Thursday, September 03, 2015

How Do We Pick Evangelical Celebrities?

To start, I've taken to using "evangelical" to describe the sort of amorphous, generically Christian subculture that sort of dominates American conservatism (when it deigns to touch on religious or moral matters). I still call myself an evangelical mostly because I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ can and does have a life-changing impact on people. I certainly don't line up politically (and increasingly, troublingly, theologically) with what has come to define the group - yet it is still my group. These are my people, for sure - like it or not, we're in the same family.

Growing up in this evangelical subculture (specifically the traditional Nazarene one from which I hail) we'd often be handed "our" celebrities, to celebrate and follow with the same fervor everyone else supported the mainstream pop-culture celebrities of the day.* As a sports-loving evangelical child I remember getting Sports Spectrum magazine (which, low and behold, still exists). It was full of athletes (many famous) who were also Christians.

This is where things became incredibly confusing for me. Yes, these guys talked about God and went to that special baseball chapel and did team bible studies, and huddled for prayer after games - they used the right insider lingo and, no doubt, genuinely seemed to find Christian faith an important part of their identity.

But I also read the sports section of the newspaper (ha! newspaper - I'm old) and I knew that the on and off field lives of these same guys would never pass muster in my church. Now I'd been lectured about the differences in denominational theology and how different people can believe different things and still be Christian (although this rarely seemed to apply to Catholics, but whatever), but as a child who was taught growing up (something I believe to be pretty central to evangelical thought) that what you do says a lot more about what you believe that what you say (something I still believe to be true), it was incredibly confusing.

Guys impregnating waitresses, cheating on their spouses, getting arrested for some drunken brawl, visibly swearing with the TV cameras on them. I didn't get why these "celebrities" should be celebrated any more than anyone else, just because they said they loved Jesus. If anything, evangelical culture, as I know it, deems people like that worse than those other generic sinners.

I know some of those christian celebrities really did fit the bill - David Robinson was pretty prominently featured and, by all accounts, he lives up to the evangelical hype. I'm sure there were others, but it always felt like a real (and unnecessary) tension - as if evangelical culture was trying to say, "look, we're just like you, only Christian," when that is pretty much the opposite of what it means to have a Christian culture. The difference is important.

Things all went to heck with Amy Grant. She was the evangelical celebrity darling, who not only sang well and got popular, but crossed over into mainstream pop music and kept talking about Jesus (for the most part). Then, famously, she left her husband to marry country-star Vince Gill (who also left his wife at the same time). If this was anyone in my church, it would've been a huge scandal. It became more like a secret scandal amongst evangelicals. People didn't want to give up the Christian cache of claiming a big star and some people were willing to give her a pass on judgment because of it.

Now, in the end, you know what, marriages are often broken. I believe in marriage. I think divorce is really sad and shouldn't necessarily be undertaken as easily as it sometimes is today (even among Christians) - at the same time, I recognize how unfair it is to put the kind of pressure on someone like Amy Grant to be perfect. I recognize perhaps that kind of scrutiny and pressure contributed to her relationship problems - she wouldn't be the first evangelical to have that happen, famous or not. Plus, she's still pretty vocal about her faith and has, by all accounts, been a pretty good example of marriage and health relationship for decades following.

And I know that a 23 year old guy (who seemed so old, grown-up, and mature when I was reading about him in a magazine when I was eight) who gets a million dollar check with almost no accountability, might get himself into a fair bit of trouble, despite his religious commitments and upbringing. I also recognize that some people really do have a cultural faith that fits pretty well within the realm of generic american evangelicalism - and most people are (rightly and graciously) willing to forgive a few flaws and failures.

In other words, things aren't actually as black and white as we'd like to believe.**

Life is far more intricate and convoluted, but that doesn't seem to stop the evangelical celebrity machine. I saw this article about Jim Gaffigan a few weeks back. Jim is the kind of Christian you'd love to promote - he's a sort of progressive catholic who's just trying to live out his faith well. It's a great story to have out there (and surely it helps promote his new show, which he and his wife did on their own and can use all the promotional help it can get).

But it's utterly confusing why he'd be lifted up as an evangelical celebrity (even beyond the whole catholic thing, which we seem to be getting over, finally). Yeah, he works clean, but in interview after interview he talks about how he's not against swearing (and swearing while he does it), explaining it just doesn't make sense to do jokes about his kids full of profanity. He's not on the evangelical side of any political issue and he's all but refused to really speak about anything theological ("I know nothing. And so I don't want to be presented as someone who knows what they're talking about.").

Maybe this is all a good thing. Maybe I'm picking nits about evangelicalism being lax on famous people, when really it's a transformation of grace and openness. Then again, I do read the news - plus I spend way too much time on Facebook.

Maybe I'm just being selfish - maybe I'm just uptight because I can (and do) conform to most of those quintessentially super-Christian lifestyle choices and yet I'm constantly prodded and pushed and challenged when I happen to espouse a theological (or political) position that might be a little outside what's expected.

It's as if evangelicalism wants to include anyone who might make them look cool, but exclude anyone who might make them think. Well, I guess maybe we've gotten this celebrity thing down after all.

*Now. obviously there's a real critique about celebrity and celebrity culture itself that's problematic in this instance, but that might be subject for another day.

**Man, it took a long time to get around to something so seemingly simple.

***There's no corresponding reference to this above, but if you're in the mood for a pained groan today, google "evangelical celebrity" on image search. Rough.

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