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The only TV evangelist worth a damn wasn’t wearing any of his whimsical hats three Sundays ago at the University Cathedral downtown. He wasn’t waving his cigar around, wasn’t glaring at the congregation and demanding, "Am I boring you?"
Dr. Gene Scott was sick. He’d just been driven from the hospital, where edema was being sucked from his abdomen. He had cancer. Several years ago he’d been diagnosed with it but declined treatment; to him the treatment sounded worse than the disease. He’d said the Lord would take care of it, and that seemed to work.
Now he sat onstage in his pajamas, not moving. Not moving at all, his white-bearded, freckled face blank beneath white hair and translucent sunglasses. No suit. Zippered red jogging jacket. Deck shoes. Alive?
And the joint was rocking, just like always. The painfully ornate old prayer palace quaked along with a dozen musicians blasting gospel beat as Scott’s wife, Melissa, the thin young beaut with the yard of dark ringlets, sang. Though never in Melissa’s league, Dr. Scott also liked to warble. Not today.
A few other preachers did warm-ups and testimonials. One had a strong singing voice and a nice old-pard way of husking the corn: "You hear people say they’ve found Jesus. Well, Jesus wasn’t the one who was lost." It felt like an audition. But nobody’s gonna replace Gene Scott.
Ever caught his show? (Don’t worry, it’s still in reruns six days a week on KDOC-TV, and on radio, plus eternally on the Web at www.drgenescott.com.) If you’ve seen Scott preach/perform, you know he was different. In recent years he toned down the props, didn’t even have phone banks. Just flashed the hot-line number on the screen, alternating with a subtitle advertising his Ph.D. from Stanford.
And that doctorate was no bull. Take it from a slob who’s done hard time in the dead-languages graveyard: Scott was a serious philologist who knew his alphas and omegas. He’d start with a scriptural passage, often written on the whiteboard in two or three ancient languages: Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac. Yes, Syriac, the tongue of some of the oldest manuscripts. And he would crack open his dictionaries and dig into the roots of words, tell you what kinds of connotations they had — such-and-such didn’t just mean "flee," it meant "go and seek shelter," that kind of thing. Often he would totally bust the early translators, who had a tendency to make the text fit their preconceived theologies: "It’s not in Jesus, it’s from Jesus!"
Scott told you what the testaments actually said, not what you wished they said. He’d draw circles and arrows all over the place to illustrate syntax and make comparisons. By the end of a show, his whiteboards looked like abstract art. All the while, he’d be cracking dry jokes, talking the way a rancher might explain breeding methodology. Guilt and hellfire? Not this cowboy.
"I could tell you a few things about sex," he’d say, leering over the top of his specs. He was an entertainer.
But now here was Scott, in his pajamas. All of us — the young Annie Oakley in jeans, the middle-aged man in the bad sweater, the black professor, the old Asian couple, over a thousand souls — were wondering if he was ever going to move.
When he finally spoke, his voice at first was weak and parched.
"Did you notice the sheep on these pajamas?" he asked. "They remind me of my flock."
Not bad under the circumstances. He sat us down with the slightest motion of a hand — we’d been mostly on our feet doing the praise/honor/testify thing.
And Scott embarked on an abbreviated version of his instruction, with Melissa writing on the board for him. (Her Greek is tidier than his, anyway.) He laid a little Isaiah on us, about refuge and shelter. Gaining momentum, he gave us a little John, and explained about the Greek verb pisteuo, which means "I trust."
"God doesn’t want you to be perfect," he advised. "He just wants you to trust in him."
When he finished, Scott’s auxiliaries asked us to stand, close our eyes and stretch out our arms, palms down, toward Dr. Gene and Melissa. We were transferring energy to them, to give them strength and help Scott’s good cells fight the cancer cells. It was weirder than singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." But what the hell.
Scott requested a reprise of "The Storm Is Passing Over," and Melissa sang it, nailing a long final note that had good wood behind it. Four guys picked Scott up out of his desk chair, put him in his wheelchair and rolled him off.
During the proceedings, a velvet bag for donations was passed twice. I’m not a man of faith, and I’d never given a dime to a TV evangelist before. This time, though, I gave more than a dime. And my wife can nag till kingdom come, but I’ll never tell how much.