Friday, 10 July 2020

Sects Education #5: Praise Be To He

The Righteous Gemstones, Season 1 (2019)

(This is largely a discussion of televangelism, prosperity preaching and American evangelicalism, using the recent HBO series The Righteous Gemstones as a lens. Needless to say, there are spoilers galore.)

So when I ran with the Evangelicals, I spent every Easter for the six years from 1996 to 2001 as a volunteer steward for the evangelical festival Spring Harvest. Every year for about three weeks, usually either side of Easter, Spring Harvest still takes over the Butlins holiday camp at Minehead (not this year, obviously, but as William Cowper put it, God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform).

Imagine a Christian convention.

A Christian convention, with a Christian trade floor, and Christian kids’ stuff, and Christian seminars of all sorts, Christian gigs in the evening and, twice a day, enormous Christian celebration meetings in a built-for-the-occasion big top. And it was an expression of a sort of Christianity that doesn’t really exist on the week to week basis, an emulation of the evangelical megachurch, that phenomenon of the thousands-strong church that has its own aesthetic, its own way of doing things, a specific musical style.

I’m thinking of Hillsong in Sydney, here, which has spawned its own worldwide denomination, and whose songs are sung in pretty much every evangelical church in the world; I’m thinking of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, in Texas, with its 52,000 assembly members, or Todd and Julie Mullins’ Christ Fellowship, in Palm Beach, with upwards of 27,000. The celebrations at Spring Harvest, much like the ones at any of the megachurches, would be like rock concerts, stadium gigs with guitar-led rock bands and dance, people waving banners and flags, and bombastic speakers, celebrities in their own circles, whose words would be available on cassette or CD within 24 hours from the festival shop. People would go to Spring Harvest from their provincial congregations and bring back “resources” – songbooks, Bible study notes, videos and CDs – to their own churches. Each year in May, we’d start singing new songs in our Baptist church back home, according to the fashion set by Spring Harvest.

Working there was a trip. We’d do 14 hour days, with a lunch break, and we’d get our food paid for and a bed, and a yellow tabard, and we’d start at about 7.30 with a prayer meeting, and then we’d essentially work in little teams as roadies, runners and bouncers, depending on what was needed at the time. I made friends and I kept going back, mainly for the friends. As time went on, I’d become a team leader, and the last time I did it, in 2001, I was given responsibility for managing the Big Top. but at the same time, there was a strangely ambivalent effect that Spring Harvest had on me. Part of it was down to the simple fact that the – overwhelmingly white, middle-class – crowds were among the most entitled, rude and selfish people I had ever met, thousands of people, who pretty much to a man and woman (no one would openly admit to being nonbinary in a venue like that) believed passionately in the value of rules and who simultaneously seemed to believe that they were the sole exception to whom the rules did not apply. People whose absolute faith in being Sealed and Assured in the Grace of God meant that they were always right, and hence absolved of having to engage in self-reflection.

And this too extended to many of the evangelical celebrities, who behaved like the worst sort of divas. On stage they would project as compassionate and wise, speakers of the truth, inspirational vessels of change in the Church. Backstage, these beloved Christian celebrities behaved less expansively, making unreasonable, capricious and selfish demands on the volunteer workers, who were treated as no more than flunkies for men (and it was mostly men – women did speak back then, but they played second fiddle) who acted more like petty tyrants than men of God. The supposed exploits of Mariah Carey had nothing on some of these guys.

That abusive minister I worked for that time was a Spring Harvest speaker. He was pretty typical.

And so, working behind the scenes, I got a view of the megachurch that a lot of people the other side of the stage didn’t see. That combination of non-threatening white rock, Christian doctrine bastardised down to TED Talk, and slick marketing makes for a somewhat queasy experience.

I find myself thinking of the large medieval church building in Oxford that went megachurch. Signage with a graphic corporate identity (logo and everything) surrounds the building. The doors have been replaced with a glazed foyer and reception desk that resembles an office complex. Inside, the pews have been ripped out – not a bad thing in itself, pews are a miserable invention – and the direction of the church has been reoriented ninety degrees, so that instead of a pulpit at one end of the building, there is a wide stage along one side of it, for the band. But the 12th century architects built the church so you can hear a whisper at one end from the other, and now the stage cuts across the natural acoustic shape of the building. In order to counteract this, they've fastened enormous speakers onto each of the ornate pillars in the sanctuary, meaning that now the sound blasts out in every direction, assaulting the congregation with weird echoes. The recent professional confirmation that I am possessed of a cocktail of neurological disorders puts this into a sort of context, but I can confirm that a Sunday service in this church is conducive to physical pain. It's the most efficient migraine generator I have ever encountered. More interesting is the way that the last time I was there at least, they left a line out of the General Confession, specifically the line about having sinned against other people. No one could say why that had been left out, but the preceding line about having sinned against God was still there. While the vandalism done to the building is a fine metaphor for the thoughtless and brute force way megachurch evangelicalism appropriates heritage, the editing of the Confession demonstrates the way in which this sort of evangelical theology handles personal social responsibility: if you're only responsible to God, you don't have to be responsible to others. The hard work of altruism becomes peripheral at best, is subordinate to spiritual practice, and gets folded into nothing more than basic politesse.

