I feel dizzy. I just finished reading a biography of Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a nationally famous Pentecostal megachurch preacher whose career spanned from the early 1920’s to her sudden death in 1944. The story of her life is dizzying because – unlike the other figures we’ve studied in the American Religious Biography class at Pittsburgh Seminary – McPherson led a remarkably chaotic life. She was a Hollywood celebrity, and her life included many moments we would associate with celebrities more than preachers: a grand jury indictment, a sex scandal, a possible kidnapping, and an accidental drug overdose. Despite these mistakes and challenges, she was a pioneer in blending fundamentalist Christianity with American mass media and pop-culture, and in so doing, she shaped the America we now know.
Matthew Avery Sutton, the author of Aimee Semple McPherson and the Resurrection of Christian America argues that “Americans came to embrace a thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” because of trends McPherson set in motion (p. 6). The phrase “thoroughly modern form of evangelicalism” hints at the tightrope McPherson walked between accommodating to new cultural norms and upholding fundamentalist values. Three aspects of her life reveal the difficult balancing act she tried to keep up.
(1) Gender Roles: As flappers and feminists challenged gender roles for women, McPherson challenged male leadership in the Church. Though fundamentalist in her theology, she pastored a five-thousand member church long before more liberal mainline denominations began to ordain women. (2) Mass Media: Though living near the center of the American entertainment industry, McPherson initially condemned theatrical entertainment. Yet she was eager to incorporate drama and visual-storytelling in her sermons, prompting some to say she had “the best show in town.” (3) Faith and Politics: Believing that America occupied a special pace in God’s plan for the world, McPherson was a major political figure urging America to return to its “Christian roots.”
Today’s evangelical Christian culture can bear witness to McPherson’s influence in all of these places. Though female senior-pastors are rare even in mainline denominations, Christianity in America is much more accepting of female leadership than it was a century ago. In terms of Christian use of mass media, she laid the foundation for every pastor who has ever podcasted a sermon today. Contemporary Christian music reflects McPherson’s ambivalence about popular culture, providing an alternative to secular media while mirroring its style in every way. Commenting on her political legacy, Sutton writes:
McPherson’s most significant contribution was pushing pentecostals in particular and evangelicals more generally to rethink their mission on earth. At a moment when the United States seemed to be moving in a more secular direction, she called on her colleagues to ‘Christianize’ the United States. (p. 278)
This goal of “Christianizing” politics is obviously alive and well today in many evangelical and fundamentalist Churches. As Sutton suggests, McPherson’s blend of faith and politics seems to have set the stage for today’s alliance between the Republican party and American evangelicals.
“Successful” as McPherson may have been in balancing fundamentalism with emerging American culture, it’s worth noting that she also fell off the tightrope a few times. A mysterious disappearance which she explained as a kidnapping gave way to rumors that McPherson was having an affair. In the wake of the scandal, she began to live more like a Hollywood celebrity, alienating her followers by adopting an image of luxury and sensuality which she had previously condemned in others. Though she later returned more authentically to her Pentecostal roots, McPherson was a walking paradox who was no stranger to hypocrisy or self-contradiction. She adovcated for global disarmament even as she cheered and blessed American troops going into World War II. She both argued for racial equality and had an ambiguous relationship with the Klan. Perhaps the evangelical leaders whose careers have been tarnished by scandals and inconsistency can see their failures as part of McPherson’s legacy, as well.
I think the moral for us in McPherson’s story is that the Church needs to reflect more critically upon its own engagement with the culture around us. On the one hand, McPherson’s use of modern media in her promotion of her Church follows the example of Reformation-era Christians who used the newly invited printing press to publish their views. On the other hand, I think reckless adoption of new technology and accommodation to culture seriously can be dangerous to our spiritual health. McPherson’s love affair with Hollywood led her into the loneliest and darkest period of her career. What will be the unforeseen consequences of today’s Church’s infatuation with our latest technologies? I wish McPherson could have resisted more strongly the temptations that accompanied stardom. What does her example of tightrope walking, and falling from the tightrope, have to say to the Church today as we interact with the world? Given the exponentially increasing rate of technological innovation and cultural change around us, this question leaves me feeling as dizzy as McPherson’s life.