The Highpoint Church Standing Ovation

Was #MeToo washed away in baptismal waters?

There is a clip that has been circulating through both conventional broadcast and cable news programs in the United States, as well as on social media sites. It shows a sort of blandly handsome man, on the young side of middle age, garbed in a neutral preppy ensemble: a plaid shirt under a gray crew-knit sweater. He is sitting down next to a table with two bottles of water on it; behind him you see blue decorative stage lighting and the corner of a keyboard. His face has a look of sheepish disappointment, leavened by an occasional flashed nervous smile, until he bows his head to read a precomposed message from his phone and becomes absorbed in what he says aloud. What he reads is extraordinary. It is a confession of a “sexual incident” he had with an underage girl 20 years ago, when he was acting as her youth pastor at a Texas church. Though it is hard to see as he stares downward into his phone, he appears to be wearing a slightly pained expression of almost maudlin regret. He looks up only to say that he is sorry. When he apologizes, it appears that he is looking straight at a live audience; upon repeated viewing, it is obvious that he is staring into the camera. He closes by saying “for any fresh wounds this has caused, I am sorry, and I humbly ask for your forgiveness. I love you all very much.” As soon as he says that the sound of clapping starts. There is a cut to another camera, set at a medium shot, where an older, pudgier man, also wearing a plaid shirt, puts his hand on the confessant’s shoulder in a reassuring way. The applause goes on. The Washington Post calls it a “standing ovation”; the New York Times says it went on for 20 seconds.

The man is Andy Savage, and he is one of the two lead pastors at Highpoint Church, a Memphis mega-congregation with three different “campuses.” This event, taken from the live stream of the service that is shared between the campuses, strikes a dissident chord in an age of #MeToo. This is, in part, because #MeToo is seen as a moment of responsibility, where perpetrators are finally held to account. More than that, this specific confession is a sequel: the 20-year-old assault was first brought to light again when the victim saw an article about the dismissal of NBC newscaster Matt Laurer on the cover of USA Today. She sent her former youth pastor an email, reminding him of the sexual assault. When more than a month went by with no response from the pastor, the victim decided to go public.

It is one of the many small ironies that Laurer had been on Savage’s mind as well. In late November he tweeted a link to a story about Laurer with the commentary, “So saddened to hear of another high profile person in the midst of sexual misconduct allegations. It’s beginning to seem that sex on our own terms isn’t working. Go figure.” (Savage’s twitter account has since been made private). Further nested irony can be found in Savage’s pastoral focus on sexuality and matrimony, as exemplified by his book title, The Ridiculously Good Marriage.  The publisher cancelled publication in light of recent events.

Reportedly, the victim of the assault did not find the proffered apology in any way sufficient; she felt that the assault was not addressed properly when it happened in Texas, and that it was not being dealt with now. The applause on the video clip suggests that Highpoint believers felt differently. Given the consequences of accusations, not to mention public admissions, in the era of #MeToo, those 20 seconds of applause seem to demand an explanation.

The applause is about much more than its length. Highpoint Church is a Baptist church. The congregation works in a certain emotional register, more controlled and less ecstatic than a Charismatic or a revival Pentecostalist congregation, and also more prone to affective surges, joy, and pathos than a prototypical Presbyterian or Anglican church. It also means that they perform adult baptisms, usually before the whole congregation (Highpoint’s website claims that some of its favorite words are “The tank is on the stage!”). Baptisms are also recorded and made available on their website in a video series they call, “Going Public.” Baptisms are presented thus as public statements, as an opportunity for those being baptized to “share their stories.” This is because baptisms are accompanied by short, professionally edited video vignettes in which people discuss their reasons for taking this step. The performance of the baptisms, the lighting and stage scenery, even the way that the videos are edited, all draw on the logic of the entertainment industry (we are told in an orientation video that before going out “on the stage,” the person to be baptized waits “in the green room”). Even the baptism itself has an element of scripted drama; unlike most Baptist churches, the baptism is not performed by a pastor, but rather by a person close to the individual. Before dunking the person being baptized, the baptizer speaks of the idiosyncratic journey this individual has taken to reach this point, the challenges overcome, the hopes of what will come. The person being baptized speaks of the suffering they have endured and the suffering they caused others. It is hard not to feel something when watching these videos; these statements, not despite but because of their formulaic nature, demand a response. And as repeated viewings of these baptisms show, at Highpoint the affective response to this genre of confession is an almost celebratory joy and forgiveness.

When watching these videos, though, other things also become evident. The “stage” that Savage and his fellow Highpoint pastors walk is not just some sort of artificial zone of performative alterity. Or rather, if it is, that space of alterity does not belong to those pastors alone, for the same space, the same lighting, and the same aesthetics are at least temporarily traversed by both the baptizers and persons being baptized as well. It is the mediatic as the set apart (which is itself a synonym for the sacred), indicating a space for certain ethically safe affective peak points, and for the spiritual wiping away of ethical debts. It is not just the same visual language that the person being baptized, the baptizer, and the pastors participate in, but the same religious language as well. The various baptizers, bent over phones or notepads as they read their baptismal blessings, are reminiscent of Savage as he read his admission aloud. They speak of love and forgiveness, of faith and healing. They do not speak the language of accountability.

In short, the clip with its 20 second applause that circulated widely on the Internet did not come out of the blue. Before Savage and Highpoint’s senior pastor (the other man in a plaid shirt) spoke that day, the congregation had been buoyed by polished and professionally performed praise music; the theme of the day just happened to be love and forgiveness. But they had also been buoyed by years of seeing that stage as a place where people cathartically confess and turn over a new leaf.

And that may be the problem, at least from the perspective of victims and their advocates. There are those who argue that sexual assaults, such as the one confessed to by Savage, are rampant in Baptist denominations. These confessions may actually exacerbate the problem. Forgiveness and healing, when presented together, conflate the victim and the perpetrator; they are both wounded souls, in need of divine regeneration. This was especially visible in the sermon that followed Savage’s confession, in which the victim was never presented as culpable, although both she and Savage were equally presented as in need of prayer. And neither forgiveness nor healing serve as effective means of governance, as they keep those who have violated trust in positions of authority, and provide no institutional tools to prevent such events from happening again. (It is interesting to observe that this is not the first time that Highpoint has had problems of this sort). Highpoint presents itself as “a perfect place for imperfect people.” There is something beautiful in that. But if imperfection means a mediatic escape from responsibility and an ethical leveling of victim and perpetrator, then imperfect leadership may mean that the danger of abuse for the believers who trust them will persist.

Jon Bialecki is an honorary fellow in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh, and a lecturer in anthropology at the University of California, San Diego. His first monograph, A Diagram for Fire: Miracles and Variation in an American Charismatic Movement, published in 2017.

Please send your comments, contributions, news and announcements to SLA Contributing Editors Summerson Carr ([email protected]), Ilana Gershon ([email protected]), and Amelia Tseng ([email protected]).

Cite as: Bialecki, Jon. 2018. “The Highpoint Church Standing Ovation.” Anthropology News website, January 26, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.739

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