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BOOKS & THE CULTURE WHEN RADIO PREACHER MIKE EAST SNARLS THAT “[HOMOSEXUALS] ARE A STENCH IN THE NOSTRILS OF GOD,” RATIONAL DISCUSSION IS NOT ON THE AGENDA-AND THE GAG PHONE-CALL UNDERMINES THE RADIO BIGOT’S PRESUMPTION ABOUT DIVINE HATRED. music is swelling to signal a healing miraDave screams “Owww! I think you fucked me up!” “We gotta pray for that guy,” Solomon muttersand then retaliates: Solomon prays that his next caller’s pain be transferred to the prankster. “God tells me that it’s going to be so,” he assures her. But Brer Russell does not sleep. In a moment he’s back, posing as yet another young man, who informs Solomon that his prayer group is sticking pins in a voodoo doll, just like Solomon recommended. Solomon, desperate: “No. No!” Stern: “We don’t do voodoo curses!” Russell, puzzled, sincere: “But I thought, when you prayed that that woman’s pain would be sent” Solomon: “No, we don’t….” Groping: “It’s not voodoo, it’s not curses, it’s….” Stretching: “Sowing and reaping, it’s….” George Orwell once wrote, “Each joke is a tiny revolution.” The only drawback of Radio Jihad is that it’s difficult to get a sense of who is waging the revolution. If you find Melba funny, it’s because you’ve been primed to laugh. But do the “ordinary” listenersthe real Melbas and Daves out there in broadcastlandknow they’re being jammed? After the orangutan schtick, one caller says, “Bless the brother who called before, that was an interesting concept.” In other words, if the paratrooper orangutans are true, I’m not telling, and if I know it’s a trick, I’m not telling either. As for the hosts, most of them seem stupefied by the interference. They refer to the callers as “strange” or “jerks,” and promise to pray for them. It’s hard to tell what actual effect the pranks have on the medium. One might worry that Radio Jihad is funny only to the lapsed Pent or the Jack Methodist. But it has broad appeal to recreational Christians everywhere, and to just about anyone who still has a sense of humor and likes to use it on a regular basis. As much as the soldiers of the Secular Nation fighting the religious wars of the late twentieth century will chuckle in their trenches, Brother Russell’s work will make its way among those Christians who are appalled that their brethren preach the God that they do. Michael Erard is a free-lance writer based in Austin. He has been through most of the phases of the Christian walk. THE MAKING OF A RECREATIONAL CHRISTIAN sk Brother Russell about his religious preference and he will tell you that he is a “recreational Christian.” He’s not exactly a practicing Christian in the conventional sense. But he is attracted to the combination of religious zeal, commercial slickness, and crass technique of mass-media Christianity. “People who really get into it,” he says, “have had some brush with some form of Christianity in their upbringing.” Russell was born in Texas and raised as a Methodist and later in life became a bornagain Christian. “When you’re a young person trying to lead a Christian life,” he says, “your entertainment options are limited. There’s just a handful of people waiting to fill that bill and to capitalize off it.” In time he encountered too many contradictions in his beliefs. “I was convinced that I was the problem because I didn’t have enough faith,” he says. “It was a tremen dous source of deliverance to discover that the problem wasn’t mine.” Russell left his church but never left Christian radio and television programs. One night in 1993, he visited a Dallas club that had organized a humorous tribute to TV minister Bob Tilton. The place was packed, Russell says: live music, good beer, a speaking-in-tongues contest. That night he discovered that he was not the only recreational Christian in the world. When he was a preteen he had made humorous prank call tapes with a friend. While making those calls, his on-air alterego, Melba, began to develop. As he explored the Christian recreational underground he first encountered in that Dallas produced ‘zines and made videos. Soon, he began to make the phone calls that would become Radio Jihad, and by the time his tapes began to circulate he had become familiar to talk-show hosts in Austin, where he now lives. “But they have to play it both ways,” he says, “because they don’t know if you’re a nice old lady or a deranged asshole. So they put you on intergalactic hold, hoping that you’ll go away.” Russell is mostly unwilling to talk about the broader implications, political and cul 7 tural, of Radio Jihad. To him, the prank ministry is humor. It’s also an outlet for an angry young man seeking vindication for his religious apostasy. “I have no qualms about what I do,” he says. “When these people make the presumption to tell the rest of us how to live, they’re open season.” He still misses one aspect of his days of faith: easy answers. “It was wonderful to be that. To be like a child again and to have your simple world where there are no gray areas.” M. E. SEPTEMBER 13, 1996 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 29