This is perhaps the best documentary I’ve ever seen. It won the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. You can’t find it on iTunes or Netflix but you can watch it here in its entirety online. What’s so amazing about it is that it’s a behind-the-scenes expose of a very prominent evangelist during the 1960s and 70s, Marjoe Gortner.
Marjoe was named after both of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph…weird, I know. Not surprisingly, his parents were Pentecostal evangelists that raised him to follow in their footsteps. Early on, they saw great potential in him as he would often mimic their preaching and flamboyant antics. It didn’t take them long to start seeing the financial potential. At the age of five, they forced him to memorize sermons and rehearse his preaching choreography. Marjoe became a quick sensation on their preaching circuit. Soon, he eclipsed his parent’s careers and became their cash cow. However, the older he got the more the novelty wore off and by the time he was in his teens, the gig was over. Now in early adulthood, listless, and strapped for cash, Marjoe re-entered the ministry alone and succeeded again, only this time as a closet atheist. His faith had died in his childhood after being manipulated by his greedy parents and seeing firsthand how much of a scam their ministry was.
This documentary takes place on the last tour of his ministry. He invited the film crew along in order to expose the farce of ministries like his. His purpose is to come clean. He tells all and pulls no punches. You get the feeling that he is genuinely sorry for misleading so many and yet you can also tell that he loved every minute of it too.
As a recovering Pentecostal and former child preacher myself (ok, I was in my late teens and early 20s but close enough), I can somewhat relate. As a result of my experiences, I too have left behind the “faith” of my youth and am now an atheist with regards to that God. I cannot believe in a God that promises health and wealth if we just have enough faith or jump through all the right religious hoops. The prosperity gospel God is dead to me. The sadistic God who tortures people in hell is dead to me. The God who hates gay sex and Islam is dead to me. The list could go on. These God’s are dead to me and my guess is for many of you too. But the problem is they can be resurrected or still be alive and hiding within our current religious beliefs and practices.
Many Christians have probably watched Marjoe over the years and said to themselves, “Wow, that’s ridiculous. How could anyone believe that way or allow themselves to be duped into that?” And yet many of these same Christians still believe something very similar. They believe that if you believe certain things about God, Jesus, and the Bible, you’re guaranteed eternal life and a pretty good life now, too. They believe that God has this perfect blueprint of a life already mapped out for us. He knows who we’re supposed to marry, what college to attend, what career path to choose, etc. In order to get God’s perfect blueprint for our lives we’re told we have to “follow” him (i.e., pray enough, be sensitive to his leading, tithe, be righteous enough, believe enough, etc.). This of course is found nowhere in Scripture and is a product of the American dream mixed with Evangelical theology. As someone who grew up in this worldview, I can testify as to how oppressive it is and how it creates incredible amounts of anxiety. I spent years wringing my hands wondering if I had missed God’s perfect will because I hadn’t had enough faith or missed some sign or cue.
Marjoe is about the death of this God. As theologian and philosopher Katherine Sarah Moody says, “Not all gods need to die, just the murderous and oppressive ones.” As a pastor, I couldn’t agree more. I’m all for God and especially the one revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps Marjoe would be too if he had been introduced to him.