Evangelists Exposed and Mondo Tilton
Brother Russell Ministries
Reviewed by Joe Lockard
Saturday, May 29 1999, 3:26 PM
The only time I am ever exposed to television evangelism and faith healing is when I check into a motel during a road trip and tune into the local cable station. I've sat up past midnight in southern Georgia, appalled at the exotic Christian circus that I'm watching. Then I return to the sanity of my life without television and these holy rollers disappear back into the delusional morass from which they emerged.
Still, I live with the disquieting awareness that there are lots more of them then there are of me and my kind, and that in the United States their right-wing fundamentalist politics beat my left-wing atheism almost every time. Intellectual counter-education is barely an answer in this lopsided social contest, since the evangelical brethren specifically reject rationalism and rely on faith. Like so many who do not wish to spend their waking hours in theological disputation, I pursue my daily life and hope these Screamers for Christ stay far away.
Brother Russell (a pseudonym) has a far greater tolerance for the televangelical world than do most any of us who neither sob uncontrollably at mere mention of the Lord's name nor require a well-laced straitjacket to restrain our exuberant piety. When Sinclair Lewis invented Elmer Gantry after careful anthropological observation of Kansas City preachers, he could not have realized the tawdriness to which ranting successors like Peter Popoff and W.V. Grant would drive the profession. The fictional Elmer Gantry and real-life Aimee McPherson Semple from the 1920s look like plumb-straight no-libido High Church Episcopalians by comparison with these high-power used-Christ salesmen.
At Salvation Central, Brother Russell is determined to go straight to hell. As the producer of anti-godly and anti-religious videos like Evangelists Exposed and Mondo Tilton, Russell has already taken up spiritual residence in Beezelbub's mansion and is just staying up here on a low-sulfur vacation. Decent American citizens who fear for their eternal souls should stay away from all of Brother Russell's propaganda products: soulless secularists are safe though. Russell arrives with a strong underground reputation and following among the 'Recreational Kristianity' movement, a motley mess of disaffected yahoos who have fun parodying their local divines and cable prophets. They'll all spend eternity as barbecue grill meat, I'm sure.
But before Russell gets that far, lawyers may grill him first. Evangelists Exposed uses unintroduced bootleg footage of network affiliate shows on evangelist operations, cobbled together into one video cassette. The material, largely from the mid-1980s and early 1990s, has simply been thrown together and put in a new package without even a whisper of permission. On one hand, Russell and other anti-religious media artists are participating in culture jamming by appropriating image-capital and using it in reverse to illuminate and parody itself. In some cases, particularly with the difficult-to-catch preacher Robert Tilton, there is almost no other source of video imagery than that provided by Tilton himself. On the other hand, the result can be a very lazy aesthetic, one where production is no more than wholesale copying of pre-existing material. Evangelists Exposed ends when the videotape runs out in mid-sentence during a talk show interview with the despicable and vicious Rev. Fred Phelps of Kansas City, who never ends a sentence without using the word "fag" at least once and preferably more often. The video production values are, shall we say, consciously shoddy.
This usage remains quite distant from the culture jamming and sampling controversies that surrounded Negativland's copyright law confrontation last year with the Recording Industry Association of America. Evangelists Exposed, with complete programs bootlegged, is very different from visual collages or sampling: it is re-packaging and re-marketing. Russell instances appropriation as an anti-creative act, one that defeats imagination and relies on the efforts of others. Reporters and producers who worked their asses off to put together anti-fraud, anti-healer-preacher documentary segments on an upstate New York TV station have every right to be angry at this expropriation. Although Russell clearly has a great deal of energy, he relies here on others for that energy. This is a pity, because an expropriative strategy restrains the potential for originality in Evangelists Exposed, and displaces possibilities for much more powerful first-hand video footage. Copyright infringement is limited as an anti-fundamentalist strategy because it fights on the field of property relations as elaborated by right-wing legal ideologies and practices that thrive on the defense of those relations. Imagination is its own offense, in several senses of the word. Copyright violation as a deliberate political strategy is not going too far.
Evangelists Exposed, progresses with fair rapidity from documentation of the pathetic into boredom. A predictability sets in after the first several dozen faithful have collapsed onstage, fully 'cured,' into the waiting hands of attendants. Cotton Mather wrestled with mentally disturbed men in eighteenth-century Boston and recorded how he witnessed evil spirits fly out of their bodies. Tele-exorcist and pseudo-healer Bob Larson, preys on people in desperate need of medical hope, 'healing' scoliosis at one magically divine touch and calling on audiences to witness the satanic demons he hauls out of bodies. An enormous gap of faith separates the pair. Where Mather was utterly convinced of the metaphysics of his exorcisms, Larson possesses complete faith that aggressive 'shock jock' demands for the audience's money will make him a millionaire. Larson's arrogant, ugly, sneering contempt towards his public has indeed made him a rich man.
Similarly, Benny Hinn's worldwide televangelism campaigns, featuring cures for cancer, arthritis, masses of bodies dropping onstage from the passion of divine healing --- and even Hinn's claim that he raised a dead man to life in Ghana (a local trick Hinn must have picked up from his native Galilee) --- feed continual demands for buckets of money to sustain the faith industry. Hinn, whose organization reportedly takes in over $100 million in contributions annually, is a particularly crafty defender of his practices, for the most part carefully distancing himself from advancing fraudulent claims under his own name. How many times have I heard Hinn's "Look, my friend, I want to tell you something֦amp;quot; opening line coming from the mouths of confident and patronizing men defending the indefensible?
Robert Tilton, a fire-eating Jesus man out of Dallas, is the subject of Mondo Tilton. Again using video copying and assembly, Russell shapes a portrait of Tilton's highly profitable evangelical television ministry. Using a Dallas facility that combines church, television studio and satellite transmission station, Tilton inveighs his followers with monologues that are by turns histrionic, pseudo-pious and plain insulting. Some of these monologues, where Tilton's face turns amazingly plastic and his words repeat each other, were allegedly made with cocaine assistance. Here, as in the previous videotape, former believing contributors and ex-employees make complaints about the Savior Disbelieved: in their magpie-faced gullibility or culpability, they are even more pathetic as fleeced chumps or off-payroll righteous whistleblowers than their ex-leaders.
Both these videos remind me of what I despise about Georgia and Texas motels: screaming idiocies buried behind the bland pastel bourgeois decors, like Robert Tilton's television set facades. However did the United States become a superpower with this laughable, contemptible culture? Or is this televised cultivation of mass idiocy and blind faith, with believing hands pressed against television screens to receive transmissions of healing power, what it takes to remain a superpower?
Evangelists Exposed and Mondo Tilton are Brother Russell Media Underground releases.