There are two books about Pentecostalism however, that disturbed me. One was Salvation on Sand Mountain, by Dennis Covington. The other was Holy Ghost Girl by Donna Johnson. Both of them are about the movement’s fringes. However, the people who wrote them actually experienced what they wrote. That’s what makes them interesting. Too many books about Pentecostalism, while helpful sociologically or theologically, are tame reflections by outsiders, people who have never been smitten and overcome by the power and the glory of Pentecostal experience. They don’t understand how such an experience can reset one’s sense of “normal.”
I read Salvation on Sand Mountain nearly twenty years ago. A respectable journalist leaves the safety of his sanitized culture and takes too close a look at mountain religion. Before he knows it, he is sticking his hand in a box filled with copperheads and water moccasins. When he does, glory hits him in a spot he didn’t even know he had; it floods him with ecstasy like he had never experienced.
There are not many snake handlers in the world and never have been. There’s not a Pentecostal in ten thousand who thinks it’s a good idea to stick one’s hand into a bunch of twisted, writhing serpents. So, in one sense, snake handling is just an overblown, bizarre and rare practice unworthy of a lot of attention.
What makes Salvation on Sand Mountain so compelling (and unsettling) is that the emotional and psychological experiences the author relates are things any Pentecostal will immediately understand. Snake handlers don’t risk their lives to impress people. Until the advent of YouTube, few people outside the movement had ever witnessed what they do. They certainly don’t pick up reptiles for money. That is what impressed Covington; people who dance with a rattlesnake are serious. And he was ready for serious. Pentecostals get that.
That happens in religion too.
How can studying the Book of Romans compare to prancing around a room with a copperhead? A room full of worshippers losing their inhibition and plunging into communal bliss will win out every time over struggling with the meaning of justification and sanctification. Every Pentecostal that reads Covington’s book will know that he is describing the holy grail of worship experience, except, of course, for the snakes.
When adrenaline gets into a contest with responsibility, adrenaline wins every time.
When adrenaline gets into a contest with responsibility, adrenaline wins every time.
That is why the snakes ran over Covington’s graduate degree like a train over a possum.
I just finished Donna Johnson’s Holy Ghost Girl today. I had already read most of it in a bookstore, over a year ago. For some reason I didn’t buy it then. However, after my daughter and son-in-law read it, I wanted to set down to read it in its entirety and face the emotions I knew it would provoke.
Donna Johnson grew up traveling the country with David Terrell, the famous tent revivalist. She tells us about miracle healings and sacrificial people trying to do God’s work. She describes the incomparable sound of a Hammond Organ with a Leslie speaker, pouring out its audible incense. She recounts how the worshippers sway and sang, and how the sick filed by one by one to be touched by the prophet. When she tells how a little deaf boy received his healing in that line and how the people swooned and wept, it’s hard to suppress the tears.
Meanwhile, the prophet sleeps with the author’s mother, his organist. And with the office girl. And with the lady preacher. And keeps fathering children with his legal wife as he visits all the other women on the crusade team.
He begats, as Ahimilail begat Metabasheth who begat Azat and his brethren in the valley of Bezail-Mephromashiph in the days when there were giants.
And verily the prophet’s offspring grow up. And they know not what their last name should be. And they know not how to relate to their brothers and sisters, or why they come from the wombs of different mothers. And how they will relate to a world of sinners, all ready at any moment to persecute the righteous? And how they will explain why holiness girls must wear long dresses, even in the hotel swimming pool? And how they will explain why education is not important because the tribulation is coming and the world will soon end and it doesn’t make sense to worry about such things? And what they can do as they realize children aren’t that important anyway, or that the call of God always comes first and that it is at any rate a sin to question the man of God, and that if the children of the righteous don’t pay the price, millions of little heathen children will all fall into hell?
And so it comes to pass that the prophet goes to jail, for tax evasion as it turns out. And the children become young men and woman. And the adults keep shouting every night in the tent about the end of the world. And keep on fornicating while not ever talking about it.
It would be a story about a con and a sham, but what do we do with the weeping mother who carries her little boy out of the tent who came into that tent deaf but is now leaving it holding his hands over his ears because he can’t stand the sound of the traffic?
One can dismiss neither the insanity nor the sanctity of this mess. That is what makes these kinds of religious backgrounds so confusing to the people who grow up in them.
None of this is unique to Pentecostalism, by the way.
Father Gregory Rasputin could stop a hemophiliac from bleeding simply by holding his hand over the afflicted person. He did it again and again. He prophesied and healed. He astounded the doctors and scientists. And yet, he was a wretch. He may have been more responsible than any other single person for the triumph of communism over Czarist Russia. The reaction against religion that followed after the revolution may have been more difficult to defend had it not been for the public’s disgust at the miracle worker who had once taken over St. Petersburg.
These kinds of charlatans have always been with us. And how much more interesting they are than people who merely run food pantries or teach courses at a local college. How can a nurse emptying a bedpan measure up against a mesmerizing preacher in a white suit, taking up yet another offering to pay for his private jet?
And, it’s not just the miracle workers. It’s every kind of religious leader that justifies and defends ignorance; superstition; the lack of financial accountability; hateful attacks against those who differ over some shibboleth of dress, behavior or ideology; the suppression of reasonable questions; vitriol aimed at science while effectively using every product science makes possible; and most of all, worshiping Jesus while ignoring everything he said. Some religious leaders are just good at making a great living at the expense of naive people. Not unlike the circus tattoo lady who invites the young man into the backroom, they know how to touch our most vulnerable places and turn our irrational curiosity into a source of wealth and power. Some are Pentecostals, some are anti Pentecostals; some are fundamentalists and some are liberals. It’s not about any of that. Its about crazy.
Everything that turns mystery into manipulation harms the human family. Who doesn’t want a deaf kid to get healed? If it is a crazy, promiscuous, circus tent preacher who finds the trigger that causes that to happen, who will not be glad about it? Who can fault Czar Nicholas for weeping when Father Gregory heals his suffering son? These things happen sometimes. We are all happy when they do. We write books and make movies to tell the stories. There’s nothing wrong with that.
What we should not do is believe that mysterious moments, or mysterious people, are the rule rather than the exception. We certainly should not ask a Father Gregory or a David Terrell to instruct us about foreign policy or paleontology. We should not ask them to govern communities or allow them to avoid paying taxes on grocery stores or a fourth lake house just because they are men of God. They are just interesting. That’s the end of it. Interesting like snake handling and fire walking. Interesting like jugglers and water witchers.
The Bible lists healing and miracles as gifts that some believers manifest. But such people are expected to be disciples, just like any other kind of believer. They, like the rest of us, are just people. They need accountability, instruction and governance. When they don’t get those things, they create havoc and unbelief.
The circus-tattooed lady is undeniably fascinating. But the kid is already on the right track with his high school girl friend. His girl friend is reality; the circus lady is a fantasy. He needs to finish school. He needs to choose a vocation. He needs to learn how to love. He needs to discover sex at the right time with a girl as curious about him as he is about her. Real life is about things his high school girl friend has to offer. The circus girl is just about his dollar and a half.
I am sad for Donna Johnson. She has become an agnostic, trying to make sense of her glory filled, but hopelessly bewildering, childhood.
I wonder if God’s prophet, David Terrell, ever gave her a moment’s thought as he went from city to city setting up his tent, preaching sermons that shook people's souls as it numbed their minds.