Ducking the Real Issues?
Is it wise for Christians to market their own morality as entertainment? That question seems to be worth asking as the feathers settle after this 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 earlier this month.
His graphic assertion that homosexuality is illogical based on the anatomical differences between men and women created an uproar on the part of homosexual groups leading to his suspension by Arts and Entertainment (A&E), the cable network that hosts his Duck Dynasty reality show. In turn, Christian groups and individuals rose up against A&E by way of internet outcry. Biblically minded Christians agree that the Duck Dynasty patriarch’s comments regarding homosexuality were factually true. Should he be hailed for boldly speaking the truth on an unpopular subject in our culture? Or, were his comments crudely insensitive and unwise in the overall discussion?
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 who knows his audience. He has cultivated a 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 they would please the home crowd.
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. 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’s 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. But whether they are or are not mature, they are still bound to be profitable.
In what context would we expect Robertson’s comments and manner to bring repentance and change? Thus far, I know of no reports of homosexuals turning to Christ in light of Robertson’s words.
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.
Should churches find them useful in formulating doctrinal statements regarding sexual sins? No.
What about pastors in their preaching? Pastors 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.
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.
The prophets of old sometimes spoke hard words, and so did Jesus, but they were not-for-profit prophets. They did not speak for the sake of cheers from the home crowd and increased profit margins. Even in their hard words, the goal was to call people to repentance and extend words of grace.
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 casually feeds off of stereotypes that his followers historically hold. 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. Because his personal lifestyle and morality is his product as an entertainer, he also set up he and his family’s made-for-entertainment-personality as the product to purchase by all who support him. In contrast to those who supported Chick-fil-A for its stand on homosexuality by buying a product like chicken sandwiches, Robertson at least implicitly urges 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 it worked. Are his motives pure? Even he 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 prophets of old?
A couple of possible objections might be raised in Phil Robertson’s defense. The first is this: Why single out an 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. Still, the smell test seems to indicate there is something wrong with seeking to generate income through a fan base that will weekly be entertained to watch you live, work, vacation, eat, and pray.
So 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 embrace the morality of entertaining 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 all 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 probably would speak less like Phil Robertson 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.