In the USA, the style of the megachurches has more or less replaced that of the classic televangelists, who have on the whole adopted the new way of doing things, because it packs them in. The laziest, easiest way to look at the shenanigans of these celebrity multimedia preachers is as a scam, a con perpetrated by villains, preying on the beliefs of conservative Christians for the sake of money and power. It is of course never as simple as that. These people have to have got to this place with something more than grift. The Christian faith needs to have some sort of lipservice. Sincerity exists in a weird and unholy alliance with rock-solid belief, capitalist grift with piety.
While the American evangelist has appeared many times on film before – you could mention Elmer Gantry (1960) or The Apostle (1997, not to be confused with the dismal 2018 Netflix folk horror with the similar name) – the first proper screen representation of the 21st century megachurch is Danny McBride’s HBO series The Righteous Gemstones.

Danny McBride apparently grew up around evangelicals, and it kind of shows, because the series that came out of those experiences might be cynical and bitter, but it’s honest and nuanced. The evangelists of the Gemstone family are human, and although they do monstrous things, they are not monsters, which is an important distinction to make. Calling a person a monster (or, worse, a person taking it on themself) denies their humanity, and romanticises the banal human evil of their actions, makes them heroic, or anti-heroic at least. These are flawed, broken people, and the worst sort of flawed, broken people: ones with power.

Eli Gemstone (John Goodman) is the recently widowed patriarch of an evangelical empire, host of a gospel TV show that goes out to millions of people worldwide and head of a growing network of branded charismatic churches. He lives on a vast estate with its own shooting range, stables, and theme park (with fairground, rollercoasters and everything). His grown children live in their own palatial homes on the Gemstone land. These children, Jesse (McBride), middle sister Judy (Edi Patterson) and kid brother Kelvin (Adam Devine) are part of the family business, inasmuch as Jesse and Kelvin have taken front of stage roles – Jesse preaches, Kelvin runs “youth ministry” – and Judy does admin.
Jesse: Don’t get your panties in a bunch, sis. Flying around on private jets, being leaders, that’s men’s business.

It’s the classic evangelical take that leadership is male; except it isn’t, because in fact in evangelical circles, leadership is male unless it's convenient for it not to be. Judy deeply resents this, especially given it was her late mother, Aimee-Leigh (played in flashback by Jennifer Nettles), who was both the driving force of the Gemstone stage show and its heart. Aimee-Leigh was a gifted children’s entertainer, an accomplished country singer – who made her name in a duo with her brother, Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins) – and a sorely missed wife and mother. The Gemstones keep a shrine to her in their vast gardens, and Eli pines for her, nearly every day.
Of the three second generation Gemstones, Jesse alone is married, to Amber (Cassidy Freeman), and has three sons, Abraham, Gideon and Pontius, and the names of the children are themselves a signifier of the odd, shallow way that Jesse approaches his faith, as if they just stuck pins in the Bible and pulled the names out without thinking about them. And evangelicals do concentrate obsessively on some bits of Scripture and have literally no idea about others.

The eldest of Jesse’s sons, Gideon (Skyler Gisondo) has been, when the show starts, cut off. He abandoned the faith and went to LA to be a stuntman. Young Pontius, the middle son, who is no more than about 12, is showing signs of giving up on the evangelical world too.

The intersection of these three generations and the faith is one of the most interesting things in the show. Eli was once just a preacher like any other; he gained his fame through his marriage to Aimee-Leigh. There’s a sense of trajectory, a sense of how he got here. And a moral sense to him that’s lacking in his kids. Over and over again, we see a complexity in how Eli approaches morality. He seems to be a figure of wild contradictions.
The simple question of language is, I think instructive. While the Gemstones are entirely happy to throw about every industrial-strength Anglo-Saxon curse you can imagine, at no point – not once – do we hear a “damn”. None of thesthe Gemstones dare to say “God” or “Jesus” as a swearword. And they wouldn’t, because while in the secular realm, these mild blasphemies are nothing next to a well-placed fuck, shit or cunt, to the evangelical, they are unforgivable, for to use them is to take the Lord’s Name in vain (Exodus 20:7) and the Bible says nothing about the word “fuck”. I mean, never mind that the word “fuck” didn’t actually exist until well over a thousand years after the Ten Commandments were written. That’s really not how the evangelical mind works.

