LANDRUM, S.C. -- This isn't Sunday school, this is back-of-the-moon, old-time American tent religion. It's so real it's terrifying, it's so awful it's beautiful.
"Beautiful, aren't they?" says the big smooth voice behind the wheel of the big smooth car, a Delta 88 Olds gunning north on state Rte. 414. Two knuckles rap window glass. "That's the Blue Ridge out there. Fabulous. Wonderful. The Lord's handiwork. Fact is, I'd like to move into this country someday. Fact is, city life can weigh on a man."
Brother Benny Carper, Baptist salvationist, Carolina pistol, is cruising and chatting, chatting and cruising through the supernaturally green spaces of Spartanburg County. He's on his way to a tent revival up on the mountain border, where every prospect pleases and only Lucifer is vile.
A wrinkle-free double-breasted linen sport coat with a red silky kerchief shooting from the vest pocket is hanging on the hook behind his head.
The Good Book is resting on the back seat.
The Primitive Quartet is on the tape deck.
A local constable is squawking on the police scanner -- which is bolted to the lower dash.
And the car has rolled by a fish-bait store. And the Bo-Nat 7-Eleven. And a sign, out front of a church, that asserts: "Risk Is the Back Side of Trust."
And the rhythms this evening are straight out of the King James version.
"The callings of God are without repentance," he says, hugely, as if he were talking not just to one sinner riding upcountry but to a whole passel of sinners jammed into, say, the Los Angeles Coliseum. "Do you know what the word 'repent' means at its root? It means to turn. Anyone can turn. You could turn, friend. Fact is, before the Lord called me to preach, I wanted to play baseball. I could play some pretty good baseball, too. But the Lord wanted me to preach. I couldn't hide from it. Fact is, I knew the Lord wanted me to preach when I was still in junior high. But I fought it, I resisted it."
Brother Benny's hands are suddenlyoff the wheel. He is pushing out, palms wide, as if warding demons from his person, from the car, from the world. Get down, Satan.
"Now, people used to say to me, when I was just a little shaver" -- he has dropped into dialect -- " 'Brother Benny, you goin' to preach like your Papaw?' 'Nah,' I'd always tell them, 'not me.' But of course the Lord was working on me. God can't use a man who is lifted up in pride, can he? Jesus said, 'If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to Me.' John 3. I think the verse is 14. We'll look it up. But God simply cannot use a prideful man. Or a righteous man. God uses crooked sticks to draw straight lines, I'm sure you've heard that. God is repugnated in pride, God is SICKENED in that."
The word has a startling and overloud and slightly nauseating sound to it. But just as quick, Brother Benny grins reassuringly,as if to let you know everything is okay, no need to jump the car.
"Fact is, when I graduated from high school, I preached that Sunday over in North Carolina."
This is how a hard-shell fundamentalist preacherman, who stands at a swaggery 5 feet 7, who weighs 185, who was saved at 6 and on the radio airwaves at 13, who is nobody's fool but the Lord's, is fitted out for tonight's fever: in a bright red bow tie with black dots on it (his grandmother made it specially for him); in a pair of midnight-blue suspenders (he hasn't tucked his thumbs in them yet and made a popping sound, but maybe this is coming); in a pair of knock-you-out, cut-you-down, black and white two-tone spectator shoes with slightly elevated heels. The shoes, which Huey P. Long probably would have killed to own, look so clean you could eat off them -- and be proud. Brother Benny and his wife Judy just saw them one day sitting in a window in a Greenville shopping mall. Went in and got them, like that. It took all the money in both their pockets.
"Fact is, my wife insisted on it. She said, 'Ben, we better go, they might be the last pair in all of Greenville.' "
She was saved at 9. She is riding to the revival in another car.
Brother Benny has a leather grip laced onto his steering wheel, the kind race drivers like to use.
His class ring -- from Tabernacle Bible College -- is ruby-red and big as an onion and catching color from the last of evening.
His last name is stitched in tiny black script on the left cuff of his crisp white shirt. (He has a nifty way of shooting this cuff, even when he doesn't have his coat on.)
