Is it wise for Christians to market their own morality as entertainment? That question seems to be worth asking as the feathers settle after last month’s Duck Dynasty flap.
Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson entertains. He also markets duck calls for hunters. As a reality television star, his lifestyle and morality serve as his product. His status as a for-profit entertainer ought to inform the debates Christians have regarding his GQ magazine interview last month.
His graphic assertion that homosexuality is illogical based on the anatomical differences between men and women created an uproar. Biblically minded Christians generally agree that the Duck Dynasty patriarch's comments regarding homosexuality were factually true. But were they helpful?
In his now famous interview, Phil Robertson did not speak in his capacity as a father, a church leader, or a governmental leader, though he fills some of those roles in life. He spoke as a popular entertainer, and he is a good one. He has cultivated his authentic persona that appeals to his conservative audience which gladly pays to be entertained by his way of life. Robertson made his comments to GQ in his folksy, home-spun way knowing that his style resonates with his fan base that thinks like he does. That is not to say that money was his conscious motive at the particular moment he made the comment, nor is it to deny that he has a genuine heart to see homosexuals and sinners of all kinds repent.
Faith Driven Consumer, a group that rates the faith-friendliness of retailers, began the istandwithphil.com website to protest Robertson's suspension. They estimate that there are about 46 million faith-based consumers in the United States. From a business standpoint, Phil Robertson stands to gain a great deal by entertaining those 46 million people, even if what he says may offend or alienate many of the remaining 262 million Americans. That is also why he dresses in designer camouflage and poses before matching backdrops. In the GQ interview, Robertson said “We’re Bible-thumpers who just happened to end up on television.” Yet, we all know that they did not “just happen” to end up on television without willing participation and an eye for profit. We all understand that he is content to be the quirky backwoods uncle who owns a hunting goods line and has now marketed his lifestyle on his own reality show. He is not trying to appeal to all kinds of Americans. He is profiting wildly by reaching fewer than twenty percent of them.
Here is where things get tricky for those who market their own morality as entertainment. We live in a wider culture that needs thoughtful, bold, and articulate dialogue regarding topics like homosexuality. Hearts must be changed, and simply spouting crass arguments for heterosexuality, however true and innocently spoken, will not often help those inclined towards homosexual behavior or helpfully engage their friends and neighbors. Robertson makes money by showcasing his own thought patterns, which is bound to create trouble when those thought patterns are immature and fall short of the need of the hour when the wider culture hears them. Whether they are or are not appropriate, they are still bound to be profitable coming from a guy so humorous.
In what context would we expect Robertson's comments and manner to be helpful? What people were the comments designed to edify?
Would his comments be useful when ministering directly to a person tempted daily by homosexuality? Probably not, according to those who counsel people with such temptations. Thus far, I know of no reports of homosexuals turning to Christ in light of Robertson's words.
Should churches find them useful in formulating doctrinal statements regarding sexual sins? No.
What about pastors in their preaching? Pastors, saying “Thus says the Lord…” need to clearly set forth the nature of original sin, the way in which sinful temptations will be experienced by different souls, the abomination that it is, the wrath of God against sin, and the hope of the cross. But flippant words that fail to account for why sin would seem logical to sinners will not woo sinners to repentance or forcibly explain the reason for God's judgment against sin. Robertson began his statement on homosexuality by saying “It seems like, to me…” No doubt, he stands ultimately on the ground of Scripture, but that was not how he framed the argument. Such is not the language of a prophet of old or a sound preacher in any generation. It should come as no surprise that an argument starting from personal preference would be welcomed by some social liberals over the last few weeks who know that they have already won the war by moving the debate from the realm of truth to the realm of toothless preference.
What about governing leaders - should they adopt Robertson's tactics? Only if they want to create further animosity in the culture. Christians in government must labor to speak clearly and forthrightly from the foundation of Scripture and explain the price of sin in culture. They need to help create an environment for people to speak the truth without fear. Such clear teaching will still earn the ire of people set against the Lord, and so be it.
Where would Robertson's anatomy class approach work? Parents, science teachers, and physicians are among the few who can discuss the differences of private parts of the body without being crass. In certain apologetics settings, it may also be helpful to set forth the nature of the created order. In each of those instances, the speaker looks his audience in the eye and appeals to the heart and mind.
One other place his approach works is for the entertainer who feeds off of fans with similar views. Probably unintentionally, Robertson publicly framed homosexuals as illogical compared to him and his superior and more logical preferences. Though he used Scripture as his authority, his personal preferences took center stage.
In contrast to those who supported Chick-fil-A for its stand on homosexuality by buying a product like chicken sandwiches, Robertson’s product is his own personality and lifestyle. At least implicitly, his comments urge followers to buy more reality-Phil morality by tuning in to Duck Dynasty. He just spoke the way he has always spoken to increase his sales, and even amid controversy, it worked again. But, who was edified? Even Phil Robertson might not be able to fully discern his own motives, but is there not some sense in which his purposes are mixed in ways never true for the not-for-profit prophets of old?
A couple of possible objections might be raised in Phil Robertson’s defense. The first is this: Why single out a reality entertainer? Preachers and government leaders also fall prey to choosing words mindful of monetary implications, do they not? Absolutely. But they are wrong when they do. By contrast, Christian entertainers of necessity choose their words for the sake of income. If they fail to entertain, the market naturally puts them out of business and there is no Biblical mandate requiring their presence. But what should be done when those money-making ways are hurtful to the ministry of other parts of the body of Christ? The tension is real.
Second, some may ask if this is any different than the Christian who writes her autobiography and watches it sell. Admittedly, the lines are not always black and white for those who tell their story for the world to hear or earn their living by offering their Christian views daily in print, broadcast, or online media. Of course, Christian sports stars or actors may also abuse their callings to selfish ends, but there is at least some sense in which they participate in something larger than themselves. They draw attention to their sport or to the character they portray. The smell test seems to indicate there is something wrong with reality stars seeking to generate income through a fan base that will weekly be entertained to watch them live, work, vacation, eat, and pray.
Perhaps we need to reconsider whether marketing our lifestyle and morality as entertainment is wise; it seems fundamentally flawed to me. That so many Americans are willing to pay to watch someone else live the Christian life might indicate that we lack the maturity and creativity to entertain ourselves in our homes and neighborhoods.
What is the answer? I do not know fully, but the Bible calls us to entertain friends and neighbors in our homes and through our lives while expecting nothing in return. Hebrews 13:2 reminds us "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." What would happen if we cut the cord on cable and spent that money hosting two meals each month with neighbors, including homosexuals? What if we lived our Christian lives before them in person, speaking the truth in love? We might speak more carefully in private and in public. We would likely hear more conversion stories like that of Rosaria Butterfield. The nature of the national dialogue would change over time. More significantly, we would be made more like Christ.