Granted, in my experience evangelicals aren’t really happy with the Anglo-Saxon either, hence the shock value of Tony Campolo’s famous line: “I have three things I'd like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don't give a shit. What's worse is that you're more upset with the fact that I said ‘shit’ than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night” (which predictably got him a great deal of censure for saying “shit” from evangelicals, who of course missed the whole point).

But the language used by all of the Gemstones except, crucially, the departed and sorely missed Amy Leigh, is an indicator both of how they don’t care about their consequences; they’re happy to turn the air blue, because they’re not blaspheming. Their conception of sin is what they can get away with in (so they evidently think) the eyes of God, and at times this is comically daft: for example, while in the middle of organising a mission of revenge, Eli breaks a cheap plastic bobble-head Jesus from a car dashboard. Everything stops until they’ve glued Jesus together.
In the first episode, minister John Wesley Seasons (Dermot Mulroney) leads a delegation of preachers to meet Eli, because he is about to open a branch of his megachurch in their town. It’s going to be in a defunct branch of the moribund American department store chain Sears – we’ll later see the opened church’s slick and bright stage and sanctuary, contrasted with its back rooms, still full of battered mannequins and empty garment racks, a powerful metaphor for the tawdry commercialism that drives the Gemstones’ churches.
Johnny Seasons: Brother Pastors, we all have churches in Locust Grove. I lead a congregation of eighteen hundred. Gabe here has got a thousand at New Pentecost. Stephen from Highway Assemblies is holding strong at twelve hundred, and Jeremiah's workin' hard! His new ministry's up to 700 in just two years.
Eli: Good for you, Brother Jeremiah!
Seasons: We're small-town, humble folks, so that operation you're building there—that Prayer Center—we're concerned that it'd be a disruption.
Eli: “Disruption”?
Seasons: Well, to be honest with you, we're scared you're gonna run us out of our own home town.
[They both laugh]
Eli: I see. And I understand where you're coming from. I'm a small-town boy myself. Don't let the big-city clothes fool you.
Seasons: See, brothers? I told you he'd understand.
[Eli laughs]
Seasons: Oh, and, ah, Sheffield's only about an hour away. Maybe that's a good alternative. It's only got one church.
Eli: Hmm. One church. Seems like a town filled with nonbelievers. But Locust Grove has four churches. Your churches. And you're right, they are modest-sized ministries. If we were to come in, scoop up one of your churches, maybe that ain't worth our time. But if we were to scoop up all four churches, now you're talking. Between the four of you, you got decent numbers.
Seasons: I don't follow. Are you saying you're intentionally coming for our flock?
[Kelvin taps his watch]
Eli: Did we have anything else to discuss today, Brother Pastors?
It’s almost like Eli is a sort of sanctified mobster here, moving in on smaller operations.

Let’s talk for a while about bums on seats, and how that is particularly pertinent in the US Bible Belt. While 1200 or 1800 is apparently a “modest congregation” over there, both of those churches would sit comfortably among the top 20 largest church congregations in the whole of the United Kingdom. Every British Protestant church with over 300 members – and there's only like something over a thousand of those – is without exception evangelical. But it’s not the same thing. In the UK, evangelicals are largely ignored, if they’re noticed at all. In the US, there are millions of them. And they’re worth millions.

In Anglican or Roman Catholic churches, the financial tithes of the congregation theoretically go back into the general fund of the larger church organisation, which is then shared out to pay the salaries of the clergy across the board, meaning that the priest of a church with twenty members gets a living wage just as readily as someone ministering to a few hundred. Congregational churches – Baptists, Pentecostals, and the other Evangelical denominations particularly – don't work like that. In these cases, the money goes directly to the church coffers. A vicar's wage is paid by the part of the Anglican Communion ( the diocese, if you want to be technical) they are working for. A pastor's wage is paid for directly out of the pockets of the congregation. That in itself isn't morally a problem. In the UK, a big church with 200 members supplies at best a middling professional wage for its minister. In these churches, tithing is often defined literally as “handing over one tenth of your income to the church” (note: as a student, I had £20 a week for food. I gave £2 of that to the church every week, depriving myself of at least one square meal. My first couple of years of uni were a hungry time). In the US, 200 members is a small church, and a “modest” church like Johnny Seasons’ congregation, with something over a thousand members, can set its pastor up nicely. A minister can get rich off a congregation, and not with a whole lot of difficulty.
And this is why in the very first televised service The Righteous Gemstones shows us, Eli sums up his slickly marketed presentation of their disastrous China mission trip so:
Eli: If you’ve ever wondered why tithing is important, right there up on that screen is why.
And this is why Eli not only isn’t concerned about the needs of Johnny Seasons and the brother pastors, he’s actively, aggressively trying to run them out of town. Because really they are not Brothers Pastors, they are business competitors, and he’s concerned about the numbers. He wants their customers. He doesn’t want to try to reach people who don’t go to church – what many more sincere evangelicals might consider a mission field – because that’s risky and a poor business proposition. He wants to sweep up a market – and it’s definitely a market – that’s already there.

