Religion is vulgar - Daniel Silliman

The static is like pockmarks on the pastor's face, in the video recording. He holds the fat mic in his left hand and waves his right hand, and the pixels seem to shift around the edges of his body.

The clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the now controversial former pastor of presidential candidate Barak Obama, have been played repeatedly.

I, like everyone else, watched the segments of his preaching for political purposes, asking political questions. But I was also bothered by the quality of the recordings. The clips are so scratchy, so fuzzy, that as I watch them, I worry the whole picture will collapse into static fuzz.

A quick survey of TV preachers shows that poor-picture quality is pretty consistent. Often, these preachers have been recorded with the cheapest equipment, the least skill, the least talent and the least care.

Compared to the polished footage of politicians, pundits and celebrities, compared to the perfect lighting and make-up on reality TV and to the carefully crafted editing of family comedies and crime dramas, one might conclude that religion is raw, unpolished, and somewhat shameful.

When I was very young, I saw the Pentecostal movement make the last phase of a large shift into attempted respectability. What had started out with public displays of religious excess, was polished, professionalized. What had started out with poor and uneducated people, was cleaned up. The women cut their hair and bought jewelry. The men drove nicer cars and had better jobs. The worship was planned. The pastors spoke smoothly, and didn't shout, and all the craziness was calmed down.

This happened at the politically liberal churches and at the politically conservative ones, too. It happened at the moderate, middle-of-the-road congregations, and some pastors became power brokers and political players. All of them, regardless of politics, tried to become respectable.

Fervor was rejected for relevance. Relevance was mild, mellow and never controversial. The move, in the 80s and on into the 90s, was trying to scrub and starch all the vulgarity out of religion.

But religion is vulgar.

It is meant to meet people at their lowest and dirtiest, meant to meet their needs. The first acknowledgment people have to make, if they're going to turn to God, any god from any religion, is that they are in need. Otherwise, what would be the point of religion?

People who don't need anything, don't need church. People who need church, have needs.

Religion, if it's ministering to people, attracts the poor, unpolished and the unpopular, the disrespected, dirty and depraved. It's common and uncouth.

Even the most polished presentations of faith still seem to get stuck here. I've met a few ministers who seemed made for TV, always ready to go live, and they can be mistaken for infomercial salesman. They're selling something that can most easily be sold to the sad, the sick, the lonely and the uncool. Even the polished preachers come off as vulgar.

Even the richest congregations, with the most successful people, are still founded on the common confession of need. Everyone there is saying, by sitting down, that they need something, that, deep down, they have holes that need to be filled, a sin that needs to be forgiven, a soul that needs salvation.

I've never sat through a sermon that was later seen on TV. I imagine, though, that it would make me cringe. I think it would feel I was being exposed. I think any honest expression of the personal poverty that brings me to church every Sunday would be seen, on the screen next to coifed hair and crane shots, as coarse, pathetic -- and shot through with cheap camera static.

Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at dsilliman@news-daily.com.