In "Wise Blood," her apocalyptic novel about the fundamentalist South, Flannery O'Connor wrote of the central character: "He didn't look, to her, much over 20, but he had a stiff black broad-brimmed hat on his lap, a hat that an elderly country preacher would wear. His suit was a glaring blue and the price tag was still stapled on the sleeve of it."
Hazel Motes' new suit cost $11.98. Not Brother Benny's, not even close.
And how old is this man anyway? It's hard to tell. "Real young, my friend, real young," he says, before you can actually ask the question. "Don't need to know that right now."
The black box bolted to the lower dash of the car is squawking.
"I luuuuv law enforcement," he says, leaning down, eyes bright as agates, blinking, jaw like a luge. He turns up a knob. The voice inside the box says, then repeats it, "Hit and run. Over on Old Buncome Road." Tiny red lights are flashing in sequence across the face of the machine. Brother Benny is nodding, almost imperceptibly, perhaps mentally logging the incident, trying to plot its exact location.
"Fact is, when I'm driving along, nothing better I like than to tune in on what our local law enforcement officials are doing. I try to get out and help a situation whenever I can."
The right arm reaches into the back seat, plucks up the Bible, sits it atop the scanner. It's a perfect fit, the Book atop the box, the profane bearing up the sacred.
"Ephesians 2, verses 8 and 9," he says. He rifles for the passage he wants. He has come out from under the wheel about half a foot and is driving like a rural mailman -- from the middle. He reads aloud: " 'For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.' You see that? The words are, 'It is the gift of God.' Now think on those words. Gift. I was saved at the age of 6. I recognized I was a sinner. That's all you have to do. Now that's very young, I know. Precisely. But a child can be wise in the ways of the Lord. I can't give you the date I was saved. I can't tell you the season. But I could take you right to the room. All it required was for me to profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. God can't use a prideful man. God wants a saved man. The Bible states that our righteousness is as filthy rags. If I told you I didn't have pride in my heart, I'd be such a liar, wouldn't I? Man falls to such a putrid level. Oh, God, help me not be proud. Fill me not up with envy."
Has his blond hair begun to raise on his head, just a slight?
Is there a small look of wildness coming into his pacific-blue eyes?
"Ours is a real Bible Belt," Flannery O'Connor once said, trying to explain deep mysteries. "We have a sense of Moses' face as he pulverized the idols."
The police scanner is still barking about the hit and run on Old Buncome Road.
Verdant little meadows are crowding in close to the road. Horses are standing still as sculpture. The preacherman passes another sign for another country church: Cool Springs Primitive Baptist. The sign points to a gravel road snaking off through a dark green wood. He doesn't look over, only says, "The backbone of America is not the large church. The backbone of America is the small country church, just like you're going to see tonight. Decent honest American people. This work is very draining. We tend to get old fast. Fact is, at 30 we look 40, at 40 we look 50. Fact is, we're like mules that get worked hard and put up wet."
Brother Benny's parents are in real estate, down in Greenville, which is just about the biggest city in the state. They are deep believers, though grounded in the world. "Now, you know what my Mama used to say when I was about 9 and she was taking me around with her on some of her calls? She'd say, 'Ben, honey, now don't you do all the talking when we get in there, hear?' "
Perhaps the word "talking" has triggered thoughts of his radio ministry. That gospel is ongoing, wedged in between all his other work. "I call my show 'Seeking the Lost.' Nine stations, from Missouri to Maryland to the West Indies islands." There is poetry in this, or in the way he says it ... Missouri to Maryland to the West Indies islands.
When Brother Benny is not preaching into radio microphones or in tents, he is working in his grandfather's church, Tabernacle Baptist, which is an independent Baptist congregation, sprawling out onto two sides of the road in greater Greenville. Papaw has been a fixture in Greenville religion for nearly half a century. His church has its own college, Bible institute, radio station, orphanage -- sometimes Brother Benny doesn't know what all. The offering last Sunday came to $13,794.08. Average collection, even a little below average.
