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S. M. Hutchens on Misplaced Adoration & the Cult of Personality
In last January’s Touchstone I wrote a positive review of Matthew Avery Sutton’s prizewinning Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America. This book, written by a cultural historian, impressed me (and many other reviewers) as fair and nicely rounded, doing a particularly good job of drawing the evangelist and founder of the Foursquare Churches in the context of her place and times, and giving a critical but sympathetic view of Sister Aimee herself.
The book came up once again for discussion when another review, this one published in Books and Culture by a professor at Azusa Pacific University, herself a licensed minister of the Foursquare Church, because of a rather remarkable statement it contained. This reviewer praises Sutton for his contextualization of McPherson’s “sexuality both within the genteel evangelical circles of the day and the very different culture of the Hollywood beauty machine.”
The sexualizing of Aimee’s every move, her clothing, her sermons, her ministry in general, tells us much about how evangelical women are drawn into a seemingly endless struggle, in which representations of virtuous Christian womanhood seem to be irreconcilable with everyday humanity. There are no more deeply felt passages in Sutton’s book than those in which he considers the hidden loneliness that Aimee feared sharing with anyone. How could Aimee display the human need for physical intimacy if she had to maintain the mantle of purity that is the burden of all Pentecostal women?
Now this is a corker. If Azusa Pacific University is, as its presentments state, an Evangelical school where people “seek to develop a creative Christian lifestyle whose purpose flows from a commitment to God through Jesus Christ,” it would appear this earnest professorial lady would place a heavy accent on the developmental and creative aspects of Christian lifestyle.
Or perhaps this is just the way, given the university’s stated belief that “a person who engages in sexual unions outside the bond of marriage sins against his or her own body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit,” that perfectly chaste Evangelicals talk in California, and is wholly consonant, in a way readily explainable by the school’s administration, with one of its teachers’ jeremiad on “the mantle of purity that is the burden of all Pentecostal women” rather than simply the vesture of every Christian.
But I wouldn’t send one of my daughters there, since long experience has taught me that how a school in the phase of existence where it still identifies itself as “Christian” advertises itself to potential donors and students, and what its teachers actually believe and teach, are, with distressing regularity, very different things.
What does emerge quite clearly from this book is a credible portrait of a personality type: the driven enthusiast who finds an outlet for her carbonations in religion, but is plagued with habits and desires that militate against the achievement of anything approaching sainthood—the very sort of thing apostolic instructions about the selection of presbyters is meant to minimize. Here, instead of the rather unspectacular males envisaged by the Epistles, is a young woman not rising within the church, but creating her own, and then living in it as its queen.
Her numerous drones recognized the problem quite clearly, and spent large amounts of time and effort dealing with her need for male attention and other consolations. In the process they also built a denomination that was soon, and remains to this day, despite its egalitarian constitution, led almost exclusively by men—a denomination whose foundress has to be explained and made the best of by its leadership.
There is, to be sure, a peculiarly feminine enthusiasm in McPherson and similar female cult leaders, but the complex of histrionic personality (I use the term broadly here, not as it is more precisely defined by psycho-therapists) and those attracted by it, while often highly sexed, does not appear to be sex-specific. Men and women can equally become the subjects and objects of misplaced adoration.
The problem is universal and pervasive. It was, for example, expressed in many of the priests Leon Podles wrote about in Sacrilege, and something at least on the borders of it appears to be necessary for the “successful” Protestant minister. During the history of the Church a number of counter-measures, particularly those involved in the necessity of being responsible for accreditation—even in Congregationalism—to the exterior authority of bishop or synodical body, have functioned against religious celebrity and the personalities that crave it.
In the end, the book may be considered, as the excessively interesting Books and Culture reviewer also noted, a monitory treatise on the cult of personality in its religious expression. Anyone who grasps its principal lesson should be, I would think, doing what he can to keep the lowest seat at the Table, prizing obscurity in this world as a gift from God, and regarding death as the only really happy summons to “come up higher.”
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.