September 22, 2009
So I was wandering about the digs early Sunday morning with a "cup of Joe" in hand trying to resolve the extra time that had plopped into my lap since my hiking buddy and I decided over the telephone to cancel our planned early start up the Aspen Grove Trail to Emerald Lake on Mt. Timpanogos.
It was all about the cold rain that was greeting the dawn that morning. Not to mention the fact that "Timp" appeared to be pretty much socked in by a dark and threatening cloud. With hikes this time of year being about the brilliance of fall colors, that just wouldn’t do.
So I picked up the television gizmo and began surfing through the Sunday morning fare, being careful not to enable a sports channel that might remind me that both my Utes and USC Trojans had come up short the previous day. And it was then that I heard the voice of the Lord.
This particular visitation arrived in the form of television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart sitting at a highly-polished Baldwin piano and singing to the heavens above. Before long, the address where one could send a check or money order appeared on screen.
Although I hadn’t thought much about Jimmy in recent years, I instantly remembered that he had been a recipient of the similarly-raucous DNA that produced his cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis. They were born the same year and grew up poor together in Ferriday, Louisiana.
Jerry Lee married his 13-year old cousin (twice removed), a not-totally-uncommon occurrence in the culture of his time, while Jimmy dealt with his mixed genetic messages by, among assorted other odd behaviors, paying prostitutes he didn’t touch to act out obscure passages from long-lost scripture.
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But there he sat at the Baldwin, which he did touch, as his contorted face worked its way pleadingly through a selection from the Great American Hymnal. Obviously he had been redeemed since the long-ago tearfully televised acknowledgement of his sins led to him resigning from his ministry.
Now relegated to the reduced roles of balladeer and pitch man, Jimmy stood in the wings as his son Donnie, currently the headliner evangelist of the family, due no doubt to some rather contentious negotiations at the time of the redemption in question, was introduced to the faithful by grandson Gabriel, the fifth-generation Pentecostal minister of the clan.
I don’t know what I love most about the religious right and many of their neo-conservative brethren: their hammered-on hairdos which Katrina couldn’t muss or the sexual attitudes they both rail against and act out upon in the deep recesses of their self-righteous and quite lonely lives.
Of course, with Jimmy, now that he’s been demoted within the family ministerial cash-cow hierarchy, there is a sense of compassion. You feel for the cat! I mean, he’s had "Shake, Rattle and Roll" trying its best to get out from behind a fire-and-brimstone façade for his whole life.
A most interesting moment in son Donnie’s rant (I have trouble calling them sermons Pat Carley delivered sermons) came when he recounted when his son Gabriel, the heir to his safety-deposit-box kingdom, informed him that his wife was pregnant and that he was hoping for a girl.
Turning to his son who sat cowering in a nearby pew, Donnie related to the congregation how he had, in the most uncertain terms, replete with biblical inflections, demanded that the forthcoming great-grandchild of the once patriarchal Jimmy Swaggart be a "man child." The implication being that a female birth would somehow toss a monkey wrench into the gears of God’s work.
I had to keep telling myself that this was not "Saturday Night Live" and that Tina Fey would not have a cameo as the expectant daughter-in-law. Donnie’s paisley outfit wasn’t making it any easier, however. Neither was Jimmy’s pitch for the personally autographed, genuine sheepskin-leather burgundy-covered "Expositor’s Study Bible."
Admittedly, the space-time of early Sunday morning television is somewhat alien territory for me. I try to be cupped-up and going for "CBS Sunday Morning," but that’s about as disciplined as I get. But now, with my introduction into the world of Pentecostal "televangelism," I may have to start setting the alarm.
I mean it’s not "The Maltese Falcon" or "His Girl Friday," but it’s certainly not without entertainment value. And, depending on the coffee additives, it can get you shouting "Halleluliah" and "Amen." Or maybe even, as a tip of the hat to Jimmy’s cousin, "Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!"
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.