The megachurch scene’s status as a market is really where the precarity of this comes in. Because when you make Christianity a profit bearing business, it has the side effect of turning believers into consumers, with every one of the issues that this carries with it. Ecclesiological loyalty morphs into consumer loyalty, which is much less certain. You have to maintain sales, effectively.
Eli: Did you ever think that if your followers come with us, maybe they weren't your followers to begin with?
While that abusive boss was the minister of my old Baptist church, numbers soared – in fact they multiplied several times. When he left, taking the veneer of celebrity with him, nearly everyone who came for him left too, and went to the growing charismatic church up the road, and that Baptist church wound up smaller than it had been to start with. The leavers would have said (in fact some did to me) that they were “following the Spirit”, but they weren't, not really. They were following the entertainment and excitement of something genuine appearing to happen. It wasn't happening, of course. The only people “coming to Christ” were the same people who’d come to Christ in the other church up the road. The signs of capital-R Revival were a well-marketed illusion. Christianity in the UK as a whole and in my home town in particular remained in freefall and continues to. But when you only go to the biggest congregation,you don't notice that. In the US, it's not in freefall (although COVID-19 might change that – they seem to be dying in horrific numbers). But a pastor's livelihood still depends on the size of his (note male pronoun) congregation. A congregation of 1800 is a meal ticket. But if those people shop around there goes your meal ticket.

Because celebrity is a good way to market a church, the Gemstones embrace celebrity. We see their post-service family meal, which is always held in a local family restaurant, and the way that the general public take phone pics and stare, as the evangelists sweep in like slow motion rockstars.
Eli Gemstone takes the shortcut to evangelical celebrity, the Faustian route if you will, by adopting prosperity theology. It's the easiest scam in the world: by using very selective Bible passages, you tell the faithful that if they tithe and live righteous lives (but mainly if they tithe), they too will have their prosperity increased sevenfold or a hundredfold. Never mind that it's a thing Jesus Himself explicitly rails against (Matthew 6:19-24; Mark 10:17-25), the nature of the Bible as an internally contradictory body of literature written over the course of about a thousand years means that for every needle's eye (Matthew 19:24) there's a Prayer of Jabez (I Chronicles 4:9-10). It works. People (literally) buy it.

Prosperity theology, in its downplaying of spiritual practice in favour of its valorisation of avarice and its obsession with privilege framed as providence, is in fact not just morally vile: under its original name of Montanism, it has been in the catalogues of historical heresies for centuries, having been anathematised by the Church since the Council of Iconium in 230CE. It’s perhaps not surprising that for decades, charismatic/Pentecostal writers keep “rediscovering” it, as if it was lost (rather than in fact it being an easily accessible part of church history that evangelicals just don’t care about). There have been bodies of work for a good thirty years that have attempted to reclaim it as a long-suppressed prophetic movement in Christianity (Note: for example, here’s a fairly in-depth example from South Korea, the cradle of prosperity theology), and the general thought process has evaded the obvious conclusion (that is, that Christianity saw this as the wrong turn it evidently was a whole century before the foundation of the Catholic Church) and instead tended to “hey, we're Montanists, so that means the Montanists were the good guys and the awful institutional Church crushed a genuine Move of the Spirit, which we're only reclaiming now!”

Which is par for the course, really, since the reclaiming of the immoral as moral, aside from being, according to scripture, the work of the antichrist (II Thessalonians 2:9-11), is how you manage to win at normalising dreadful things. Americans are particularly good at doing this in the secular realm too – remember that the response to being called out for imprisoning pre-school children in concentration camps is not a denial, but a refusal to call them concentration camps. It’s the same thing. You take something that was considered beyond the pale, and you don’t deny you’re doing it, you just find a way to justify why it’s actually OK. Do not get me wrong: the prosperity gospel is morally abhorrent, in that it doesn’t just deny the reality of human suffering, but it blames the one suffering, in denial of every strand of historical Christian theology. And of course it is hugely powerful in the USA, and it is at the centre of the sort of evangelicalism that is sticking by Donald Trump through thick and thin – it’s no accident that the president’s main spiritual advisor, Paula White, is a prominent prosperity preacher (who, being on-brand, denies that what she’s doing is called prosperity teaching, even while she’s doing it). The Christian church has always, throughout history, been at its best when it’s stood up against secular power and, conversely, at its absolute worst when it’s been in cahoots with that power.

