Marjoe and Me

This is the story of Marjoe Gortner. It is not my story. Marjoe was a boy, an ordained minister at age 4, and adored by tens of thousands of Christian fundamentalist fans before hitting puberty. In a way, I feel like his story answers certain questions I have about mine.

Marjoe knew it was an act all along. He’s said he doesn’t remember a time when he did believe in a god or did believe god had made him such an incredible public speaker and performer. He knew it was a combination of his natural talent and his parents continual training.

My own training was so much more subtle than his. No one ever held my head under a faucet like his mother did to him, when he had trouble memorizing the wedding ceremony as a preschooler.

I believed I really was magic, that I really was a faith healer, and really could heal people. Marjoe always knew it was an act.

Here’s the entire video, via Google Video.

Here are the key highlights, to me.  (The following helpful guide is to aid my readers in skipping as much of the sermons & hymns as possible, while still getting to hear the really interesting stuff.)

  • 00:01- 03:06 shows Marjoe as a  little boy (including him performing a wedding ceremony for adults when he was only 4)
  • 03:07 – 05:29 Marjoe’s mother and how she trained & abused him into being a good performer
  • 05:30 – 06:24 Marjoe talks about how he’s never believed in god
  • 06:25 – 10:56 Marjoe instructs the film crew on getting by in fundie society. He lets the sound guy know he can’t smoke cigarettes anywhere near a church or tent, advises two of the men with long hair that they’ll need to cut it, and informs them all of his personal rule against hooking up with “revival groupies”.
  • 10:57 – 11:07 Marjoe answers “What will happen when people find out [that you are a non-believer and a faker, and this movie is how you’re coming clean]?”
  • 11:08 –  11:40 The first revival stop on Marjoe’s tour with commentary
  • 11:41 – 12:55 Continued footage of the first stop, with more harpsichord than I could handle. (You can skip all of this, provided you know already what a revival service is like.)
  • 12:55 – 15:32 Marjoe’s sermon. You may notice the complete lack of preaching from the Bible. This is very common in Evangelical circles. While he makes references to specific Bible stories, what he’s doing is emotionally hyping an audience. I recognize and remember the tactic of lots of cheering and shouting followed immediately by hushed guilt-ridden reflection designed to inspire a deeper commitment to God (and you can show that commitment by giving a monetary “love offering” today!)
  • 15:33 – 16:36 Marjoe peddles his gimmick product – “prayer cloths” that will supposedly “deliver” your addicted child from drugs. [These are simply red bandannas, now commonly associated with inner-city gang warfare!] Marjoe asks everyone to take out “the largest bill you have right now” and then pretty much socially double-dog-dares them by questioning their level of faith in God if they don’t want to give their largest cash denomination right now.
  •  16:36 – 18:14 People line up with their money to get their “prayer cloth” and have the honor of Marjoe shoving it in their face (literally). As women writhe on the floor (overtaken by the Holy Ghost, dontchaknow) you may see the church staff/volunteers throwing velvet fabric squares over their dresses for modesty. In this particular Christian culture, writhing on the floor is so expected and anticipated, they keep a stock of such modesty cloths on hand.  The staff/volunteers tear in half the “used” prayer cloths.
  • 18:14 – 19:32 Home preacher gives his “sermon” (again, not preaching from the Bible) and tells people God will heal their arthritis. A “miracle” happens – the preacher uses power of suggestion & intense social pressure to get a middle-aged or younger man with a cane to stumble around without it for a while. (There is always the possibility this guy was planted and did not need the cane to begin with, a tradition that goes back to at least the days of traveling snake oil salesmen.)
  • 19:32 – 20:12 Marjoe & home preacher continue praying for people having intense emotional experiences.
  • 20:12 -21:00 Marjoe continues explaining evangelical culture to the film crew: fire baptism and speaking in tongues.
