Do I hear an amen?
Posted on 08 December 2011, 9:23
After reading my post about seeing Reverend Billy in New York, author and academic Andrew Walker, who has written extensively on Pentecostalism and allied movements in the church, wrote to me in response. Thanks for writing, Andrew… it’s great to have this as the first guest post on my blog.
It is hard not to admire the entertainer Bill Talen who is prepared to put his personal freedom on the line in his attack on consumerism, the financial shenanigans of the banks and the sheer stink of rank capitalism. But as I have been following him under the guise of Reverend Billy in occupation mode (from Wall Street, New York, to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral, London) something about his persona and public presentation worries me. I write as someone who is centre-left in politics, so in no sense can this be interpreted as pro-Republican agitation.
My first realization was that Reverend Billy is not funny. You may think this is of no consequence: after all, Bill Talen is a political activist with a serious message for the western world. This is true, but he is also an entertainer by profession and if he wants to draw people in he should entertain. How would he get on, for example, if he was a guest stand-up comedian on Britain’s Live at the Apollo or on North America’s Saturday Night Live? My guess is that he would bomb.
His weapons of humor are ridicule and sarcasm, but unlike Britain’s Peter Kay, for example, he shows neither empathy nor familiarity with the people he supposedly impersonates and represents. OK, he shows a nodding acquaintance with Billy Graham as the play on his name, the light suits, and the tinted, blown-up hair demonstrates. But Billy Graham is no Pentecostal, as Reverend Billy is so obviously intended to be. His attempts at speaking in tongues are embarrassing and the repetitious extemporizing of revivalistic praise falls dully on the ear. ‘Occupylujah’ and ‘revolujah’ just don’t work.
What would have been funny is either the slapstick humor of Chevy Chase in the movie Fletch Lives, where his take-off of slaying in the spirit in the healing line is hilarious but not distasteful. Or he could try farce. I defy anyone to watch disgraced televangelist Robert Tilton’s transformation on YouTube as the farting preacher and not laugh.
If Reverend Billy really wants to show he has done his homework, how about veering from farce to satire? Long before Benny Hinn became an object of opprobrium for his much-publicized, alleged adultery, he was a figure of fun with his unbelievable hairstyle and his even more unbelievable theology. His book Good Morning Holy Spirit said what no one had said before, that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not three persons in one being, but nine. Yes, in case you are wondering, the Father consists of three persons, as do the other two.
A second realisation for me about Reverend Billy was that not being funny called into question his authenticity. He really has not got a clue about how Pentecostals behave, or about the decency of the predominantly working class people who make up the constituency he derides. I share Revd Winnie Varghese’s worry that his style might offend Black Pentecostals, but I would go further: it is an unfair treatment of Pentecostalism per se.
Pentecostals may have an historical tendency to be apolitical, but their commitment to the language of repentance is a genuine spiritual discourse to be treasured. It is precisely the sort of social capital needed in an economic and moral crisis.
I started this guest blog with a positive view of Bill Talen’s anti-capitalist stance and would like to end it with a friendly suggestion. Marshal McLuhan was not entirely wrong when he coined the phrase, ‘the medium is the message’. It helps explain why the televangelists of the 1980s sold the gospel down the river, because they were selling themselves and their products under the banner of ‘Jesus is Lord’. People were confused for they misread the signs.
Reverend Billy, I do not want to see you and your colleagues make the same sort of mistake. So here’s the suggestion. Sit down for a couple of hours and watch Robert Duval’s film The Apostle. Then when you have watched it, if it convinces you I’m onto something. you may want to seek out some Pentecostals and get them on your side. Or then again you might have a conversion and drop the pseudo-religiosity and continue to rescue shopaholics from addiction while saving the world.