualist country has to carry his credentials in his person. He is not authorized by some distant hierarchy. He stands or falls by the approval of his immediate “flock.” Billy Graham’s early feelings of anguish over audience resistance reveal the pressure. He had to be sufficiently dramatic to catch and hold attention and respect, while remaining authentic, not merely theatrical.

The temptations of the preacher were presented in Elmer Gantry, a false and blustery book. Sinclair Lewis, without inner sympathy for his subject, makes Gantry a dolt who was bullied into piety by those around him and who bullies others. Not understanding the magic he carries, Gantry cannot resist the soliciting of “groupies” who are electric with the sparks struck from his pulpit.

For a deeper sense of the sexual pressures on a preacher, no matter how high-minded, one must go to a subtler author, to Henry Adams, whose Esther shows a pastor and parishioner trying to cope with the fused energies of sex and religion. The clergyman of the book, Stephen Hazard, is no Elmer Gantry. Conscientious, educated, sincere, he feels an inevitable falseness in having to be always the embodiment of his own message, parading virtue, as it were. His very need for authenticity means that he must sometimes escape the preacherly pose:

The strain of standing in a pulpit is great. No human being ever yet constructed was strong enough to offer himself long as a light to humanity without showing the effect on his constitution. Buddhist saints stand for years silent, on one leg, or with arms raised above their heads, but the limbs shrivel, and the mind shrivels with the limbs. Christian saints have found it necessary from time to time to drop their arms and to walk on their legs, but they do it with a sort of apology or defiance, and sometimes do it, if they can, by stealth. One is a saint or one is not; every man can choose the career that suits him; but to be a saint and sinner at the same time requires singular ingenuity. For this reason, wise clergymen, whose tastes, though in themselves innocent, may give scandal to others, enjoy their relaxation, as far as they can, in privacy.17

Hazard is entirely respectable in his private diversions; but even so he must escape his public persona. Other cannot comfortably live up to or live with a public exemplum. Some of Billy Graham’s contemporaries in his home town felt that “Billy Frank,” as he was known in his boyhood, got “too good for them.” As one of the women in Hazard’s church asks, “Where do you expect the poor man to get a wife, if all of us say we are not fit for him?”18 It is easy, in such a situation, to imagine what made Jimmy Swaggart slide from the public paragon toward the private voyeur, toward being without responsibility, even for his own actions, just an avid watcher.

The Stephen Hazard of Adams’s novel wants to woo Esther in his private capacity; but he also wants to show off what he does so well professionally. This would not offend in an artist or an engineer, since his work is not of its nature merely introductory to another Person. Esther rebels when skills are mobilized to lead her to God and Hazard. Yet how else is the man to merge his private desires with his public responsibilities? Billy Graham admits he had one eye on his high school sweetheart when he went back early to his home town to preach—would she come forward with the others, was she thinking of the new powers he had?19

In the same way, Hazard tries to involve Esther in church projects where she can see him at his best. His critics might say “he was carrying on a secular flirtation in his own church under the pretence of doing his duty,” but it is precisely Esther’s refusal to be conventionally awed that makes him want to show her how different is his view of ministry from that of his worldlier contemporaries.20 And so in time it becomes a test of that ministry to make Esther value it as he does:

He felt he must get a hold on the rebellious age, and that it would not prove rebellious to him. He meant that Miss [Esther] Dudley should come regularly to church, and on his success in bringing her there, he was half-ready to stake the chances of his mission in life.21

There is a real-life parallel to this in Billy Graham’s unsuccessful wooing of a college sweetheart when he was a young divinity student. 22

Esther loves Hazard, but she refuses to admire him in church, precisely because his eyes are too glittering there. It is, more decorously put, the nun’s old problem with Saint Sebastian, inappropriately appealing in the sanctuary, naked but for his arrows. Esther, out of her own mysterious probity, will not let God be used as a sexual lure. She will not love Steven for his mission.

