I promised myself I wasn't going to write about Philly Jesus but then I happened upon a YouTube video of Philly Jesus "baptizing" a man in LOVE fountain and began to wonder how the new convert could be so gullible as to believe that a baptism by a fake Jesus was more special than a baptism in a church. Then I understood the reason. Everything in this society is about appearances. Philly Jesus, aka Michael Grant, was a hot media commodity at the time of the YouTube filming. Those of us who live on the surface of things want easy answers and easy images, and Philly Jesus is the perfect man for that.
It's easy to imagine how it all started for him: A close friend probably told him, "You know, your face and eyes, and the way your beard hangs, you are a Jesus clone. You should take advantage of that. Ditch the Flyers shirt and the Phillies cap and put on a robe. Then walk around the city and see what happens."
It was a brilliant move, the kind of maneuver that public relations people love. Where can the world of PR find a better story than Grant's? An admitted ex heroin addict, what hasn't Mr. Grant seen on the mean streets of the city? Rejection, starvation, dirty needles, homelessness, dirty clothes and days without a shower, not to mention, as the drug culture goes, unseemly ways to make money. It's a certainty that Philly Jesus has been to hell and back but now he's resurrected and clean, his beard fluffed up and his piercing eyes aflame with a child's understanding of the Gospel. And yes -- no doubt about it -- he's hit on a new career path, and maybe he'll even get a movie role down the line.
The day that Michael Grant put on Jesus robes the city opened up for him. The local paparazzi went crazy because they were hungry for something new. If your job is photographing people, you can only snap so many pictures of ladies in strapless evening gowns at parties before boredom sets in. Since Philly Jesus wasn't just another night crawler sucking on Martini olives, his picture was soon everywhere. He soon went from ex heroin dude status ("Got spare change, Miss?") to media icon status. The effect of all this publicity was that soon people were going to Philly Jesus for spiritual counseling. In a series of online photographs by CBS3, for instance, one can see Philly Jesus praying with the homeless, counseling strangers, conversing with addicts, praying in the Parkway cathedral and walking through North Philly carrying a huge wooden cross. In other photos he's skateboarding or playing hockey... because, you know, Philly Jesus is cool.
In Philly Jesus' "counseling the weak" photos he looks very sage-like with his arm around a homeless man sitting on the sidewalk. What words of wisdom was the savior imparting? In this photo one can see that he has ceased being an actor but is beginning to take himself seriously. As Philly Jesus told one interviewer (it astounds me, frankly, that journalists even interviewed him), "I have to grow. I have to take it to the next level."
Is this what Jim Jones contemplated prior to the Jonestown massacre? Jim Jones started out as a sincere Gospel-preaching "help the poor" pastor with apparently pure intentions but then power twisted his ego and he began to think of himself as receiving special messages and guidance from The Spirit. Which Spirit, of course, is the question.
Appearances mean everything in the world we live in, and if you want to make your mark in life but have no particular talent -- say you can't draw, cure diseases, design buildings or create remarkable poetry -- you can always create a gimmick or find a hook to catapult yourself into the world of doers. The psychotic among us kills large numbers of people and winds up in People Magazine. A performance "artist" might strip nude in Times Square while eating hard boiled eggs and gets press for days. You get the picture.
Find the right gimmick, or a hook, and the paparazzi will be at your door. If Philly Jesus has any talent at all it is the "power" with which he believes in himself. Let's say, for one Philly second, that he lost that air of self confidence and showed visible traces of embarrassment or doubt while dressed in robes. That ambiguity would be noticed and felt by observers, and his career would begin to slowly unwind.
Philly Jesus reminds me in some ways of the famous New York Magazine art critic Jerry Saltz. Some months ago, Saltz spoke at the Barnes Foundation about his being a college dropout and never having had a formal education in art although his interest in art led him to study art books and art criticism. Employed as a cross country truck driver at the time, one day Saltz decided that he was going to call himself an art critic. In an instant he became what he had always believed about himself. Over time this belief led to an esteemed position at New York Magazine.
