Preacher or Parodist? Jerry DeWitt’s Inspired Self-Deconstruction and Self-Affirmation

Preacher or Parodist? Jerry DeWitt’s Inspired Self-Deconstruction and Self-Affirmation April 3, 2013

Despite being underslept, when I woke up at 8:12 on Sunday morning, my eyes popped open wide and I lept out of bed. I was damned sure I would be on time for the start of the final day of proceedings of the 2013 American Atheists Convention. And, to my amusement, it was the prospect of an Easter sermon that had me so enthused and eager enough to get out of bed at that ungodly hour in the morning. This, as you can imagine, wasn’t going to be just any Easter sermon. It was going to be one by Jerry DeWitt. Seeing that Jerry DeWitt would be delivering a Sunday sermon was part of what sold me on attending the convention in the first place. But maybe I should correct myself here—it was not billed exactly as an Easter sermon but, rather, as an Easter “sermon”. Did this mean it was to be some sort of parody of an Easter sermon? Apparently it was.

But this assignment didn’t sit completely well with Jerry.

If you don’t know much about Jerry, he only came out of the closet as an atheist a little more than a year ago. Prior to that, beginning back in his teen years, he spent several decades as a Pentecostal preacher. Last year I discovered Jerry when he gave a fascinating, barnburner of a speech at the 2012 American Atheists Convention. He blew me away. And he and the audience left me with all sorts of philosophical and ethical questions about the line between parodying preaching and actually doing it, and the line between an atheist ironically employing religious rhetorical techniques and atheists outright coopting them and using them for real. I also mused worryingly about whether there was something inherently irrationalistic about preachers’ emotional appeals such that rationalists might not in good conscience be willing to adopt them. Jerry saw my piece and wrote to me enthusiastically appreciative of it, taking the potentially critical questions I had raised very gratefully and graciously. You can see his performance and read my thoughts from a year ago here.

So this year, Jerry gave what was, quite subtly, the smartest and most thought provoking presentation of the weekend for me. In a fantastic bit of postmodern performance art, Jerry deconstructed his rousing talk as he gave it and throughout the endeavor performatively worked out his struggles to figure out his post-religious identity.

Before even discussing the contents of the sermon, let me note that he was serendipitously flanked onstage the whole time by two very conspicuous cameramen, who were close up to him filming a documentary about his post-deconversion journey. Their presence added an extra meta layer to the whole experience. They reinforced that Jerry was being watched and that this whole performance was for an invisible audience as much as the visible one. That even as the movie audience will one day watch this sermon and feel like they’re peeking in like unseen spies on a speech delivered to others than themselves, they were actually an audience Jerry had to be completely aware of the whole time, though he never looked straight at them. So, right there, from the staging itself, the barriers were blurring between misdirecting performance and direct engagement.

To start off his “sermon” he “made a video call” to Brother Sam Singleton, a popular, charismatic, rousing, comedic, itinerant, atheist satirist whose shtick is to parody itinerant, charismatic American Christian revivalist preachers as he bashes religious beliefs, values, and hypocrisies. After bantering with Brother Sam, Jerry called attention to the fact that Sam was a parodist and stressed that he himself really wasn’t. So, he wasn’t sure how he felt about having been asked to give a parody of a sermon. He told a story of being shoved onstage as a last minute emcee for an event headlined by Richard Dawkins. He was told to relay a set of instructions to the audience and to hawk some merchandise, and told to do it all in his preacher’s style. He did as was requested. Later that night Dawkins himself went out of his way to come up and tell Jerry how much he loved his “preacher’s act”. But, Jerry told us, it wasn’t an act. This was who he is. And he was not going to just parody a sermon for us, he was going to give us a real sermon.

He then asked us all to stand up and greet the people around us as though we were in church and everyone (or at least everyone in my line of sight) gamely did so, with much grinning satisfaction. What was this? In playing along, were we only teasingly pretending we were like religious people? Or were we indeed (however temporarily or jokingly) coopting a great idea found predominantly in churches but which atheist groups might well be wise to consider regularly adopting for its icebreaking and community building value?

When Jerry asked us for a collective “Darwin” (instead the “amens” he fascinatingly elicited from many of us the year before) he got some resounding and relished “Darwins” back. Now, the last thing we want is anyone to take seriously the frankly silly idea that we idolize, revere, or defer religiously to Darwin the person just because we accept the flat out fact of evolution. But what do we think of collective affirmations on the order of religious “amens”? Are they ever valuable? Are they antithetical to an atmosphere encouraging free thought and a willingness to dissent against conformist group think? It sounded like the crowd was sincere in giving their “Darwins” to the wonderful points that Jerry used them to punctuate. I know I meant each “Darwin” I gave–though in retrospect I don’t know how I feel about coopting the “amen” practice.

These were fantastically fun and non-threatening ways to subtly get people to perfomatively engage with the blurry lines between parodying and coopting religious modes, as self-conscious, antitheist atheists.

Later on, I used a hug to secure a box of matzah. I love matzah and have fond associations with it from childhood as my church used it for the communion wafer. Having always gotten only a tiny piece for communion, I am weirdly greedy when I can get my hands on giant pieces of it. So, I was tickled to have a whole box. And, remembering my childhood communion, I started breaking it into smaller pieces and going up to atheists at the convention, holding out a piece of matzah and saying “the body of Darwin”. And many smiled or giggled and quite happily took it. Some of them even played along to the extent of opening their mouths and letting me place it on their tongues.