It’s fashionable for more principled Christians to deny that these people are Christians at all. But that’s itself an act of avoidance. A heretic is still a member of your religion; they’re just at odds with it, and really a heretic is a religionist who stands against the majority view. Also, more concerningly, who’s the heretic? A heretic is a dissenter against a majority doctrine, after all. This has happened before. Back at the dawn of the organised church, there was about a century where different theological factions – Nicenes and Arians, mainly (whose difference of opinion centred on who Jesus was) – had the upper hand in the Christian world, and declared the other faction the real heretics. In the end the Nicenes (simply, the ones who believed in the Trinity) won, but for a while, they were the heretics. The point is that while, in terms of traditional Christian doctrine, American evangelicals might in fact be beholden to something that is closer to Manichaean witchcraft than credal Christianity, they’re the ones sitting down and having dinner with the President of the USA. It’s their songs that are sung in Christian churches around the world. They have the TV stations. They have the platform. They have the money. They are the most powerful quarter of the Protestant faith, and if they’re calling the shots, that makes traditional Christians the heretics, because that’s how it works.

Dr Eli Gemstone's nearest real world analogue, I suppose, is the egregious Dr Creflo Dollar (I can't believe that the monetary implications of their surnames is an accident) whose acquisitiveness, his doctrine of avarice as a spiritual virtue, his private jet, his fleet of Rolls Royces, his doctorate in something other than theology and his complete lack of financial transparency all make for the perfect televangelist cliché. I used to have a housemate who would read Dollar's prosperity guides (this chap also used to go to a men-only Bible study group that was called, and I swear I am not making this up, Men Sharpening Men, because sometimes you really should have thought before just picking Proverbs 27:17 and calling your group after that). Dollar’s books looked more or less exactly like the book we see briefly in the first episode montage of the Gemstone family museum, Shine Like a Gemstone: Prosperity Through Leadership. It didn't help this guy much. But then it doesn't need to. The promise that you'll be healthy, happy and rich if you pray, tithe, and consume is the secular advertising dream anyway.
(Swear to God, this is real.)
Eventually Johnny Seasons’s concerns will be proven to be well-founded, as the Gemstone Prayer Center does indeed sweep up the Christians of Locust Grove. Seasons can't live off his church anymore, and winds up working in a hardware store.
Johnny Seasons: Your whole ministry is set up to serve the Gemstones. You should be ashamed of yourselves.
Eli: Well, I ain’t.
But here’s the thing that separates Eli from his offspring: Eli does have a sense of shame, and nonetheless still has a need to do the Right Thing, and that was perhaps instilled in him by his own straight-arrow dad (played in the flashback episode by Quintessential Screen Southerner M. Emmet Walsh), who always disapproved of the conspicuous flashiness of Eli’s lifestyle. And perhaps his moral compass depended on his – clearly better, if flawed – late wife. Eli’s very real, consuming grief for Amy Leigh drives him, and sometimes it drives him in a direction that isn’t exactly right as such, as not as wrong as the usual. There is, for all the avarice and vanity, a sort of ethical core in Eli, a sort of old-fashioned Christian morality; when he discovers that Johnny Seasons, hitherto suspected of various anonymous acts of war, is in fact largely innocent, and that he has destroyed the church of a genuine pastor, Eli makes amends by offering Johnny Seasons pastorship at the Locust Grove Prayer Center, and not as an employee, as a partner. He will forgive his brother-in-law. And Amy Leigh will smile on him for that.

And Eli is actually pretty good in the pulpit. The final episode of the first season will end with him giving an unironically inspirational and genuinely heartfelt sermon about forgiveness that genuinely warms people's hearts. It is moving. It touches people. And I've spent all these words explaining what's wrong about prosperity theology and evangelical megachurches, but it's important to remember that these people say a lot of stuff that's true. They say a lot of stuff that gives meaning. They say a lot of things that warm hearts and nourish spirits. They say things that are good. And these things aren't mutually exclusive from the greed. Humans are complex, contradictory things, and religious humans are more contradictory and complex than most.

