Monday, December 28, 2009


Extended visits with the relatives means time to watch random things on youtube, and blog about them. I hesitate to blog about the documentary that I've just watched because it was difficult viewing, but in the end I had to because it was so fascinating. 'Marjoe' was an Academy Award winning documentary released in 1972 which tells the tragic story of Marjoe Gortner. Marjoe, whose name is a bizzare combination of Mary and Joseph, was a child preacher in the 50s and 60s in the 'Holy Roller', Pentecostal, revivalist circuit in the States. Trained and encouraged by his overbearing parents, Marjoe was preaching, 'healing' and even taking weddings from the age of four. He was basically pimped out by his parents in order to make them pots of money. By the time he was 16, his dad had run off with the money, and Marjoe left his mum and dropped out into the late '60s California hippie scene. He went back onto the preaching circuit in his early '20s, purely to make a living, he didn't believe in God by this point. Apparently he could make enough in 6 months to take the rest of the year off. After a couple of years of doing this though, he realised he couldn't keep up the double life and that's when he decided to team up with the film-makers in order to make an exposé of the whole travelling evangelist, money making scam. The film intersperses clips of Marjoe in action with behind the scenes footage where he explains to the film crew how the whole thing works. You can read a bit more of his story on Wikipedia here.

To the likes of Christopher Hitchens, who highlights this story in his book, 'God is not great', the story of 'Marjoe' is the story of religion, full stop. He sees it as proof positive that all religion is man-made, usually for profit, or power, and is only bought into by the gullible, the desperate and the stupid. It is of course nothing of the sort. This is just Hitchens' typical characterisation of Christianity, and all religion, by its extremes. Sure enough, it shows the dangers of a particular brand of experience driven Pentecostalism, and it should remind us of the importance of discernment, but it hardly discredits all of Christianity. In fact, the New Testament warns us to expect such frauds speaking in Christ's name.

However, the film is very close to the bone for anyone with experience of charismatic Christianity. The reason I said I hesitate to blog about it is because I think for some Christians, maybe some that I know, the dynamics at work in the meetings, and the techniques being used by Marjoe will be recognisable. I think of the internet and God channel sensation that was Todd Bentley, at the Lakeland 'revival', and his subsequent fall. There are many parallels that could be drawn with the kind of hucksterism on display in Marjoe. I know of plenty of Church of England vicars who bought into the whole thing and jetted off to Lakeland to receive 'the annointing.'

It is disturbing to see the way Marjoe can switch so easily from his preacher mode into his normal self and back again, taking advantage of desperate people for money. He appears so brazen and shameless. Before we are too quick to judge though, we should remember that Marjoe basically lost his childhood. The treatment he received from his parents was nothing short of abuse. Having seen the fraudulent scam of revivalism from the inside, what hope did he have of coming through with his faith intact? When he was desperate for money, he turned to the only 'trade' he had ever known. I see it as a tragic but fascinating human story which raises many questions about the way we do ministry. Uncomfortable viewing as it is, it is also an extremely compelling and insightful documentary.

Above is just the first 10 minute clip of the documentary. The film is 1 hour 23 minutes long and can be watched in parts on youtube, or on google video. Well worth a watch if you can stomach it.

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