This entirely baffles Hazard, who hoped to reintegrate his public and private selves in the shared love for God and each other that Esther seems to offer. With her, he believes, his pulpit exaltations and private needs will be reconciled in mystic eroticism. How can she keep treating the divine element in his appeal to her as somehow demeaning that appeal?

To share his subtlest feelings with a woman who could understand and feel them, was to reach a height of poetry that trembled on the verge of realizing heaven. His great eyes shone with the radiance of paradise, and his delicate thin features expressed beatitude, as he discussed with Esther the purity of soul, the victory of spirit over matter, and the peace of infinite love.23

Hazard here expresses the union of spiritual and physical bliss preachers achieve at the height of their power. It is exquisitely fulfilling to bring souls to God in a moment of emotional climax on the pulpit. The flesh seems lit through by something higher; the body no longer clogs spiritual motion, reluctant, uncomplying. So much is this union assumed that when Billy Graham’s appeals (rarely) fail, he believes two (interconnected) things about his unsatisfactory performance—that the Spirit was somehow not entirely with him that night, that he was physically ill, suffering from some infection or cold.24

I use Billy Graham as an illustration because his ministry has been entirely without scandal, financial or sexual. If even he feels the union of physical and spiritual power in his moments of psychic control over masses of people, we can imagine the strain on a Jim Bakker, swept from obscurity and poverty to celebrity as a holy superstar.

Charles E. Shepard, one of the journalists who helped expose Jim Bakker’s finances, describes in Forgiven the spiritually cramped world in which Bakker grew up. His grandfather was a Pentecostal preacher, his father a bigot who saw visions. Warned against such instruments of the devil as movies, football games, and cosmetics, Bakker played phonograph records for other teen-agers to perform dances forbidden him. If Shepard’s admirable book does not quite make one pity this bilker of people too ready to be bilked, it does make one recoil from the prison sentence given him. One does not need to add more tears to those shed from Tammy Faye’s candied face to think that Bakker, this clumsiest of white-collar criminals, should not serve the time given to some killers.

What the preacher and those sharing his ecstatic moments feel is the healing of that self-dividedness caused, for people of their theological background, by original sin. The body is uplifted with the spirit, in rapturous accord with it. Few preachers at such moments feel as embarrassed by the body’s comic recalcitrance as Augustine did. Sexual potency seems to come at will, and to lose its post-Edenic furtiveness. Spiritual love can be open in its sexuality. That is why so many popular religious movements swerve at their height into Adamite or antinomian urges, toward naked innocence. The Quaker women who threw off their clothes meant to show that they had mounted above being controlled by their sexuality; they would manifest how perfectly they controlled it, having slipped the bonds of original sin. They were as shameless, finally, as preachers.

But it is hard to remain on such heights of innocence. The fallen flesh falls again, and the dividedness of the preacher as a man, a son of Adam, must be confessed and faced. There is too much in this process that echoes the believers’ own experience of spiritual heights and depths for them to feign incomprehension at the eternal recurrences of fall and resurrection. Even in ceremonial churches, the bliss of Easter yields, over the months, to yet another decline into Lent.

If church is a place where the importunacy of the flesh can assert itself awkwardly, turning even statues into allurements, it is also the place where impotency has its spiritual expression in the “aridity” of spirit felt by those who cannot even pray with feeling. Only the devout know this special agony, which fills the journals and biographies of the saints. One’s own coldness of belief, in these dry spells, makes it hard to judge others harshly so long as they are trying, however unsuccessfully, to serve the Lord. Evangelical religion oscillates between a kind of airy bliss, shown in the effusive social gestures of believers, and a gritty realism about the sheer drudgery of belief sustained over the years.

