#158 In which our hero digs that old time religion.
Does this guy look familiar?
If you went to school at Ohio State (or several other colleges in the region, apparently) in the late 80s/early 90s, he will. This is Jed Smock, otherwise known as “Brother Jed.”
I haven’t thought about this guy for probably 10 years, and I’m not sure what triggered my memory of him this morning. Maybe NPR was running a story on religion. Maybe someone is trying to tell me to get back to church.
Anyway, Brother Jed was a fixture at Ohio State. He would set up camp on the Oval, the big central grassy area on campus, and start preaching. But he wouldn’t just preach, he would verbally attack passing students. His was a ministry of confrontation, and that’s what made it entertaining.
He would regularly address male students as “fornicators” and female students as “sluts.” Naturally, this would anger people, who would stop and get into shouting matches with the good Brother. Other students would sit down and form a wide circle around him, watching the free entertainment or just taking in the sun.
At the time, I just thought he was a kook. A rumbled, greasy-haired man who shouted out odd slogans, got into arguments with strangers and assured us that we were all going to hell. He was joined by his wife, who was even more extreme in her preaching. She would lurch around the circle, more chanting her ministry that speaking, and would punctuate every lesson with her assurance that if we didn’t all turn away from the face of evil and accept Jesus into our hearts that we would end up in “a lake... of FIIIIIIRE!” Honestly, she was my favorite, and I would join in with everyone else and shout “lake of FIRE!” along with the crazy-lady. There was also a handful of other revolving faces in the ministry, none of which came across as maintaining all their facilities.
Here’s a short movie of Jed in a quiet moment.
It was nothing more than a strange modern-day freakshow to me then, but now I see it for what it really was: smart marketing. If Jed and his cronies just set up shop somewhere and politely tried to spread the Good Word, he would mostly be ignored. He would certainly be ignored by those he would label “heathens,” drawing attention only from those who were already interested in religion.
Don’t get me wrong, this guy was resolutely on the fringe; I don’t imagine that any mainstream church would open their doors and let him take the pulpit to shout out to the congregation that they were fornicators and harlots. His message was that you need to lead a “traditional” life, which included marriage, church and children. And women needed to stay in the kitchen, like God intended.
Not surprisingly this ran against the sensibilities of most people studying there, and Jed, of course, knew this. I really wonder how he measured success… by the size of the crowd that gathered around him? By the number of people who stopped to engage him? By seeing the same faces in the crowd again and again?
But then… there were rumors that some students would seek him out as he was closing down for the day, and Jed would invite them back to his home for dinner, discussion and prayer. The story went that once you had him one-on-one, Jed was a very thoughtful, caring man; not at all the bombastic demagogue that he portrayed on campus. Some students seemed to have a real relationship with Jed, quick to jump to his defense in the face of a particularly abusive opponent.
Eventually the show got old, and I lost interest. But Jed would expect this, I think. His ministry wasn’t designed for the long term, it was only to incite interest at the moment (and boy, did it ever do that) and get generally ambivalent students to stop and listen. I stopped, I listened, then I moved on.
If you would have told me at the time that, 12 years later, I would be a member of a church (even though my attendance has been spotty, at best) and had plans to bring up my children in the church… I would have thought you as crazy as Jed. But here I am.
Not that I think Brother Jed and his outrageous performances brought me to this point, just the opposite, I should think. It was the calm, seeming level-headedness of the people in our church who attracted us.
But I have to say, The Scientist and I would make more of an effort to attend if there was a chance that our pastor would start singling out people in the pews, calling them “whores” and telling us that we were all heading for a lake... of FIIIIIIRE!