  • 21:00 – 21:36 People speaking in tongues (and Marjoe & home preacher head to a back room with the money bucket.)
  • 21:37 – 22:29 Cuts back and forth between Marjoe & home preacher chit-chat while going through the pile o’ cash and people “speaking in tongues” in the main room simultaneously.
  • 22:30 – 22:52 Marjoe (singing a praise & worship song) goes through his money back in the hotel
  • 22:52 – 24:06 Marjoe reflects on how much bigger the stacks of cash were when he was an adorable little boy. His mom would charge old ladies cash to kiss him (pimping him out.) Marjoe estimates he brought in about $3 million dollars between the ages of 4 and 14 (“I never got any piece of it for my education or anything.”)
  • 24:06 – 25:17 Marjoe tells how he quit the preaching circuit at 14. He left his parents home and lived with “an older woman I met at a night club.”  Marjoe says of the woman who took him in, “I felt toward her more like how I would’ve liked to have felt toward my mother, or for a mother. It felt good to have someone care for me as a person.”
  • 25:17 – 26:14 For a couple of years, Marjoe tried to separate completely from his life as a preacher. None of his friends at the time knew about his childhood experiences. Marjoe talks about his anger & resentment as a young a man, that his father hadn’t put any of his earnings away in a trust fund, that he’d supported his parents financially, etc. Became a hippie and learned to let go of his resentment. During this narration, you can see Marjoe hanging out with his friends and passing a joint.
  • 26:14 – 26:42 Marjoe presently strongly feels hating his parents won’t do him any good. “The only person that will hurt is me. Why should I hate him? I believe in karma.”
  • 26:42 – 27:25 Pulling up to the grounds for a tent revival (and passing the massive trailers of another professional evangelist.)
  • 27:25 – 28:25 The honkey-tonkeyist sounding Jesus love song I’ve ever encountered wraps up.
  • 28:26 – 30:25 Marjoe takes the stage, sings a praise song.
  • 30:26 -32:33 Marjoe preaches – again, not from the Bible. He speaks of a vision he had while dreaming at 4 years old. (Bear in mind, Marjoe revealed earlier in the film he cannot remember a time he actually believed in God or anything his parents had him preaching.) Claims he was called by God to preach that night when he was 4. The next day he preached before his church.
  • 32:33 – 33:46 Marjoe claims a miracle, that he prayed for a woman with an open cancer sore on her face and it was healed. Absolutely everyone in the revival congregation believes him and begins praising God for this “miracle.”
  • 33:47 – 33:59 Some guy in the back of the room starts “speaking in tongues” (looks suspiciously like Eugene Levy.)
  • 34:03 – 34:32 Marjoe leads more praise and worship time, says “If you can’t feel God here tonight, you’re dead and you don’t know it.”
  • 34:32 Marjoe starts prayer line. For those unfamiliar, this is where everyone comes up one at a time to receive prayer from him personally (comparable to going up to get Eucharist from a priest in terms of group movement.)  Marjoe’s style of praying for people involves shoving his hand in their face and sort of tipping them over into the arms of an attendant waiting to catch them. (Like Benny Hinn, but less violent in his arm motions, and the pushes themselves seem a LOT gentler.) Literally hundreds of people are lined up for this so clearly it’s going to take some time for Marjoe to lay hands on each one of them individually. Some people he just briefly touches as they pass, while others he stops and gives a longer personal prayer for or personal word to. Honky-tonk instruments but without any of that fun honky-tonk jump play in the background (and offend my artistic sensibilities.)  People who have been prayed for are excited, happy, smiling and hugging one another. It’s like I can smell the oxytocin through my laptop screen.
  • 38:39 – 38:53 An elderly woman is dancing so exuberantly and with such abandon, she bumps into the woman behind her and goes tumbling down. Slapstick gold!
  • 38:54 – 39:35 The time-consuming prayer line and writhing in the floor segment of the evening continues.
