Christian Celebrity in the Media: It’s complicated

American religious authority and the media have always had an ambiguous relationship. American Cultural Protestantism (which tends to define both Protestant and Catholic domestic values) has held within it an implicit critique of much that the media stand for. Protestant values of discipline, sobriety, modesty, temperance, and self-control have stood against the seemingly relentless pressures of “the culture” to subvert and lead them astray. Mid-Century domestic values were seen—by such voices—to be in an almost inevitable collision course with the power of the media. Add to this the tendency for media to traffic in content of a specifically “immoral” nature (sexuality, alcohol consumption, gambling, untrustworthy music, etc.) and it is easy to understand how “Good Christians” didn’t do media.

Implicit values along these lines continue to emerge today, in what has come to be an almost predictable narrative of Christian participation in mainstream entertainment. The most interesting tropes emerge when Christian figures place themselves directly in “harm’s way” by participating in contexts that are most likely to evoke these contradictions and ambiguities, something we can describe as a kind of “dramaturgy” that reifies and celebrates received values in contention under a regimecandace-cameron-240x135 of modernity. This situation has become more reified as contemporary culture increasingly demands symbolic differentiation—“branding”—in the ways that we today reflexively engage in discourses of “the self.” We can’t just be, we must label ourselves. There is thus an impulse to more self-consciously self-disclose in all contexts—from personal and private to public and communal. It is all about the self and in “reality TV” that is the whole point, so branding with the label “Christian” is both a necessity of participation and an expectation of increasingly culturally-political audiences.

Three prominent examples of this have happened this year. First came the participation of former child-actor Candace Cameron Bury (sister of high-profile “Hollywood Christian” Kirk Cameron, BTW) on Dancing with the Stars. Perhaps responding to the implicit problem of Christian accommodation to the salacious and sexually-provocative context of DWTS (don’t forget that many Protestants were and are forbidden even to dance) Cameron felt it necessary to declare up front that she is “an Evangelical Christian.” Her first words on camera, apparently, were “The two most important things in my life are my faith and my family, and I know that’s exactly what’s going to help me through this competition.”

Her presence—and her faith—were immediately news (a tellingly wise PR strategy BTW). This narrative is one that is becoming commonplace for “secular” media, and many of them moved on it, such as this example from People. And, the discourse was joined as well from the “other side” by the “Christian Press.” Bury addressed both directly and indirectly the implicit question of how much skin it would be appropriate for her to show, how physical she’d have to be with hcandace-cameron-bure-mark-ballas-lger dance partner and how much she’d move her booty. She promised modesty. But, predictably, as the season progressed, things changed. Beginning from the position that she’d be a participant marked both by her Christian witness (the entertainment press obliged her to a degree by continuing to raise the issue as the competition progressed) and by her “difference” in the way she chose to dress and perform, she gradually showed more, moved more and touched more. Interestingly, this was encouraged by her teenaged daughter, who became an enthusiastic fan and talked about how what was important was to show that an Evangelical could compete successfully with everyone else. Thus, the goal seemed to be to focus on the symbolic meaning of her presence more than specific gestures or symbols within the programs themselves.

Cameron’s presence stimulated a lot of commentary among her core audience—Conservative Christians such as herself—such as these from a Facebook page called “GodVine.” One writer talked about the danger of such a context:

Most of us probably don’t watch the show…..I don’t, I just saw the link that “Godvine” posted and I was curious about what she said that would stand up for her faith. I am a little surprised that she went on, as it is very risqué…I don’t think we are judging her, just pointing out that having that kind of contact with a another man can definitely create temptation, even in a very strong marriage. The devil loves to work to undermine any Christian marriage.

Another urged Cameron to participdwtsate nonetheless, to use the context of DWTS to promote her Christian faith:

Has anyone that is judging her realize that she is perhaps the only exposure to Jesus perhaps thousands of people will ever have? Being a Christian is a heart issue plain and simple, Jesus died to free us from the weight of religion…as you mature in Christ you don’t do certain things because you love Him not because you have to. I applaud Candace for being herself and showing people is a relationship not a religion. Before you post realize thousands of nonbelivers are reading what you write..do you want to demonstrate the love of God or is it more important to you to judge and act morally superior and turning the nonbeliver away from Christ because the ones that bare His name aren’t even loving each other so why would a nonbeliver want to be a part of something where there is only judgement not love. Think before you post for you will be held accountable one day…we all will.