"You know, the Lord will just lay a burden on my heart, that's how I get my sermons," he says. "The Lord will give me a thought, and I am grateful. Don't do it if there isn't a burden there, friend, don't do it. Tonight's burden came on me a few weeks ago. I've called it 'God's Love.' "
What does he think of Billy Graham, that better known if no less inspired sender of the Word? Billy Graham got his fever in a Charlotte pineboard tabernacle in 1934. He was 16. If he is the most famous preacher of the 20th century, maybe Benny Carper will be next.
"I do respect him, because he's kept his life clean. I'd call him 'Sir,' I'd rise when he entered the room. 'Course, I'm not so happy with his ecumenism. Kind of hard to figure out where he stands. I say Baptists are Baptists, I say Catholics are Catholics. I'd be proud to have a Catholic come into my tent to hear me preach, don't get me wrong. It's hard to tell exactly what Reverend Graham is thinking on this issue. Kind of slippery, I'd say. You know what I mean? You go fishing and pull that big old fish out of the water and he's slimy. You pick up a bar of soap in the shower and you just can't keep your hand on it."
Pause. "But he has kept his life clean, I will say that. Not like some we know."
He must mean Jim and Tammy Bakker? "It hasn't helped, it hasn't helped, has it?" he says, almost mournfully, his voice low and quiet for the first time in the ride.
The car passes another church: The Welcome Home Free Will Baptist. He seems to eye it, or at least its sign, with not-quite contempt -- perhaps something closer to a sibling rivalry. "Fact is, we're all doing the Lord's work."
Brother Benny has reached the outskirts of the town he has come to save. Landrum, S.C., pop. 2,141, is not the biggest place he has ever preached to. He surveys the town from the south, the stranger up from the flatlands, then passes over a Norfolk & Southern railway track; goes by a building with a sign nearly faded from sight ("Be Sociable, Have a Pepsi"); E.L. Broome & Sons Hardware; Cogdell Furniture; the Scissor Attic ("Make-Up, Waxing, Manicures, Pedicures"). He makes a right turn, passes Pizza Hut, the high school, waves to some barefoot kids wheeling an old tire down the street with a stick, gets onto Redland Road, goes another mile or so, then veers left off the two-lane asphalt into a weedy, scented field.
At the back of the field is a stand of pines. At the front there is a sign: OLD-FASHIONED BAPTIST TENT MEETING. Sixty yards off is a canvas tent, exactly the kind you'd find at a small traveling circus. It is held up by thick black poles, silver chains pulled down to augers in the earth. Two pickup trucks are parked on the red clay. Music is playing from a funnel-shaped speaker -- something about "Put a rainbow in the clouds for me."
He drives the Olds right up to one of the augers of the tent, climbs out. "I like parking in the same spot every evening."
And then, "Don't worry, they'll be coming in soon."
And then, "I'm already a little agitated tonight, I don't mind telling you. I always get lathered, though sometimes I can really lose myself."
Babies are bawling somewhere in the back, and somebody named Sister Linda has swayed and ached through three verses of "He Touched Me, Oh, He Touched Me," and old ladies in the front row are trying to calm themselves with hand fans, and a man shriveled at the waist is hollering out a stream of ever-louder Amens, and a pregnant mother with an infant on her hip has just come in and taken a seat way off to the side, and low-watt bulbs haloed with bugs are hanging down from fists of wires, and the ground is shoe-deep with pine shavings, and you can just smell the sweat, and the wooden folding chairs everybody is sitting on are smooth and dark as old church pews, and a fat girl is bending sweetly at the pump organ, and the rolled-up canvas flaps are stirring, rustling, as if the Holy Ghost were entering.
And the vein-popping, dripping-all-over, now-fully-transformed man up on stage is gawping and contorting and screaming -- literally -- through some of his finest, all-out, beet-red riffs of the night. Brother Benny Carper has been laboring under the burdens of his prophecy for better than a half hour. Idols are being smashed in Spartanburg County.
"Humanity is ABOMINABLE.