Saltz's story calls to mind the many people who say that they are going to spend time "making art," certain that just because they call it art it is art, no matter what the critics may say. If you believe that what you make is art then it is art because your belief makes it so. But does it, really? Writers, of course, are much less prone to this kind of grandstanding. They do not say, "I'm going into my house to make literature." Writers are humbler than visual artists.
Philly Jesus has been arrested about a dozen times, mostly for loitering and trumped up charges like "theft of services." After my various trips to Europe, I don't believe that anybody should be arrested for loitering. In Europe, people loiter. They sit on benches; they hang in cafes for hours; they sit or stand by rivers. In the United States such behavior might attract the attention of a police officer. You can "loiter" in America but it must be in a place where you have to buy something. You have to spend money to loiter. Public spaces in the U.S., with the exception of parks, have become 'hang out' suspicious, hence the slow disappearance of the public bench.
The small minded cop who arrested Philly Jesus because he accepted a tip at LOVE Fountain is an example of this "new world order." I know architectural and historic preservation tour guides who accept tax free gifts or tips. Certainly no one can say that they are "soliciting." So what did Philly Jesus do when he was arrested? True to the classic Jesus formula, he went willingly in handcuffs to his trial before Pontius Pilot. But he also got a lawyer.
If Michael Grant thought it would be fun being Philly Jesus he was in for a rude awakening. When you stroke the mane of the paparazzi, you have to do certain things right to keep them coming around. You can ruffle feathers but they have to be the right kind of feathers. You have to be the kind of Jesus who doesn't exclude anybody.
In June, Philly Jesus found himself in the gayborhood lending his support to the 50th anniversary of the historic gay rights protest at Independence Hall. The paparazzi even photographed him smiling and waving among a mostly LGBT crowd. In one photo you can see him standing near a drag queen and Henri David, Philadelphia's Mr. Halloween. When the Supreme Court voted in favor of same sex marriage, Philly Jesus said the ruling was a very good thing and that he approved.
But the religious right backlash against the Supreme Court's ruling probably inspired born again Christians to contact Philly Jesus for spiritual rehabilitation. Right wingers love to point out the sins of others; no doubt they told Philly Jesus that God's love is not unconditional. The prospect of alienating "born again" Christians was not something Philly Jesus wanted to do. After all, he had his future fundraising efforts and his Jesus ministry project to think of. What would happen to his financial contributions, and to his goal of expanding Philly Jesus into an American, nationwide Jesus, if he sided with gays and their allies?
Philly Jesus then announced to his "true born again Christians that he was sorry for his positive comments on same sex marriage. "I wanna publicly apologize to all of you," he said, "and ask for your forgiveness. I repent in Jesus name. "On his Facebook page, he spewed a harder dose of venom.
"Gay Pride is why Sodom got fried."
The instantaneous change baffled many of his fans. The real Jesus never had to correct himself; never had to say that he was wrong when he said something the first time. This Philly Jesus was obviously just a crass, uneducated opportunist and, like so many drug affected souls, going whichever way the wind blows. The real Jesus, of course, never said a single word about homosexuality. He not so much as even hinted at homosexuality in anything he said although he did say that it was good for a man to lay down his life for his friend; yes, he said f-r-i-e-n-d and not... spouse.
So, in one fell homophobic swoop Philly Jesus ended his love affair with the media. With his "Love one, love all" message now in the trash bin, the paparazzi made themselves scarce. Philly Jesus can now join Pat Robertson on the 700 Club, but my guess is that one day in the future we'll see him falter, the subject of some huge personal sexual scandal.
"Sin is sin," Philly Jesus is on record as saying. "As for people being born homosexual, there may be cases of children who are born with maybe a penis and a vagina at the same time, but these are rare cases."
People who are born with a penis and a vagina are not homosexual but hermaphrodites. This is the extent of Philly Jesus' ignorance, especially when all he had to do to tell the difference was to Google the words.