Before you get any ideas, my Catholic friends, this faux celebration of the eucharist was hardly indicative of any yearning these atheists secretly harbored to eat them some body of Jesus. But it was emblematic of was a weekend filled with breaking bread (and other foods) and drinking wine (and other drinks) and sharing laughter and fellowship and community with likeminded people. That may look like “playing church” to a Christian, but, as with a lot of things you like to take credit for, you don’t exactly hold the patent on “bonding around food and a shared perspective”, Christians. Such things are deeper than one faith. Deeper and better than all faiths. And atheists shouldn’t be ashamed about reclaiming them out of an irrational fear of looking like religious people for doing so.

Jerry then told us the story of his last year and he organized it around a touchingly humble theme. Since it was Easter, he addressed the topic of “resurrection”. He talked about a year in which he hit a real low (having his house foreclosed on and his marriage go onto the rocks–both as consequences of the end of his income stream as a Christian pastor) and started a road to a potentially major comeback as he wrote a book. But he told this story of his own inspiring “resurrection” as one of the power of relationships to resurrect. He did not talk about the power of a human being to pull himself up by his own bootstraps without any god to rely upon. Rather he talked about the power each one of us has to lift each other up. Instead of giving all the credit either to a nonexistent god or to himself, Jerry gushed with gratitude to other people whose investment of love and energy into him carried him where he could not walk himself.

And then he really reared back and preached—giddily, loudly, and adamantly in his big southern preacher’s accent—about how we held more power in our abilities to form relationships and more wisdom in an ounce of our love than there is in all of the Bible combined. Or something like that. It was a bit of a reach and a bit of an overstatement of his approvable case but, whatever–I came for a sermon; what did I expect?

And as he worked himself into a preacher’s lather and sent inspired chills up my spine, he stressed to us that this wasn’t a parody. What he was saying wasn’t a joke and he wasn’t a joke. He really was preaching. And he really was a preacher. By which I think he meant that the joy beaming from his face was real and his unabashed shouting to the heavenless reaches about the real differences human relationships had made in his life and the real, inspiring potential they had to change the world was all sincere. He said this was the real Jerry DeWitt, not the mild mannered guy you might encounter out in the lobby. The real Jerry DeWitt was a preacher. One bursting unapologetically with uncontainable conviction, love, gratitude, good news, and enthusiasm.

And here Jerry came full circle from a year prior when he declared, in a way that resonated with me, that in leaving his faith he had committed “identity suicide”. He declared his intention at that time to keep on preaching. After I deconverted and felt like I was losing all of my identity (since I had always shaped and understood every part of it around Christianity), in picking up the pieces I began to think that what must really have been core about me all along were my commitments to truth and to loving other people. Those were the real constants, the things that proved more important than the faith—enough that I had the strength to actually leave it even. And they have proved the most enduring parts of me too, as they remain core parts of who I am over thirteen years later.

I think Jerry has found that at least two parts of his identity are solid. Even as a Christian he cared enough about alleviating and opposing human suffering to begin questioning the doctrine of hell–which over a long period of time led him slowly down the path to questioning his entire faith. And today he sees that compassion as enduring and finding its truest expression in his humanism. And I think he is becoming comfortable asserting that he is still, at his unchangeable core, a preacher.

On Sunday I think that as he flirted with explicit parody, while blurring its line with reality, and clearly highlighted, deconstructed, and paid homage to the irony of an “atheist preacher”, in the end he asserted himself, a bit defiantly—though hardly anyone probably felt defied since even Jerry’s defiance is so infectiously joyous. In the end he was saying, no, really, my fellow atheists, I really am a preacher and I really always will be, I am not just your parodist here to make fun of them for your amusement. I think that part of his “resurrection”, following the death brought on by his “identity suicide”, was performed in front of us when he explicitly declared his willingness to reclaim, in unironic terms, his identity as a real live preacher.

A year or three after my deconversion a Fordham professor remembers meeting me and at first taking me for an evangelical Christian (of which there were many in my graduate school department). Whatever cultural formation I received as an evangelical was still a noticeable part of me. I have no idea how much of it stays with me today. I hardly have the ability to see myself from the requisite external viewpoint to judge that.

But I do know that I too still have a pretty persuasive preacher in me somewhere. In the main, mostly for ethical reasons, I prefer to engage people with a philosopher’s dialectical interest, an inquirer’s openminded temperament, and/or a teacher’s concern to cultivate thought and clarity more than agreement. But occasionally, in really trying to make a point I’m passionate about, I find myself rearing back, drawing on fifteen years of watching preachers, and putting a little extra mustard on my pitch. Just once I gave a small talk that was indistinguishable from a testimony style sermon and could feel the seductive power that coursed through my veins as I did so. And receiving e-mails from multiple blown away people, I decided this was a power to be used sparingly—both not to lessen its impact (every preacher knows you need to balance the bombast with some soft stuff and let each be all the more powerful because of the contrast) and not to abuse it. As there is so much room for abuse in preaching.

At the end, instead of the altar call he had “promised”, Jerry had us all stand and he commissioned us to go into the world and to be ambassadors of relationship to those around us in the world. And by that point, I was convinced he wasn’t kidding.

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