Preachers, strippers and the Word of God


Harvey Weinstein was just the beginning.  Now NPR’s Senior Vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, has resigned in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment.  And I just learned that production of House of Cards has been suspended until Kevin Spacey’s alleged sexual abuse of two adolescent males can be investigated.

All these stories feature a man in a position of power taking advantage of people who, thanks to poverty, the need of a job, or simple immaturity, aren’t in a position to say no.

Money drives a host of social transactions that are often viewed as consensual.

In an important Atlantic article, Brit Marling mulls the fraught connection between sex, power and professional advancement.

Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families. He could also give them fame, which is one of few ways for women to gain some semblance of power and voice inside a patriarchal world. They knew it. He knew it. Weinstein could also ensure that these women would never work again if they humiliated him. That’s not just artistic or emotional exile—that’s also economic exile.

Back in 1999 I started writing a novel I never published. I called it Stirring up the Stars and it featured a preacher named John and a stripper named Maggie.

Maggie dresses like Rita Hayworth in Gilda because that’s the image she wants to project.

When John walks into the Toy Box Maggie recognizes him as the guy who preached the funeral if a former patron.  It helped that he was still wearing his “hi, my name is John” sticker he was wearing at the pastors meeting he had earlier left in disgust.

I  didn’t have much trouble getting into the preacher’s head, but I had never considered how it feels to be a stripper.  Who cares how strippers feels?  Well, when I started inventing my character, I had to care.

In one scene, Maggie tells John that they have similar jobs.  “People pay us good money to tell them they’re wonderful.  And the better we are at making people feel good, the more money we make.  It isn’t really about sex, or about God; it’s about saying whatever it takes to keep the customers coming back for more.”

Maggie has a point.  Preachers who reinforce the settled convictions of their people are celebrated; those who tell stories no one wants to hear quickly find themselves looking for another church.

And preachers who lose a church become social lepers with little cachet in the ecclesiastical market place.  Preachers who have never been driven into the outer darkness try not to think about the economics of pastoral life, but some of us don’t have that option.

What do preachers do when a message from God is burning in our bones, and the message is guaranteed to rile the faithful? The fire in Jeremiah’s bones got so hot he had to speak his fiery truth lest he die.

Prophets were not, are not, popular people.

Preachers have a certain power at their disposal, of course.  A few parlay their prestige into seven-figure incomes, but that’s rare.

Pastors are powerful because we get close to people.  Too close, sometimes.  Religious professionals who take advantage of a parishioner’s vulnerability are easy to hate; but the manipulative dynamic works both ways.

In every congregation there are a handful of people the preacher must please in order to survive. You don’t know who they are until you’ve been in the pulpit for six months, but they make their presence known.    Some of them are saintly folk, but they can be terribly troubled and vindictive souls lurking behind a facade of holiness.

You dare not tell these people what’s in your heart and on your mind.

We need to pay more attention to the economic realities that keep the fire shut up in our preachers’ bones until it consumes them from the inside.  Because, when that happens, the entire congregation gets burned.

3 thoughts on “Preachers, strippers and the Word of God

  1. A moving post. “Stirring up the Stars” may deserve some more attention. I have a fire kindling in my bones re: “Our Black Cousins.” Regularly a black DNA cousin shows up in my genealogical research. Virtually every white person with deep roots in the Antebellum South has black cousins as a result of “consensual” sex between a white slave owner or slave owner’s son and a vulnerable female slave. It’s good that and similar programs are bringing DNA kinship to light. Maybe we can recognize that really we are all one family, and maybe even have a family reunion.Too much to hope for? Too much to pray for?

  2. I suspect that the fire shut up in preachers’ bones is nothing more than the human need to control others or, at least, the need to have impact on others. And then, of course, there is the economic dimension to the dance of the preacher and the parishioner. For a long time, it has seemed to me the preacher lives on the proverbial razor’s edge. I do not envy them.

  3. The comparison is fascinating and, yes, given the revelations of sexual abuse by powerful people in many walks of life [saw another article in journalism; in my field of hospitality I’m certain there are cases].

    You have spent so much of your life advocating for people unjustly treated that perhaps it’s time given the abuse of power by powerful men, to talk with prostitutes and strippers and revisit the book and the issues. Fiction based on fact is a powerful way of helping many think.

    But please don’t have John wear his name badge: we in the meetings profession work hard to ensure no one wears a name badge out of the meeting venue..for safety’s sake!

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