Thus, the dangers of the media space are less important than the individual autonomy of a Christian like Candace Cameron. And, the Evangelical impulse is strongly present in forgiving and forgetting much about the context in favor of the more important goal of demonstrating the faith in a large, diverse, public context. A great deal of leeway can be granted when the opportunity is great.

This ambiguity—between the impulse to enter into the very public arena of entertainment media and to symbolically conquer it—to claim it for “the brand”—on the one hand and to enter it with credibility and perhaps success in its own terms and thus accommodate to its logics, even as they might encourage certain behaviors—is the central one.

This got a very high-profile international Catholic embodiment this past Summer in the form of Sister Cristina Scucci, a Sicilian Ursuline nun who successfully competed in the Italian franchise of The Voicecristina. Her participation became a sensation in Italy, and for the same reasons and in the same way Candace Cameron had in the U.S. The press speculated on how much she’d have to yield to the demands of the popular forms—which lyrics she might sing and which she might avoid or change. Unlike Cameron, her visual iconography was fixed and determined—she competed in her habit. Her explanation for her participation was almost identical to Cameron’s. She saw this as an opportunity to bring the Catholic brand into a central context of the mediatic public sphere, to stake a claim in that sphere and to use it to promote the Christian message
In the end, she won the contest, having sung covers of popular tunes of the past couple of decades. And in the end she achieved a gesture of branding that Candace Cameron might only have dreamed of. Sister led the assembled audience in “The Lord’s Prayer.” The banal “controversy” that ensued seemed to be rather one-sided. There was little actual criticism of her from a moralist anti-media perspective. The opposition seemed instead to be on aesthetic and musical-taste grounds, with more than one voice wondering whether she had gotten an undue boost due to her uniqueness.

There were some supportive gestures from the church, in fact. Here in the US, the Conservative Eternal Word Television Network (the most prominent independent Catholic cable channel) ran a story on their website quoting a Vatican official who articulated a justification reminiscent of those for Candace Cameron above.

“She said she wanted to transmit a gift, and to me it was not only the gift of her singing ability but also the gift of her vocation, because she is a young religious who went on this stage without fear and said, ‘I am a religious, I believe in God.’”

But, this Vatican official went on to an articulation of the mechanism whereby this should all work that is quite distinct from the Protestant vision attributed to Cameron’s presence.

He said Sister Cristina should not be made into an idol but should be seen as a means of reaching God, because “the Holy Spirit will always be the great evangelizer, and he doesn’t have only one method or stage for bring people close to Christ. There are many ways to evangelize and Sister Cristina has shown us one of them.”

For Protestants, its Candace who does the evangelizing, for Catholics, it’s the Holy Spirit.

Apparently.

In any case EWTN’s glowing coverage of the Sister suggests that, for their editors at least, there is less of a concern about the contagion of participation in popular media than might be the case for Protestants.

But, then the Cristina narrative got real interesting. Offered a record contract, she went into thecrisvideo2 studio to bring together a set of cuts following her signature MO: covers of 80s and 90s soft-rock tunes.

Controversy erupted when the good sister chose a very surprising number for the cover single, for which she also recorded a music video: Madonna’s classic sleaze-rock “Like a Virgin.” The homage to *that* “Madonna” didn’t end there. For the setting, she chose exactly the same geography as Madonna’s original: Venice. Comparing the Cristina and Madonna readings of the song is telling on a lot of levels, starting with the tempo. You be the judge.  Here’s MadonnaHere’s Cristina.

Well, now there *was* criticism, including from the Italian Bishops’ news service, as noted in this piece from the Telegraph.

