“And all the ships at sea,” was the closing of Walter Winchell’s radio broadcast introduction. The phrase has a certain poignancy about it—a cross between Melville and Edmund Fitzgerald. The idea of being isolated at sea is foreign to most people, but it is truly as far from others as you can get on this planet. In ancient times the sea was considered evil. It was well-nigh unsurvivable and chaos monsters dwelt in its depths. In the book of Revelation, in God’s kingdom “the sea shall be no more.” But the economic fact is, it’s still cheaper to ship by sea than to fly things from here to there. Amazon seems to have made us forget just how complex delivery is. I was forcefully reminded of this the other day when I received an email saying that the Bibles were at sea. Literally. They’re on a boat in the middle of the Pacific, along with who knows what else.
This is only a parable
The vastness of the ocean makes humans painfully aware of our smallness. As does the Bible. I remember thinking, as a child, that those offering printed salvation did so from the goodness of their hearts. That may be part of the story, for sure, but Bibles are big business. Not as big as they used to be, but still not inconsequential. This was captured well by the character of Big Dan Teague in O Brother, Where Art Thou? “It all about the money, boys!” he shouts as he robs Everett and Delmar. Yes, that evangelist giving away Bibles may have your soul in mind, but your pocketbook too. Like those Bibles snuggled against crates of condoms and smart phones, it’s just business. You’ve got to keep the bottom line in mind.
Bibles can be a lucrative business. The Bible is, however, a large book—expensive to print and bind because it requires special paper thin enough to hold all that text. Such specialized work done domestically would drive the price of the Good Book out of comfortable profit margins. So the word of God is printed overseas and sent across the ocean by boat. There’s a parable deep within this hidden life of Scripture. The romance of the high seas—being completely isolated from land and its comforts. “Here be dragons,” the Hunt-Lenox Globe famously proclaimed, and that’s a parable too. That Bible in your hands comes with considerable cost. Even in a world where drones for personal delivery are not far off, the sea still surrounds us.
What could Aimee Semple McPherson have in common with the devious Russian monk Rasputin? Apart from being contemporaries for a couple decades, they were both faith healers. Well documented cases exist for both of them, and the medical profession has started to come around to the idea that belief can, and does, heal. The stories of Sister Aimee’s healings, witnessed by thousands, make me fear being thought gullible just for bringing it up. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Cases exist even today where healing inexplicably takes place before scientific eyes. Often it occurs in response to religious stimulus. We may have proof that it happens, but we tend not to believe. This is a curious state of affairs. We trust in reason to the point that it may prevent us from being healed by faith.
Some object, of course, to the theological element. It’s pretty tricky to believe God has healed you if you don’t believe in God. The thing about faith healing, though, is that it seems to work no matter the religion of the person healed. This, it would seem, suggests we should be applying our rational minds to understanding belief. Instead we use it to find new ways to make money or to build smarter weapons to kill one another more efficiently. The more we come to understand the physical world around us, the less we know. As our research institutions take on the shape of the businesses that increasingly fund them, interest in this phenomenon shrinks. Medicine, in all its forms, is big money. Living in central New Jersey you can’t help but notice the palatial campuses of the pharmaceutical companies, nor ignore the mansions on the hill they have built. If only we could believe.
Faith healing was this aspect of her ministry that propelled Sister Aimee to fame. She constantly underplayed it, not wanting to be considered a healer of bodies so much as a healer of souls. Rasputin, of course, had political motives. Both lived—not so long ago—when faith was taken very seriously. Judging from the posturing around the least religious president in decades, whatever faith is left has been sorely effaced. Maybe it’s our minds that have the capacity to heal, but even that well seems to have been drained with the leaky bucket of rhetoric. History can teach us so much, if we’re willing to invest in it. How does faith healing work? I have no idea. Nor, it seems, does anybody else. So it will remain until it becomes commodified.
Posted in American Religion, Consciousness, Current Events, Mysticism, Posts, Science
Tagged Aimee Semple McPherson, belief, faith healing, medicine, Rasputin, science and religion
Difficult to believe as it may be, some of the biggest superstars in America’s history have been clergy. The case has been firmly made that George Whitefield, the evangelist, was the first to hold “rock star” status in these United States. He drew stadium-sized crowds before there were stadiums and was, perhaps, the most famous man in the country. Fast forward a number of years and we find a name that may not ring so many bells today. Aimee Semple McPherson, however, was more famous than Hollywood actors and most political figures of her day. The founder of the Foursquare Gospel church was, in the roaring ‘20s, one of the most recognizable names in America. It may not count for much, but even in rural Pennsylvania we learned about her in American History class in high school four decades after her time.
I read quite a lot about American religion, and Aimee Semple McPherson frequently comes up. I knew little about her, however, until reading Daniel Mark Epstein’s Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson. While it has its faults as a biography, it does convey a fair image of who this fascinating woman was. An evangelist when few women preachers existed, she was creative, crowd pleasing, and remarkably broad-minded for a Fundamentalist. Her personal life was full of drama—three marriages and at least one kidnapping episode—wealth, and want. She trusted Jesus implicitly and often suffered alone in silence. Secretly she befriended Charlie Chaplin, a man drawn to her stage presence but not her religion. It’s difficult not to like this woman who insisted on doing things her own way, and who ended up alienating her family (apart from her son) by doing so.
There can be no doubt that Aimee Semple McPherson believed what she said she did. Although she didn’t approve of theater she brought theatrics into church via her famous “illustrated sermons.” She pioneered radio evangelism, which subsequently grew into a hackneyed soapbox for lesser thinkers. She was a faith healer, a world traveler, and a woman who genuinely cared for the poor. Epstein’s book tells the story with heart and a touch of hagiography, but it is an entryway into one of the lives that shaped Jazz Age America, even if it is now largely forgotten behind flappers and Fitzgerald. It’s hard to believe that some of the most famous people in American history were religious leaders of their time, especially when we see what’s on offer in that arena today.
Posted in American Religion, Books, Current Events, Feminism, Posts, Sects
Tagged Aimee Semple McPherson, Daniel Mark Epstein, Foursquare Gospel, Fundamentalism, George Whitefield, Sister Aimee: The Life of Aimee Semple McPherson