Andrew Dinwiddie has meticulously recreated a live sermon by the evangelist preacher Jimmy Swaggart, recorded in Van Buren, Arkansas, circa 1971. In a remarkably fluent echo of the original (peppered with emphatic interjections, “Huh!”) Dinwiddie inhabits the persona of the Pentecostal firebrand as he spits and fulminates up and down a tented catwalk, his mic cord wrapping itself around and around the tent poles and occasionally pulling him up short, like a leashed pit bull.
It’s an impressive performance of a powerful piece of oratory, and it is hard to decide whether the original sermon or its reincarnation as a performance piece is more compelling. Obviously, Swaggart’s sermon, which rails against “homasexiality,” miniskirts and The Beatles, and draws a causal link between premarital sex and fatal car accidents, is not likely to convert anyone from a TBA crowd — but his rhetoric is informed by some interesting and sympathetic insights into the problems facing the young Boomer Generation, and his quips and arguments follow each other as regularly and unstoppably as the shipping containers on a freight train. The sermon also clearly marks a crossroads in the evolution of American Conservative Evangelical culture; Swaggart recognizes the power and danger in American popular culture (rock n’ roll music and television in particular) to conservative Christian values, and the importance of producing an alternative mass culture that uses some of the same tools for Godly ends. In the years that followed Swaggart, Billy Graham and others established charismatic television ministries helped mobilize and consolidate the Religious Right and brought us, among other delightful things, Ronald Reagan.
Get Mad at Sin! shows us how it was done. The assembled crowd on either side of the catwalk looked more like a Fashion Week audience than any sort of religious assembly (with PICA Executive Director Victoria Frey as Anna Wintour), and chattered gaily as Dinwiddie took the stage. For the first five minutes or so, ironic laughter followed many of the performers’ pronouncements, but after a while, we were mostly laughing with him. The actor’s earnestness was remarkable; he looked right into my eyes as he proclaimed some particularly titillating condemnation of the perilous miniskirt, and I found myself blushing up to my ears and readjusting my dress self-consciously. It wasn’t exactly Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, and I didn’t find myself either shaking and taking my clothes off (which, as Swaggart/Dinwiddie proclaimed with obvious fascination, rock n’ roll makes people do sometimes) or shaking and speaking in tongues (the Pentecostal equivalent), but it was effective as art, in that it was also effective as preaching.
TBA in recent years has featured other recreations of specific performances (notably that guy who did a Beyonce concert verbatim a couple years ago), and I’m going to unscientifically claim that this is a trend in contemporary performance art that’s just popping up all over the place. While (as I mentioned in my review of David Eckard’s ©ardiff), contemporary art audiences really can’t get behind anything that smacks of historical reenactment (too fantastical and theater-geeky), the recreation of historical recordings has become a failsafe way to make an authentic cultural experience in an age when everything is streaming in HD. Wouldn’t it be cool if we could go back in time and experience X or Y momentous cultural event, that history has confirmed was, in fact, momentous — and not just a total waste of time like most of the new performances people make? Why risk being bored and irritated by mediocre new work, when you could check out the original at the library or dial it up on YouTube ahead of time? Not that either Beyonce’s tour video or Swaggart’s sermon were necessarily of great historical importance in and of themselves; the Swaggart record is out of print, and was not among the 489 records by that preacher that are available on eBay as of right now (although someone I talked to at the show recognized the rock n’ roll rant from a sample in a techno song, c. 2000, so perhaps it has had more impact than one would think?). Both, however, are evidence of “rock star” performers at the height of their powers, now available to you in the reinterpreted flesh. Whether it makes you feel sexy, or righteous, or cool, a good act is hard to find, and its power cannot be denied.