I ran across a two-part series Blurred Lines: The Basement and Evangelical History (Part II)) by Charity Carney about the troubled and acclaimed youth preacher Matt Pitt. Pitt is one of those people that hold your attention. From my Mormon perspective Matt Pitt is a fascinating phenomenon that gives some insight into the some of the dynamics of Evangelical Christianity.
Pitt found God and Christ in his basement in the cathartic moment when his father told him he had to leave home if he continued to do drugs. The transforming feeling led him to start the religious-entertainment ministry. Cultivating a dance club atmosphere, the Basement appeals to those who affiliate with popular hip-hop culture. Here is a taste of his ministry:
Carney compares Pitt to the nineteenth century revivalist preachers who claimed authority over worldly affairs. Here is how Carney explains Pitt’s ministry in the context of other Evangelical church dynamics:
When Willow Creek introduced the seeker-sensitive model in the 1970s, the Basement could not have been what it had in mind. The Basement is the ultimate example of seeker-driven services targeted at a very particular audience with an emphasis on the commercialization and commodification of religious practices. As a youth ministry run by a younger preacher, the Basement may signal the next step in the megachurch, seeker-sensitive movement. Combined with new reality TV programs and internet ministries (see Kate Bowler’s post), popular religion is adopting more secular tools to reach larger audiences—and it’s working. Perhaps a better signifier would be plastic religion (rather than seeker-sensitive) for what’s going on at the Basement. In Chidester’s Authentic Fakes, he describes plastic religion as a commodified and flexible, a way to think about popular culture that is “biodegradable” and “shape shifting.” The Basement is unabashedly plastic while also claiming authenticity, which is a cunning way to reconcile the conflict inherent in its MTV/tent revival meetings. Drawing on the televangelist trends described by Bowler in Blessed, with emotional pleas that “ebb and flow” throughout the meeting, Pitt’s ministry takes the appeal one step further and amps up the revival atmosphere with smoke, lights, loud music, hip videos, and a liturgical call and answer that sounds more like a club chant.
Pitt was arrested and charged with impersonating a police officer when he showed his honorary badge to a neighbor to avoid explaining why he was tearing around on four-wheelers in the middle of the night with a rifle. He was granted probation and released. Unfortunately he did not have the good sense to refrain from such behavior so he was arrested again after authorities discovered that he routinely used police lights installed in his vehicle to get around traffic. He was arrested after a wild chase where he ran from police and was apprehended after sliding down a 25 foot cliff.
From the criminal lawyer’s, Pitt’s case is understandable. Authorities gave him a chance to fly right and dropped the hammer when he blatantly didn’t. I don’t see his criminality as particularly dangerous, just juvenile. He appeals to youth because he thinks like one. I don’t think his criminality disqualifies him as an authentic believer. The governmental establishment is a great foil for the rebellious preacher who is crusading for God. Pitt’s incarceration has produced more devotion and created a cause for the thousands who flocked to Pitt’s religious entertainment. My guess is that when Shelby County releases Pitt several months from now, he will again draw crowds across the country with his performances.
Among the fascinating elements to the story is the “Free Pitt” movement perpetuated by the staff of the Basement. The Basement is attempting to maintain momentum until Pitt returns. This, no doubt, raises cultist alarms among Evangelicals who seem to perpetually strike an uneasy balance between veneration of the authentic preacher and affiliation with celebrity.
From a Mormon perspective Pitt’s ministry is alien to our religious culture. I agree with Carney, Pitt seems a lot like the flamboyant preachers that vied for followers in Joseph Smith’s time. In some ways Pitt may be the refracted mirror image of Joseph. Pitt believes he has the authority to reject secular authority infuse Christian worship with MTV-like entertainment. Joseph was very similar, rejecting all previous authority from religion or the world. I think the phenomenon raises all kinds of interesting questions about religion, Christianity, and social dynamics. It will be interesting to see how the Pitt phenomenon plays out. Pitt certainly leaves us with lot to think about.