  • 39:35 – Another preacher at the revival encourages everybody to help Marjoe (give him money) with his mission helping young people hooked on drugs. A prior scene showed Marjoe and his friends passing around a joint. This is probably not what the people in the revival imagine they are donating their tithe and offering money for. I have donated to traveling preachers like this myself in the past, so I’ll reserve any “These people are dupes!” observations and just blush in personal embarrassment.
  • 41:20 – Marjoe starts hawking wares, including a record of sermons from when he was a child. Claims “literally thousands of people have been saved just by hearing this message.” (Notice the complete absence of God or God’s efforts in saving people. It’s Marjoe & his message – an idea that the Christian room eats up without evident concern.)
  • 41:50 – Back at the hotel, speaking to the camera crew, Marjoe says “This is a business” and begins explaining the hook or “gimmick” you’ve gotta have to get booked at churches and revivals as an evangelical preacher. Tells about a time he conned an entire church into believing he had the Lord’s anointing by painting a cross on his head in disappearing/reappearing ink, so that as he preached, a cross began to glow on his forehead.
  • 42:55 – Traveling to the next location, Marjoe reflects on his life on the preaching circuit, and how much harder it has been after taking a break. He’s had to prove himself all over again.
  • . 43:39 – Marjoe eating lunch with a pastor and his wife, who compare him favorably to charlatans (not realizing he is one.)
  • 44:52 – Marjoe back at the hotel talking about a radio evangelist he knows who uses “prophecy” to scam little old ladies out of money. He sounds as if he is doing an impersonation of Pat Robertson. “If you’re gonna get into big time religion, this is the game you gotta play.”
  • 46:04 – cut back and forth to the pastor’s family eating lunch with Marjoe and Marjoe revealing tricks of the trade to the camera operator back in his hotel room. Marjoe discloses the importance of newsletters/magazines for raising money from the faithful. “The ones who are successful, they’re businessmen.. They’re like Madison Avenue PR men.” Pastor discloses to Marjoe that he has about 800 acres of land in Brazil, “It’s all jungle.” He continues, “I have a waterfall and a dam.” Seriously, I should have stayed in the preaching game.
  • 49:00 – Next revival stop, before the doors have opened. Marjoe plays a bad organ well and then discusses acoustic issues with the documentary crew (ie, do we need to move microphones/speakers.)
  • 50:22 – The doors are opened and the choir is singing. This is evidently a “24 Hour Prayer Crusade” so you can expect sleep deprivation to contribute to the audience’s emotional susceptibility. This event, including the choir, has far more people of color
  • 51:32 – Marjoe is telling the camera crew about “a little thing she does you gotta be ready for” referring to the female preacher at this event. She makes a sound effect into the microphone and pretends it’s the Holy Spirit, which cracks Marjoe up.
  • 52:09 – Dancing and singing
  • 53:29 – Female preacher tries to get the room calmed down enough to listen to a testimony (some in the audience are weeping and shaking on the floor by this point.)
  • 53:59 – Female preacher says “What we come here for is to worship God” rather than “put on a fashion show.” Explains her dress. (rimshot!) She then starts money-conning, saying that she only wants donations from “special people who are gonna have to sacrifice some bills they can’t pay.” She wants to take money from the absolute poorest people in the room. Challenges people and super-stresses the word “sacrifice.” It’s an incredibly conspicuous collection form – having people walk up and wait in line. Thus people remaining in their seats are highly visible as “Not Giving” or in this specific case, not “sacrificing” for God.
  • 57:22 – Marjoe’s turn now. Doing a “yes he can” call and response with the crowd, he asks questions like “Can God deliver an alcoholic? Can God deliver a homosexual?” Ouch. Marjoe’s style is a cross between evangelical/motivational speakers and a parody of black preachers, sort of half-speaking half-singing each phrase. (We had an R Kelly cover artist/motivational speaker/totally illegal church shill visit my public high school once. That’s what I’m reminded of most strongly.) His preaching style is completely different at a black church than we saw earlier in the film.