"And ViiiiiiiLE," he screeches, reaching over top of the pulpit to stab Lucifer in the eye with his index finger. There aren't 50 people in front of him. Low crowd tonight. Does it matter? Brother Benny's voice is somewhere between a child's tantrum and an old man's howl. He has long ago thrown off the linen sport coat, handed it to somebody behind him. Now he has on a cardigan sweater. He is trying to keep hypothermia down.
"There is no loveliness in us at all apart from the loveliness of the Son of GAWWWWWWD," he cries. The sentence comes out of his mouth like a runaway train, the last six or seven words picking up speed, then slamming dead.
"He willingly went to the cross of CALVARY
" -- and DIED there
" -- that you and I might be REDEEMED."
"Self-love is not DISCOMMENDABLE when it is not carried to a criminal EXCESS, and to the neglect of OTHERS. I'm glad you have a little self love. It causes you to take a BATH
" -- and use some DEODORANT
" -- brush your TEETH
" -- and shave your FACE
" -- shine your SHOES
" -- and comb your HAIR.
"You say to me, 'Well, Brother Benny, I'm so humble I don't have to love myself.' Well, then I say you just get on outta here, 'cause I don't feel like sittin' beside you and SMELLIN' you.
"Be clean! Be UPRIGHT!"
Brother Benny is off the ground, straight toward the peak of the tent. Will he leave his clothes behind? His head is jamming out from his bull neck, gone fire-truck red. In the middle of this miraculous leap -- which must go at least a foot and a half -- his right arm shoots out as if driven by jet propulsion, and his left leg tucks way up under his right buttock. It is a kind of one-two tuck of triumph, of holy exultation, of total improbability. Dr. J. couldn't do it.
His hair is standing up like an electrocuted porcupine's.
His breath is pumping in fierce gulps.
He holds in his magical leap, then comes back down.
Will he smash furniture next?
Maybe God will take His servant home tonight.
"Notice with me every word in our text tonight," he says. "For God. So Loved. The World. That word 'for.' F-O-R."
Brother Benny can go nearly a full three minutes on "for."
"The love of the FATHER is manifested in that GOD would be mindful of humanity. The love of the SON is manifested in the fact that HE would come down from Heaven and die upon the cross that we may be saved. The love of the SPIRIT is manifested in that HE would move into the body of the redeemed when we accept the Lord Jesus Christ as our SAVIOR."
With sudden vitriol:
"You know, the scientists laugh and mock and make fun, this idea of God. Well, bless your little educated heart, now YOU TELL ME HOW THIS PLANET EARTH GOT HERE. Huh?"
That huh mocks every little old schoolbook you ever read.
Once more, infidels and mockers:
"Oh, how MAJESTIC GOD IS.
"Oh, how vile and unruly man is.
"Oh, how wonderful God is.
"And, oh, how FILTHY and GOOD-FOR-NOTHING man is."
Brother Benny's mouth is as twisted as a car wreck.
"God has always loved YOU. God has always loved ME. It's, it's ... IN-FI-NITE."
His arms have taken in all mankind.
Not for long.
"The human race is digressing to the level of a dog. An old DAWG, if he can go over here and eat this dog's food, and he can go next door and eat this cat's FOOD, and eat his OWN FOOD, he'll do it. We've got human beings in our day that have gone down to the level of a DAWG. If this man can have his WIFE, and his neighbor's WIFE, and his neighbor's WIFE, he'll have 'em. You're actin' like a DAWG."
"Being saved is better than a BARROOM.
"Being saved is better than a POOLROOM.
"Being saved is better than ROCK AND ROLL.
"Being saved is the GREATEST THING ON EARTH."
There is no one here who would deny it.
"God loves the town of LANDRUM," the idol-smasher cries. "God loves SPARTANBURG COUNTY. But if Spartanburg County doesn't come to GOD ..."
There is no need to finish.
At the end the congregation is on its knees, down into the sawdust. Heads are bowed, voices are murmuring, and not in unison. Brother Benny looks half dead. He is slumped back into a chair on the red-painted stage, his limp black slacks hiked nearly to his kneecaps. Not a square inch of him is dry. Brother Rick Whitlow -- who is going to preach at tomorrow night's service -- is taking the crowd through "Burdens Are Lifted at Calvary."
