Friday, April 9, 2010

Money, Miracles and a Man Named Marjoe

An Actual photo of Marjoe, Child Preacher

In 1971, Marjoe Gortner, the child-preacher now turned man, had had enough -- not just of the Pentecostal preaching circuit that he had learned how to "work" since he was four years old, but of himself as a skilled religious fraud. So, in an odd twist, instead of slinking away quietly into the night, Marjoe decided to tell on himself in living color. The result is "Marjoe", a documentary film that you can now find posted in ten parts for free on Youtube. And let me say -- having just watched through the whole thing -- it's worth the price! (Couldn't resist. Actually it's worth a great deal more).

Several themes pervade the Marjoe story. All of them are troubling, but all have a payoff to them, too. But the most predominant theme of all is exploitation.

As a child, Marjoe (name is a combo of "Mary" and "Joseph") is himself exploited by his preacher parents. The opening film clips of the child Marjoe gesticulating as he delivers a well-rehearsed rock 'em-sock 'em sermon are both dazzling and disturbing. According to the grown up Marjoe, he was endlessly coached by his mother who bullied him to the point of abuse -- cleverly using pillows and water so as not to leave marks or bruises on the miniature evangelist in the making. Her considerable investment pays off with notoriety, invitations, and financial reward. That's right: the church, smelling the power to attract a crowd with novelty, takes little Marjoe at face value and exploits him in their own sort of way. "Come and see." "Come and hear" -- and don't forget to bring your wallet!

For a long time, everyone was benefiting from this charade, it seems, except Marjoe. At one point in the film, the grown up Marjoe estimates that $3 million passed through the family over the course of his childhood and early youth though he claims not to have a penny to show for it (one wonders about the accuracy of these figures, but the point stands nonetheless). Watching all this, I found myself wishing for more insight into how the grown up Marjoe - 28 years old at the time of the filming -- felt about his parents now that he was an adult. Unfortunately, the filmmakers offer little to go on here.

However, a revealing scene at a tent revival does stand out. In it, Marjoe is introduced by his father who smoothly offers the mythology of his son's childhood call from God as a tee-up for Marjoe to take the microphone and deliver his message.

Just prior to this introduction, the cameras were trained on Marjoe and his Dad seated next to one another on the platform while music was playing. Marjoe looked uncomfortable and there was no warmth or connection between them. However, once his Dad is given the microphone and begins to spin his tale, Marjoe comes alive - clapping and smiling as the old, old story gets trotted out again. Later, during an interview portion of the film, Marjoe confesses that, despite their history together, his Dad remained a stranger to him -- someone with whom he was unable to have a significant conversation. Ah, the wages of sin...

Marjoe makes no bones about taking the viewer by the hand and leading them into the wacky world of this particular Christian subculture. Along the way, he explains to the film crew -- and to us by extension -- what they will encounter. This is the most discordant portion of the documentary -- the part you can feel his split the most for we know darn well that, like Superman, he will change costumes and disappear into his evangelist alter-ego without missing a beat. Here then, Marjoe the exploited becomes Marjoe the exploiter of others and there's no mistaking his skills at doing so. It is truly stomach turning to watch him do his thing knowing all along that he is little more than a performer in a role of his own invention. Meanwhile, the people come as they are - to Jesus, and to Marjoe the Faker - never knowing the difference.

At one point Marjoe tells the camera that, despite his internal conflicts, it has been too hard to just walk away from the craft he has spent a lifetime perfecting -- the craft, that is, of delivering a pretty good religious show, whipping the folks up into a tongue-speaking, swooning, jerking frenzy "in the NAAAMMMEEE of JEEEEZZZUUSSS!", and collecting the cash before everyone heads home from the "revival".

You might think with all this unsavoriness, that Marjoe, the pastors who host him and the folks who come on out to hear this so-called Man of God all come off as unsympathetic baboons. But one has no reason to doubt the sincerity of the faithful even if they too are players who deliver on cue just as reliably as do the preachers. The Academy Award this documentary won in 1971 should not just go to Marjoe and the filmmakers, but to the people in the meetings. Let's face it: without them, there would be nothing for Marjoe the Magician to play off of and, therefore, no story to tell.

The most uncomfortable thing for me as I watched the "Marjoe" movie was my personal familiarity with so much of what I saw on the screen. I know those testimonies. I know those turns-of-a-phrase ("He was hung up for my hang ups", etc.). I know many of the songs and sounds, the babbling of tongue-speakers (I myself am one) and the ecstasy of those who go down in a swoon "under the power of God".

The thing that makes Marjoe's counterfeiting so compelling and revolting at the same time is that I have seen both the "real thing" and religious manipulation up close and personal. I wonder, for example, what interest Marjoe would have had in going with our small team to China where were sneaked in to meetings of underground believers who came at great personal risk so as to receive our teaching and ministry. We paid our way. We gave ourselves without qualification or financial reward hour after hour to people who couldn't get enough of anything we had to offer them. Marjoe's sideshow may have looked somewhat like these meetings in some ways but I can assure you he has no clue of what it is to gladly spend yourself on others for the sake of God's Kingdom and that is too, too bad.

In the end, the Marjoe movie both offends and enlightens. It is a technicolor warning about fraud as well as an unforgettable window into a particular strand of religious hocus-pocus. However, it is also a reminder that the human heart fervently cries for that which is transcendent, empowering and spiritually alive and, therefore, will sometimes partake of whatever promises to deliver.

And what happened to Marjoe after this movie was made all those years ago? Well, it seems that he succeeded in making his break from his life as a B-grade evangelist only to become a bit actor in B-grade movies and whatever else he could find to do. It also seems that he has been behind some successful celebrity golf tournament fundraisers of some sort that appear to have raised funds for worthy charity causes. If that's so, then, well, "Praise the Lord!"


Anonymous said...
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Bill Faris said...

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Steve Hayes said...

A sad story.