Aimee Semple McPherson on “worldliness”

I found my way to this video after watching yet another video of Pentecostal preacher Aimee Semple McPherson embedded in a blog post by my friend Brandi Denison over at Religion in the American West. My attention was caught by McPherson’s statement that she has come to New York, “the mecca of sin, the citadel of worldliness”–she says, as she stands in a very finely furnished room wearing . . . okay, I don’t know what to call what she’s wearing. I’m not the right kind of gay man to know that sort of thing, and I don’t have a straight man’s incentive to find out.  The point is: she ain’t wearin’ homespun calico.

I could take a cheap shot here: she condemns worldliness while enjoying it herself. But I’m intrigued by the irony for the sake of a more dispassionate kind of cultural analysis. Whatever Aimee Semple McPherson has in mind when she condemns worldliness, it apparently doesn’t include the kind of furniture, or clothes, or jewelry, or hairdo she’s sporting. In other words, what we’re seeing in this video is McPherson working out–acting out–a conception of “unworldliness” that will allow her to reconcile her pietistic religious identity with certain socioeconomic aspirations. She’s showing viewers that you can be a good Christian and still enjoy these particular kinds of pleasures–or at least enjoy imagining yourself enjoy them.

In this video, the trick to having it both ways is to adopt a certain kind of discourse. You can wear what you want, and you can have the furniture you want. What marks you as a good, unworldly Christian are the words you use: the fact that you talk about New York City as a mecca of sin and a citadel of worldliness, and that you sing old-time gospel songs asking God to give you a heart for the lost.

I really don’t intend that observation to be snide or disapproving. I’m simply intrigued to see how this particular variety of American Christian identity is being worked out.

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