The congregation lingers, then begins to drift off. Duane Henson, 17, is one of those who stays. He's a senior at Blue Ridge High. This summer he drove tractors at a peach shed. "Something, wasn't it?" is about all he wants to say. He walks off with his mother. "It's always this way with old-time Baptist preachers," Mrs. Henson says, letting it go at that.
Somebody is getting the lights, somebody is passing around cups of lemonade from a thermos. Three teen-age girls, sisters, approach the stage. One of them sits down at the organ. The three begin singing, as if they can't bear that it's over. The tune is "There's Nothing, Oh, Nothing, My God Can't Do." Then they go right into "Thanks for Loving Me, Thanks for Calvary." They make the rhyme hurt. A crumpled Dixie cup is on top of the organ. A dog is howling somewhere out beyond the dark. The cicadas have stopped.
Something has happened here tonight.
"Father, help us, keep us safe as we drive."
Benny Carper, voice and face composed, is bending over the steering wheel of his car. The engine coughs on. Headlights sweep the empty tent. He finds the road, heads through the sleepy town. Porch lights have come on. People are watching televisions.
He is in a long-sleeve sport shirt. He's still wearing the midnight-blue suspenders, the two-tone wing tips. "Got to wear my shoes, got to wear my suspenders," he says, his voice purring over through the darkness of the car. "Fact is, if I didn't wear suspenders, couldn't hold up my trousers."
Somewhere out on the highway, he asks in a quiet voice, "How did I do tonight?"
But he doesn't really wait for an answer. Maybe he doesn't want it. Maybe just asking is enough, and anyway he knows how good he was. "That's the difference between religion and salvation," he says. "See, a man who has religion is one thing, but a man who has salvation is another. A man who is saved is an entirely different man. Now look here, you know about Nicodemus. And get this -- Nicodemus wasn't a layman, Nicodemus was a man of God. But God told Nicodemus, 'You must be born again.' God didn't say, 'You should be born again,' or 'It might be nice if you were born again.' He said, 'You must be born again.' "
The tires are humming against the asphalt. Over to the right, shining in a kind of tarnished yellow gleam, is another revival tent. The meeting is still going on. Not many people there. Somebody singing with a guitar.
"Don't know what that one is," he says, with disinterest.
At the start of his revival, the men and boys had been sent off to one side of the tent, the women and girls to the other, and everyone had got down and begun praying at once, in different voices, no voice paying attention to the other, every voice getting louder and louder, faster and faster, some shouting things that sounded like, "Oh Lord I am filthy, Oh Lord I am filthy." What was that?
"If God can put the stars in the heavens, God can hear two people praying at once," he says. "That is what you heard."
There is silence. Then talk of his wish to be a father. "Fact is, my wife and I are trying right now. Trying mighty hard. We hope to have five, spaced at intervals."
And then, "Truth is, I feel kind of old right now."
But then, "I'll get up at 5:30 tomorrow morning, you know. Read my Bible. Be over to my Papaw's church by 8. I'll be okay."
The car skirts a little burg called Travelers Rest. The lights of Greenville are coming up on the horizon. Brother Benny gives the steering wheel a light tap.
"See that odometer? Says 124,126 miles. I take care of this little old lady, I do. Change oil every 3,000 miles, do all my own mechanics. You got to take care of your transportation, you got to take care of your life. Don't you?"
The next morning he answers the phone at Tabernacle Baptist Church at 8:10. The voice is charged. "Howdee," he says, hugely. "The Lord's morning, isn't it? I couldn't sleep last night. Maybe I was worrying a little about you. I had some praying to do. Fact is, I was praying till 4. I fell asleep on my knees at the side of my bed. My alarm went off at 10 after 5, but my wife, she told me to stay in the bed till a quarter to 7. I listened to her."
The reason for the early call is to try to pin down Brother Benny's age. "Oh, that," he says, and the laugh has life in it. "Well, fact is, I am mighty young. Be 22 my next birthday. Coming right up."