It astounds nonbelievers to see Christians forgive and receive back, even into posts of new (if diminished) leadership, straying ministers like Jimmy Swaggart. The secular press tends to treat them like freaks, unaccountable extravagances of an underculture. Penthouse, in order to divorce Swaggart’s weird sexuality from anything its readers would engage in, ran pictures of the prostitute who posed for Swaggart’s voyeuristic pleasure. The magazine’s whole format was inverted to draw a kind of cordon sanitaire around the woman Swaggart had commerce with. This was, clearly, no Penthouse Pet. Instead of the surreally colored perfection of the Pet’s peach-ice-cream flesh, the Swaggart prostitute was photographed in documentary black-and-white. No air brushing, no retouching, no gauzy lens settings. Every blotch and wrinkle was shown with cruel precision. The camera disassembled the triggering mechanism of Swaggart’s lust.

To deal with this specimen of fallen humanity, Penthouse took up the blunt realism of Puritan moralists. Here, the magazine suggested, was a “whore” out of the old homiletic iconography, the carrier of death. This extraordinary treatment was a kind of reverse exorcism, identifying sin in order to divorce oneself from it.

The woman’s sin was not sex, of course. Her main offense was being poor. Her surroundings were not the affluent ski resort, the healthy recreation spot, favored as a natural habitat for Pets, but a shabby motel room. A class difference was emphasized. The Pet lives in a playground uncontaminated by any need for literal wages of sin. The Pet plays with sex because she is a free spirit, needing no support. Imagined encounters with a Pet are uncontaminated by commercial considerations.

Swaggart committed a greater sin in the eyes of the Penthouse editors than in his own congregation’s view. He committed bad taste. He treated sex as something dirty. He punctured the dream. To ridicule him, the object of his delusions must be exposed in all her ugly vulnerability. To this end, the magazine will do what Swaggart did—pay the woman—but on a far grander scale; and expose her—but to a far superior set of voyeurs, who only come to mock this squalid Aphrodite, not to worship at her tainted shrine.

The woman involved in Jim Bakker’s fall was also paid to reveal the ignominy of her behavior. Jessica Hahn repented of the fact that she had not been a Playmate. This religious groupie who blackmailed the evangelist was presented as someone who not only did not offer herself freely but did not meet the exacting standards Playboy sets for Playmates. Hugh Hefner “redeemed” Jessica Hahn by remaking her into a real Playmate through cosmetic surgery, sophisticated fashion advice, and lessons at his school for superior courtesans, “the Mansion.”25 She was lifted out of the sphere of Jim Bakker’s cruder lust, into the refined atmosphere of Hefnerism, to make clear the abyss separating moral lapse from moral immunity.

The fundamentalists believe in the doctrinal inerrancy of the Bible. The Hefnerite believes in the moral inerrancy of the Playboy. In place of the scarlet letter A for Hester’s shame, Jessica Hahn earned her gold Playmate P for shamelessness. Somehow this makes it easier to understand why Jimmy Swaggart’s people would rather have their preacher with his sin than his accusers with their sinlessness.

  1. 13

    The City of God, 14.23.

  2. 14

    Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite, ed. Gaetano Milanesi (Firenze, 1906), Vol. IV, p. 188.

  3. 15

    Vasari, Le Vite, Vol. VI, p. 536.

  4. 16

    Joseph Warburton on Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard,” in An Essay on the Genius and Writing of Pope (London, fifth edition, 1806), Volume I, p. 320.

  5. 17

    Henry Adams, Esther, Novels, Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, The Education (Library of America, 1983), p. 231

  6. 18

    Henry Adams, Esther, p. 274.

  7. 19

    Marshall Frady, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness (Little, Brown, 1979), pp. 100–105.

  8. 20

    Henry Adams, Esther, p. 231.

  9. 21

    Henry Adams, Esther, p. 217.

  10. 22

    Frady, Billy Graham, pp. 108–117.

  11. 23

    Henry Adams, Esther, p. 265.

  12. 24

    Frady, Billy Graham, pp. 190, 293–295.

  13. 25

    Yet, according to Forgiven, one reason Bakker preferred Hahn to his wife was that her breasts were not lumpy with implants like Tammy’s (p. 174).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print