The problem, for the bishops, was similar to that I attributed to received conservative Protestant thought earlier—a guilt-by-association with Madonna as a source of lyrics and lyrical authority. Other critics focused on the implications for her humility as a woman religious. Curiously missing was any hint of the moralism about sexuality that tinged a lot of the talk about Candace Cameron. This is a telling gap. The reference to the Madonna track and its video, for instance, begs for at least an analytical turn on how Sister’s own prim gyrations in her video might be distinct from Madonna’s.

My own critical test of this question was to recently have an undergraduate class watch the video and comment on it. When I asked them how Cristina’s video could be read as non-sexual and pious, they had little problem—noting the cut-ins of religious statuary and religious sites (gestures also found in Madonna’s own version)—and, more importantly perhaps, the fact that she is after all in a habit (they were perhaps not familiar with the “Nunsploitation” porn genre—but then perhaps I’m over-analyzing).

And, not surprisingly, Sister’s own rationalizations for the choice of music are less than helpful. The Telegraph quotes her:
She had aimed to transform what was a “pop dance track” into a “romantic ballad – more like a secular prayer than a pop song.”

Sister-Cristina-Scuccia-008She was also not too helpful on how a lyric like “Like a virgin/Touched for the very first time/Like a Virgin/When your heart beats/Next to mine” can be rendered metaphoric for a chaste or other-worldly relationship. Inquiring minds want to know.

Interestingly there has been no EWTN coverage of this turn of events, at least to date.

But, for Sister Cristina, and for Candace, audience communities seem to want to focus more on the symbolic projection than on the actual linguistic or symbolic functioning of the text. It is simply enough to make a “witness” there in what a Fundamentalist leader of the last Century called “the show windows of modern publicity.” The nuances of difference between the Catholic and Protestant framings of that projection deserve a good deal more reflection, in my view.

While moralism about sexuality and the body was very much present in debates about Candace’s case and curiously absent in Cristina’s, it was brought directly to the fore in our third case, the appearance—again on DWTS—of one of the “Duck Dynasty” children, seventeen-year-old Sadie Robertson. After one of her routines, in which she did quite a bit of gyrating in short shorts, one of the judges, Carrie Anne Inaba, asked, “Was your dad okay with that routine? Because it was a little Candace and Sadieedgy and a little sexy. There was a lot of hip thrusts.”

Need I point out the contradictions here? If in fact the world is organized such that young Evangelicals like Sadie who are “good girls” don’t move their hips like that, then is not DWTS complicit in luring her into such a performance on national television, and is this question not just a tiny bit disingenuous?

That is why reactions such as this one, from Glenn Beck, are so interesting. In typical simplistic style, Beck sees Inaba’s question as trafficking in stereotypes of Evangelicals.

Never wanting to knowingly agree with Glenn Beck, I would raise the question in a slightly different way. The narrative with which I began—which suggests that “media” and “religion” should be seen as categorically distinct and the former potentially dangerous for the moralities promoted by the latter—can be seen to be enforced here by the media themselves. “Hey,” Inaba seemed to be saying, “aren’t you an Evangelical? What do you think you are doing?” I said earlier that this narrative makes for an absorbing media dramaturgy. Everyone—“media” and “religion” alike, seem to get that.

All of this reveals the persistence of a kind of ritual celebration of these narratives and this dramaturgy. It goes without saying that the media are ubiquitous and inevitable, and they are the commonplace framework through which the culture experiences and talks about itself. They can’t be avoided and some self-conscious “Christians” decide to go there.
These Christian incursions into media space make news because the received narratives consider such gestures to be ataxanomic. They don’t fit. They place before those who attempt to invade and capture media space a situation of some ambiguity. The ensuing dramaturgy is a struggle to negotiate the boundary between media affordance—their power to frame and conventionalize behavior—on the one hand, and the desire for symbolic differentiation and distinctiveness on the other hand.

In reality it remains a delicate dance at the boundary of the ambiguity—and it is this very ambiguity that serves yet another function perhaps: a persistent place for religious piety at the boundary of the secular entertainment sphere. Being at the boundary has its own functions and meanings, never quite resolved or perhaps never quite resolvable.

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