The Real Thing…

Looking at religious documentaries that expose a certain element of Christianity, we can trace a thread back at least to 1972 and the Academy Award winning film, Marjoe.  Marjoe Gortner began preaching at the age of four, leading revivals and even officiating weddings.  Urged on by his parents, until the age of fifteen, Marjoe left his “ministry” and returned in his young adult years when he realized the financial profitability of his preaching.  Read on for a review and check out the featured video for an extended clip from the film.

In one sense, YouTube and Borat have ruined it for us…or at least drastically changed the game.  I would imagine that many communities of faith are much more skeptical of outsiders with cameras than they used to be.  The scandal surrounding Jeremiah Wright’s sermons might well change how they record and how closely they guard their services.  In 1972, religious communities had little to fear of such exploitation or exposure.  Thus, the filmmakers of Marjoe, Sarah Kernochan and Howard Smith, had something close to unlimited access to Pentecostal tent revival services and ordinary Sunday morning and evening services.  They use this footage extensively in their film.

From the start, we are, at least, unsure of Marjoe’s sincerity.  An early scene of a conversation between him and the filmmakers shows him instructing the filmmakers on how to behave and what (not) to say to the congregants.  Shortly thereafter we see Marjoe dump a paper bag full of money (that night’s offering) onto a bed and joyfully count it out, all the while singing “Thank you, Jesus!”  Towards the end of the film, these assumptions build to the reality of Marjoe’s beliefs (or lack thereof).  “Thank God I don’t have to be a part of one [a denomination],” he says.  He also expresses regret that he has to include a fire and brimstone element to his explosive sermons, a tenet with which he vehemently disagrees.  Marjoe regards his fiery sermon as nothing more than a business, complete with gimmicks that keep audiences asking for more and thus guaranteeing future bookings at the best “meetings.”  In fact, his name is something of a gimmick, a combination of Mary and Joseph which references his “miraculous” birth.  When doctors performed a c-section, they found the umbilical cord wrapped around his throat.  In one of his sermons, he painted a cross on his face with a type of invisible ink.  When the sweat contacted it, it seemed that a cross of blood had miraculously appeared.

In a way, it should not come as a surprise that Marjoe approached his “ministry” this way.  His parents trained him for this, forcing him to memorize sermons and even setting up a system of verbal responses that they would give him from the pews to guide him in the pulpit.  Marjoe even claims that his mother would employ elements of torture if he made mistakes during or refused to practice.  At the age of fifteen, he had had enough.  After a break, he returned, although neither he nor the filmmakers never clearly express why.  Perhaps it was as simple as money.

His “adult” decision to return to the ministry created something of a split personality for him, or at least so he says.  We do not really see a marked difference between the two lives save one’s skepticism of the other.  He jokes, “Religion is a drug.  Can God deliver a religion addict?”  This is one of the film’s shortcomings, and another one is close to it.  The filmmakers spend far too much time on Marjoe’s preaching.  They rarely turn their cameras on outsiders to explore their experiences with Marjoe outside the tents.  On top of that, they really do not consult congregants within the tents either.

On the other hand, however, one might regard this latter weakness as one of the film’s strengths.  The filmmakers’ constant attention to the religious meetings mirrors some of the length of these services and what it might be like to attend one of them.  This also allows us to see the variety of responses to Marjoe’s sermons.  Congregants dance, shout, sing, cry, raise their arms, pray, “catch the spirit,” speak in tongues, convulse, and faint.  All of Marjoe’s sermons are accompanied by upbeat, repetitive music that no doubt aids in such responses.

These images, juxtaposed to Marjoe’s confessions about his lack of belief, raise one crucial questions.  What is the validity of the congregants’ religious experiences?  Are their experiences genuine even if the messenger is not?  Is the message “real” even if the messenger is not?  While we can easily look to film for a whole host of corrupt ministers, we find that many of them genuinely believe their own message and experience real conflict and guilt over their more immoral or underhanded practices.  Briefly, at the end of the film, we see glimpses of regret from Marjoe, yet the filmmakers do not tease these out to heighten this question of genuine religious experience.  Marjoe resigns, “I’m bad, but not evil.”  Thankfully, the filmmakers do leave it up to us to agree or disagree, even if the evidence we have is rather one-dimensional.

Marjoe (88 mins.) is rated PG and is on DVD.