  • 59:14 – More choir. The dancing prowess of this congregation is better than the last, and there seems to be a bit of showing off at the front of the room. Hmmm… as the clip continues, I may have to retract the “better” aspect to their dancing.
  • 1:01:36 – Marjoe at home. If he had to choose a Christian denomination to belong to (“thank God I don’t have to”) he’d pick Pentacostal for the music and the people. “They’re kind of weird. And it’s okay.”
  • 1:02:18 – Next white preacher claims “God gave me a Cadillac” for being a faithful preacher. Uh-huh. Misquotes Jesus without citation, gets a big clap for it. But really the guy’s entire “testimony” is about “God” getting him a new Cadillac (that he bought at a dealership.)
  • 1:04:14 – This appears to be a new venue location, although the cut is extremely abrupt. (The choir director is now a blonde white woman and the walls have been replaced by a tent though, so I’m pretty confident of my assessment.) This new choir has a very 1960s sound to them, so they’re only about a decade off.
  • 1:04:53 – Marjoe’s DAD is at this event, apparently introducing him. Marjoe doesn’t look thrilled.
  • 1:05:50 – Marjoe reflecting on their lack of father-son relationship, attributes it to his dad not being willing to talk about Marjoe’s childhood. This is where I feel absolutely closest to Marjoe. This is how I feel about my mom.
  • 1:07:12 – Marjoe in a crazy shirt and American flag tie back to his white-church preaching style. As we are used to by now, Marjoe does not read from the Bible or accurately quote the Bible once in his “sermon.” In voice-over Marjoe says he would have been a rock star if he hadn’t been a preacher and admits he copies many of his stage manners from contemporary rock artists like Mick Jagger. Again Marjoe warns people about charlatans, while being one. I think this is part of his technique at calming people, assuring them he isn’t one of those “professional shouters.”
  • 1:11:44 – Marjoe wishes he didn’t have to include threats of hell, he wishes he could do the whole thing with as “a nice group therapy” of song and faith.
  • 1:12:37 – Marjoe leading a song and praying over individual people up at the front of the tent.
  • 1:14:00 – Marjoe entertaining friends by impersonating himself and explaining how his act works, cuts back and forth with the tent revival and people falling for it.
  • 1:15:47 – Marjoe singing over dramatically as a young white woman writhes and weeps on the ground.
  • 1:16:59 – Marjoe’s dad talking about how he was a “born preacher.”
  • 1:17:19 – Marjoe outside the tent talking about how he hates leading a double life, “Sometimes I feel like I should get up and do repentance to the audience.” He feels he’s at a crossroads: To continue on in the preaching circuit, he’s going to have to become more dishonest and unscrupulous. “I know I have to get out.”
  • 1:18:44 – In the woods somewhere Marjoe “I sort of like to think that I’m bad but not evil.”
  • 1:18:52 – Interior, possibly Marjoe’s apartment. “Well I am a hype but I don’t really feel I’m a bad hype.” But recognizes he can’t stay in it without dropping the few good things he likes in his sermons.
  • 1:19:10 – Back to the woods. Marjoe recognizes he isn’t responsible for his preaching as a child, but also that his childhood influenced his adult decisions psychologically. Admits his own responsibility for going back into it as an adult. It sounds like he’s having a moral wrestle, trying to figure out how bad what he does is compared to other bad things.
  • 1:20:08 – Marjoe’s girlfriend talking about when they first met, and going through his scrapbooks of childhood news clippings. She is honestly impressed he survived that childhood with sanity intact. She says of his preaching now “Every time I watch him, it’s like I’m watching a play. It’s not something that’s real. I’m just watching a performance of an actor who goes home and lives a totally different life.”
  • 1:21:52 – Marjoe, “I think religion is a drug. It’s addicting. Can God deliver a religion addict?”
  • 1:22:05 – Marjoe playing around with a dog, pretending to pray over it to amuse his girlfriend. “I want you get out your money tonight. We’re gonna give a dollar to kill a commie for Jesus.” Hilarious.

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