Eli’s first choice for pastor of the Prayer Center, and the conflict that comes from that, also comes from that nagging desire to do the right thing, for he appoints his hitherto estranged brother-in-law, Baby Billy Freeman (Walton Goggins). Baby Billy (and it’s always Baby Billy, never just Billy – the second generation Gemstones call him “Uncle Baby Billy” in fact) has never really forgiven Eli for what he sees as a usurpation of his career in the Gospel Business. In his early life, he was in a (beautifully accurate) Country-Gospel duo with Amy Lee before she married Eli. Their Big Hit, a cloyingly twee number about being a good little kid, called “Misbehavin’”, is pretty much the closest to glory Baby Billy ever got, while Eli and Amy Leigh both moved on to much greater things. Baby Billy’s home is set up as a museum to his and his dead sister’s former career, and he wants nothing more than to get back to that. Eventually, he’ll find a way out by getting very close to capital-G Glory indeed, but until that happens, he holds on to the time, thirty years ago, when Amy Leigh cancelled their comeback tour, since she found she was pregnant with Kelvin.
As pastor of the Locust Grove Prayer Center, Baby Billy makes is as much about himself as he possibly can, setting up cardboard cutouts of himself in the foyer and at the first opportunity grooming Judy to perform a duet of “Misbehavin’” in a Sunday service. When Eli, moved by the way in which the daughter he’s sidelined for years takes on her mother’s mantle, offers Baby Billy and Judy the chance to perform the song in the Easter Sunday service, Baby Billy demands that Judy refuse; he will not allow his spotlight to be shared, or used to support someone else’s event.

Judy is in her own way a desperately tragic, damaged figure. A spoiled little girl – in the mid-season flashback episode, we see her 12th birthday and just how spoilt she was – has grown into a frustrated, angry, immature woman who can’t understand why she isn’t given the same spotlight her brothers are, and why no amount of cajoling, whining or begging will change that. And it’s just because she is a woman – she’s not the smartest or the most competent, but she’s surely no stupider than her dimwit younger brother, who nonetheless gets to be front and center on stage.

Pushed into working in the office, she embezzles vast amounts of money from the Sunday collections and tries to rebel by getting engaged to a guy who works in a mall pharmacy, BJ (Tim Baltz). BJ – although saddled with the sort of unintentionally comical name that Christians often unknowingly adopt – is an unbeliever, and in fact of the regular cast, he is one of only two who you could describe as such. He’s also possessed of a more functional moral compass than most of the Gemstones, but then the way in which those moral compasses work is the most interesting part of the show.
In what must be the single most heartbreaking, cringe-inducing scene of the first season, Judy explains to BJ that he is, although she has lied to him about this before, only her second boyfriend. And she talks about her first, nearly twenty years ago in college. She fell in love with a much older university lecturer. One day, after he casually complimented her on her sweater, she forced her way into his office, locked herself in with him, and sexually assaulted him, before beginning a campaign of stalking and harassment, culminating in her kidnapping his young son. Her multimillionaire evangelist dad made it all go away, of course, but Judy learned nothing, and although she faced no consequences has no real comprehension of why she would be grateful for that. In fact, she tells BJ the story as if her love was legitimate, as if the rape of her professor – and it is clear she forced herself on the guy – was a romantic act. BJ nonetheless comes back for her. He loves her. He doesn’t actually understand really what she does, and he basically enables her, but, well, it’s a start, I suppose?

Judy’s idea of consequences extends literally no further than the fear of losing stuff. The thought that she might break her father’s heart or even what that means doesn’t even register.
Eli: You know what? Y’all are hereby fired.
Judy: what?
Eli: You don’t know how lucky you are. You don’t appreciate it. Any of it. You kids have broken my heart.
Judy: Daddy… can we still live in our houses?
Eli: Live wherever you want, Judy. I could care less.
Judy: I mean, but, like, are you gonna pay for it!?
Judy isn’t even the least sympathetic of the Gemstone siblings, notwithstanding her near-total lack of redeeming features. In growing up in a world where they are fed from the beginning the narrative that they are blessed with goodness and mercy because they are sanctified by the Grace of God through the Blood of the Lamb, and that therefore they don’t ever need to examine themselves, the Gemstones have become stunted in a way that their father is still not quite, although he doesn’t really fully understand his part of what he has done to them.
Kelvin is perhaps the least awful of the second generation. Although clearly a complete dimwit and frankly a man-child, he at leasts wants to do right by people. He opens his home to a recovered addict and former satanist called Keefe (Tony Cavalero), with whom he has a close and genuine friendship. Keefe is a softly-spoken, relentlessly sweet and unassuming guy who is both obviously queer and in love with Kelvin; Kelvin, for his part, clearly feels the same way about Keefe, and Jesse even mocks him for it, because of course, nothing could ever happen without disaster resulting.

