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'Get mad at sin!' (And put on some clothes)

Exclusive: Marisa Martin says famous 'sermon' art leaves audiences stunned


“Get Mad at Sin!” Andrew Dinwiddie, photo by Zack Brown

An average looking young man with a strong Southern accent is condemning mini-skirts with a wild passion, “My God, put some clothes on your children!”

His sophisticated, New York audience remains totally rapt and barely cracks a smile as he continues to rail against immorality, the media and “sex kicks.” Is this a church? Hardly.

Actor Andrew Dinwiddie is enacting a remarkable recreation of a 1971 sermon by evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, “Get Mad at Sin!” from an old vinyl record Dinwiddie found at a thrift store.This was before Swaggart was a constant presence on national crusades, a forerunner of televangelists and the best-selling gospel artist of all time.

Dinwiddie not only memorized the entire hour-long monologue without a break, but also has seemingly channeled the man’s voice, accent, mannerisms, pacing and body language en masse. He has Swaggart’s dramatic changes in pitch, his unexpected shouts for attention and pauses for the same, kneeling or arm flailing for accent points and low breathy drawls to conclude a cadenced sentence.

Dinwiddie performed this compelling piece last year in New York and more recently for Portland Oregon’s Time Based Art festival to a perplexed but impressed audience and critics.

Is it historical reenactment, a prodigious test of memory or farce?

Perhaps the majority of his hip, artsy viewers came armed with various preconceptions on religion and televangelists but found themselves up against a veritable storm of oration. The force of Dinwiddie’s delivery, his appearance of sincerity, roaring moral passion and indignation silenced most snickers after the first few minutes.

Dinwiddie’s complete lack of exaggeration, sarcasm or alteration of Swaggart’s sermon forces his audience to wrestle with the religious content without the comfort of humor or campy shtick, much as the original audience in The First Assembly of God in Van Buren, Ark., would have. This was not expected, especially after Swaggart’s infamous scandals and public confessions in the 1980s, which the press brings up relentlessly. Viewers left with mixed feelings, and if they brought stones, they didn’t publicly bring them out. Few were smug, some confused.

Much of Diwiddie/Swaggart’s material is dated, some amusingly so, as his take on the Beatles and rock ‘n’ roll, which is “inspired by the demon forces of hell” and “advocating all filth the mind can imagine.” These brought a little comic relief as his audience mentally wrestled with the actor’s aggressive verbal assault on morals and lifestyle.

Some of his audience mentioned an awkward awareness, which is heightened by the proximity to the speaker and bright lighting. Toward the end Dinwiddie’s tone softens, pleading with his audience to change their ways while looking them earnestly in the eye in a moving and touching manner.


Photo by Wayne Bund – Courtesy Portland Institute for Contemporary Art

Some of Swaggart’s warnings appear eerily prophetic 40 years later. While the dangers from the “Students for a Democratic Society,” the Black Panthers and blood running in the streets may have seemed highly exaggerated in 1971, they appear a little more likely in 2011. SDS bomber Bill Ayers now chums it up with the White House, the Black Panthers are back hurling racial invective and Wall Street protesters threaten to kill policemen, points which might be noted by New Yorkers especially.

Reviewer Andy Horwitz remarks on Dinwiddie’s mesmerizing, oratorical skills: “You don’t question his authority, you go with it,” and at times find yourself agreeing even with the “hellfire and brimstone, [which] make a lot of sense.”

Some of these secular reviewers found their tendency to believe along with the imaginary congregation “terrifying” and “deeply disturbing.” It caused some soul searching in even the critics’ columns, which I think is perhaps for the good. It’s highly unlikely they have ever sat before a man for an entire hour who is calling (even for the sake of entertainment) for a clean “Christian testimony and the spirit of God in your life.”

Asked about the disconnect a modern, hip audience might have with the material, Dinwiddie and his producer Jeff Larson came up with a unique plan – be two places or realities at once.

They originally compared their audience to Ebenezer Scrooge, who can “see but not communicate – sort of like ghosts.” They ditched this at the last moment, deciding to acknowledge the crowd, which created a visible tension that lasted through the entire performance.

As the piece winds down, the audience is almost mute most of the time, and I can only wonder what people are thinking. As a Christian who has sat through innumerable sermons, I was transported back in time to a church somewhere, although I’ve never lived in the South or with this type of preaching. It was quite believable, evidence of the power of Dinwiddie’s speech.

Response has been so positive to “Get Mad about Sin” that the actor is considering creating more performances. His piece has been called “riveting,” “great theater” and a “fascinating anthropological experiment.”

Dinwiddie would like to find the other four parts of the album series on record and perhaps do them all.

“I’m considering learning them, so I can do a different sermon on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday,” like Swaggart would when he came to a town. Dinwiddie suggests he may even become identified with the preacher much as Hal Halbrook morphed into Mark Twain in public perception.

While reviewers are impressed with Dinwiddie’s feats of memory and recreation of a living man, we are all also curious about his motives.

Dinwiddie claims that he first became interested in using documentary sources in art and then decided to use Swaggart’s record for that purpose, not necessarily to preach. Dinwiddie concedes, though, that he’d always had an interest in religion and religious themes in his art, so that affected this performance decision.

He also mentions the curious after-show effects his performance has had on some viewers, more than anything else he has done. While a handful were predictably offended and “horrified,” others were deeply unsettled by his unexpected onslaught.

“They want to talk about it,” Dinwiddie says. “People want to tell me about their religious experience, and that’s really rewarding.”

Although Dinwiddie brings this to an unprepared audience that it wasn’t originally intended for, he still reels them into his “sermon” experience.

As he explains it, “I’m the safe stand-in for a real preacher.”

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