It is only the savage, whether of the African bush or of the American gospel tent, who pretends to know the will and intent of God exactly and completely. —Henry Louis Mencken
Imagine Tom Cruise blowing up in front of a Church of Scientology. For a certain portion of the population, the very idea of such a thing makes us downright giddy. Those are the people who are likely to be very excited about the new AMC series Preacher, which is set to debut May 22. The pilot was premiered at SXSW this past Sunday and crowds cheered when Cruise went boom. Such is the general public attitude toward many religions who seem to be making up their own gospel as they go. Watching those who use the gospel for their own gain explode sounds like a rather enjoyable pastime and Preacher provides just that in its first episode.
Don’t expect more traditional churches to be too happy about this series. Based on the Vertigo comic book by Seth Ennis and Steve Dillon, Preacher tells the story of Jesse Custer, who has some “special” powers, his ex-girlfriend Tulip, and Cassidy, a rough-hewn Irishman with a penchant for using his fists [In the comic, Cassidy is a vampire, but no word as to whether he maintains that characteristic in the TV version]. In the pilot, various ministers are “possessed” by a strange alien force that then explodes them from the inside out. This is not exactly what the church has in mind when they talk about being filled with the Holy Spirit.
Initial reaction from folks at SXSW was favorable, but one has to consider that the population there is one already attuned to a more alternative culture in which a comic book gospel is more real to them than the version being preached on the street corner. They tend to like anything that has explosions and defies traditional authority and challenges our concepts of how society works. SXSW tends to be the AMC network’s core demographic, so showing them something like Preacher is rather like offering a digitized communion.
What is more disconcerting for the church, or should be, is that such a negative attitude toward people in ministry has become almost commonplace. Comics like Preacher do not come from a single, twisted mind, but rather are reflective of a perspective based on the reality of priests abusing children, ministers having affairs with church secretaries, and televangelists fleecing the poor to make millions of dollars. If there is a tendency to see evil in those who wear a collar, it is because evil is the example that has been set by far too many who claim to preach the gospel.
Consider the following tweet that came across my feed yesterday:
Joel Osteen ……
If being a Minister is making you a millionaire chances are you’re doing it wrong. pic.twitter.com/l3JuiMUjd7
— Bring back FDR’s CCC (@rarey4) March 14, 2016
Now, I can’t speak to the accuracy of that image and the fact that no source is cited makes its voracity somewhat suspect. What’s important for this particular conversation is that we see so-called ministers like this, quite literally raking in millions of dollars, living high on the hog, while those who donate to their “church” can barely scrape together enough money for their own food. These “ministers” take advantage of a biblical mandate to financially support the work of God and exploit those who faithfully believe that some good is being done. Instead of the money going to help people in need, though, it’s going to the construction of lavish mansions, multi-million dollar television production facilities, private jets, designer clothes, and lifestyles that would make a presidential candidate blush. When we see the gospel so blatantly and obviously misappropriated, then yes, we’re going to cheer at the thought of such charlatans being blown to smithereens.
All of this sits in stark contrast to what I know is true for those whose faith and intentions are sincere. My late father, and those like him, never looked at the pulpit as a way of filling their own wallet. Quite to the contrary, they sacrificed financial stability, time with their families, and in many cases even their health in order to better the lives of the congregations and communities to which they legitimately felt called. They understood that wealth and privilege on earth is meaningless and preached a gospel of caring for others, selflessness, and charity.
After Poppa died, my brother and I were going through his papers, trying to decide what we needed to keep. We weren’t surprised to find he had kept meticulous financial records. He was never audited, but he was always ready, just in case. As we looked back through tax returns from the 1960s and 70s, we were shocked. We always knew we had been on the lower end of the economic scale, but we hadn’t realized how severely. 1974 was the first time Poppa could claim more than $10,000 in income. Throughout the 80s, his salary barely tipped over $20K. Only after many years of service, after my brother and I had both left home, did his salary finally top out at $36,000. There were never new cars. New clothes were only bought on sale, and for Poppa especially, new suits were an expenditure difficult to manage more than once ever three or four years. Even then, they were from the clearance rack at Sears.
Real ministers don’t look for the limelight. A local radio station once offered to broadcast Poppa’s Sunday morning sermons if he could have someone tape them at sufficient quality. Taping the sermons wasn’t an issue. We were already doing that for shut-ins and nursing home residents that couldn’t make it to the service. Still, Poppa turned down the offer. He was concerned that the publicity that would come with such a broadcast might dilute the message.
Preachers like my father are not what the general public sees, though. Instead, we are faced with a Church fighting to hide the criminal sexual molestation committed by their own priests. We’re faced with the images of weeping ministers confessing to affairs only because they were caught and had no other choice. We’re insulted with pleas from televangelists begging for donations so they can buy a $65 million private jet. The people who perpetuate such absolute heresy are guilty of preaching a comic book gospel that leaves us so disgusted we’re not the least bit upset when something bad happens to them.
I’m actually rather anxious to compare Preacher the television series to the comic book. In the comic book, one of the plot lines is that God has left heaven and can’t be found. I have a feeling that there are millions of people whose experience with religion is just like that: God is not in heaven and he’s not doing anything good. If the church wants to change that perception, they need to do away with this ridiculous gospel of affluence, be more proactive in addressing their own sins, and let us see the example of selfless sacrifice that I know exists.
The gospel I was taught was the gospel of peace and love. Maybe we should try that one out for a while.