As a youth leader, Kelvin is a bust, already a bit too old to really understand the kids, which is frankly the case with most evangelical youth leaders, who are either given the job too young and are hence too immature and inexperienced to be able to cope with it (I have met over the years a few disastrous examples, always just out of their teens: for example, the young woman who spoke to teenagers like they were six and whose loneliness made a stalker out of her; and the young – middle class, white – man who thought he was good at, and I quote directly, “spitting rhymes”) or are too old and already generationally detached. When Kelvin is asked by a wealthy couple to turn around the life of their teenage daughter, Dot Nancy (Jade Pettyjohn), it’s initially a disaster. But Dot does come back to the fold, for Kelvin and Keefe, when it looks like Dot might get herself arrested, stand by Dot when her no-good boyfriend runs for it. And crucially their action is reflexive, done without thought or ulterior motive. And that sincere steadiness, that willingness to stand for someone, is honestly the real reason why young people do stay in the best of the Christian youth groups, even though the attempts at relevance and being down with the kids, and the painful dance acts and the godawful Christian pop and rock music in fact do their best to drive the kids away with their superheated cringe. Dot fully gets this: “You’re just like a teacher, who doesn’t teach us anything,” she says.

But Kelvin is still someone who, because he’s the Kid Brother in a televangelist dynasty and hence fated to be the Youth Leader, hasn’t been allowed to grow up. He simply can’t deal with adulthood. It’s why his relationship with Keefe – also childlike, but in a slightly different way, indicative of surviving abuse, of a need to be rescued – has so much unsaid. Kelvin’s man-child credentials are sealed by a house full of toys, gym equipment and arcade machines and at the end of the show he has a sort of ridiculous crisis of faith, expressed like some sort of childish tantrum (and it’s Dot Nancy who calls him on it and points out that Keefe needs him). And here’s a thing: evangelical young men have their midlife crises earlier than men outside the Christian world.
While current psychology rejects that midlife crisis is as common as it is made out to be (or even a thing), it’s definitely a thing among Christians, only it tends to hit at about the time they hit thirty, about the time they have to really face being adults, rather than just play at it. If Kelvin has an arc, it’s through his relationship with Keefe. Keefe is, in his sincerity, and through his journey, such as it is, Kelvin’s best chance at becoming a better person beyond the ersatz salvation of the televangelist – maybe having been into public BDSM and fake Satanism in the goth scene isn’t as bad as he thinks it was, but that was never really the problem, and there’s an underlying damage there, a need to be supported, to be given wholeness and love. Just as Judy’s best chance of becoming a functional human is through the unconditional love of BJ, through his relationship with Keefe, Kelvin has a chance to be better.

These are only chances for redemption, but they are chances nonetheless. Televangelism might be poison, but the Gemstones might have a shot at salvation, not through the Blood of the Lamb, but through human relationships. Eli’s grief. Judy is bettered through the love of BJ. Kelvin is given the chance to be better because of Keefe.
With Jesse it’s both more and less complex.

In the very first episode, even before the credits, we see a slick mass baptism in China, where queues of converts line up in a vast swimming pool while a singer blasts out charismatic standard “Our God Is An Awesome God” in Chinese. It goes wrong: Jesse and Kelvin bicker about the right way to baptise someone so you don’t get water under their nose, and there’s some splashing, and then someone starts up the wave machine, and it doesn’t go well.

But it sets up the central point: Jesse is so obsessed with the look of things, and so obsessed with scoring points, they can’t see the Spirit in what he's doing. And Jesse’s obsession with the way things look, and how this supersedes any moral compass for him, is one of the driving elements of the whole series since his plotline is for the most part the central one. In the first episode, he is blackmailed, receiving a video of him and most of the Gemstone Church worship band in a hotel room snorting lines of coke in the company of a naked sex worker.

We find pretty quickly that the video was obtained by Gideon, who, in the company of his utterly amoral and thoroughly incompetent buddy Scotty (Scott MacArthur), is engaged in a plot to squeeze out the Gemstone cash. Scotty just wants the money but Gideon is engaged in a more complex and ambivalent enterprise, inspired by his parents’ hypocrisy.
And that means both parents. Amber is faithful, but she is even more of a hypocrite than Jesse, and she does not make him better. She enables him, and she is herself without any self-awareness. In the first episode, we see her doing some sort of charitable craft thing with some of the other church wives (most of whose husbands are implicated in Jesse’s escapades) and we see exactly how stunted her self-knowledge is.
Amber: I have so much fun doing things for others!
Victoria: You do.
Amber: Of course I do, and I enjoy it, because I don't expect to get nothing in return.
Victoria: Mm. Well. [laughs awkwardly] You get stuff in return.
Amber: No, Victoria. That's not true.
Victoria: Well, you have a pretty nice house.
Amber: What, this old thing?
Victoria: You fly on private jets.
Amber: [prickly] Well, the jets belong to the church, not us. But I see you. The devil just jumped right in you there for a second, didn't he? Made you challenge me. Hold on. It's OK. He's gone now. [She puts her hand on Victoria's knee] I can tell you're back to normal. Just don't let that happen again.
Amber is possessed of that impregnable evangelical certainty that reflexively views any pointing out of a fault – even by someone she should really be safe with – as her friend falling into literal demonic deception rather than admit that any part of her moral world is flawed. Amber, like Jesse, doesn’t comprehend what doing something for others without reward even means, and much of Jesse’s arc is essentially predicated on his absolute selfishness, and how the religion he espouses, which is supposed to promote the opposite of that, enables him.

It takes a while before the blackmail comes out; Jesse exploits his supposed friends, and is a complete brute to them, in fact, and repeatedly throws them under the bus in order to protect himself. Even though they’re implicated too, and they’re in this together, he effectively blackmails them to defeat his own blackmailer. He is not afraid to drive a car right over his blackmailers in the first episode, and later, suspecting Johnny Seasons of it, forces his buddies to go and attack him, which does not end well, since Seasons is more than capable of defending himself. When, after every half-arsed tactic he’s employed to prevent the truth from coming out has failed and he can’t hide it anymore, he makes a big show of coming clean being the right thing to do without any attempt at contrition or any real understanding of the consequences, because for a man like him, a wealthy, powerful and white man who is Washed in the Blood of the Lamb, there are no consequences – like the other children of Eli, he’s never once had to face consequences – until there are consequences. When he does face any consequences, they’re far less than you would expect. He’s done things that are jailworthy, after all. Although Amber’s threatening divorce and Gideon’s gone again, the worst thing Jesse can imagine is losing his job in the church.
Jesse: I came clean. I was looking for that freedom that comes from telling the truth. Although it’s not as free as I thought it was, like I fucked up my entire life.
It doesn’t work and he absolutely doesn’t get why. Amber does not take it well. When she finds out what Jesse has done, she gets a rifle and shoots him in the arse as he tries to make a run for it. She’ll take him back, but only after forcing him to go and bring back Gideon, who left after coming clean about being the blackmailer.

Gideon is one of the most complex characters in the show. He abandoned the family because of their evident hypocrisy, and while it was his idea to use the film he took on a whim of his father’s sins as leverage, his heart isn’t in it. Although there on false pretences, the conflict between love for his family and disgust at their hypocrisy is only really decided by the fact that his partner in crime is just a basic asshole.
Gideon atones for his betrayal by joining one of those missionary groups that goes and builds houses and digs water mains in Haiti. There are, when it comes to evangelical Christian organisations, only degrees of problematic, and while there are very real systemic problems with this sort of mission organisation, it is about the least rubbish sort of mission organisation there is, since they do some actual good and hold back on the proselytising. In fact, when Jesse comes to get Gideon, he can’t see the point of it, dismisses it as the work of “liberals and catholics”, tells Gideon that “the dumbest thing you can do in religion is be a missionary.” Where, after all, is the profit?

Jesse’s first trip to get Gideon back from the mission field fails completely. He’s only doing it because Amber, still vengeful, tells him he’s not coming back unless he brings back Gideon. He’s literally only doing it to save himself. Gideon sees right through it.
Gideon: Do you want to make things better? Or do you just want to make the bad stuff go away?
Jesse: What the fuck does that even mean?
Gideon’s actions aren’t exactly the best, really. Going off and redeeming yourself by digging water mains in Haiti is a pretty drama way to atone for a thing, but at least he understands to some extent what atonement is. Jesse does finally come round to that – when Amber won’t take him back, he goes back to Haiti and joins his son in digging ditches, the only action Jesse performs in the whole season that isn’t designed for self-aggrandisement.

In The Righteous Gemstones, it's like the moral compass skipped a generation or two. And in fact that’s pretty much how the evangelical church works right now.
It’s the older people, the Boomers and the Xers, who are running the show; their parents were of a different world, used to a hardship that these two generations weren’t, and their children and grandchildren, the Millennials and the Zoomers, are set to inherit their world. At the time I write this, we’re in a pandemic that, because of the stiff-necked people (Acts 7:51) who control American evangelicalism and their distrust of science and embrace of capitalism, is killing older evangelicals in terrifying numbers. That inheritance is soon to be taken. And maybe, just maybe, as the new generation come to prominence, that moral compass will in some way return.

2 comments:

  1. Only a sidenote, but I'm not persuaded Montanism can much illuminate the prosperity gospel. It is claimed as a forerunner by Pentecostals solely on account of its ecstatic prophecy (I personally suspect it may have had more in common with Medjugorje than Azusa Street); but it was also characterised by an ascetic rigor (Hippolytus refers scathingly to its 'repasts of radishes') that is hard to square with Creflo Dollar.

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  2. I think the isue is not such as to whether Montanism can illuminate the prosperity gospel, but more that prospeirty people think it does?

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