Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Playing by the Rules

I was as excited as anyone when Kris won “American Idol.” I liked his humility, and, like a good American, I love the underdog. After that, friends sent me links to video of him singing hymns, but more importantly, popular evangelical worship songs. Those videos confirmed the rumors I’d been hearing. Kris isn’t the first, nor is he the last, Christian to appear on “American Idol.” There have been numerous contenders of their ilk before. Indeed evangelicalism has positioned plenty of people in prominent places in U.S. mass culture.

I’ve thought about Kris’ win a bit since then. In that time, I’ve begun wondering, “Have evangelicals hijacked television’s most popular show, or has TV hijacked evangelicalism?”*

In the end, I don’t think it’s one or the other. I think both have occurred to some degree.

This for me raises, more than others, the question of the church in power. In this case, power is not exercised through strength but through influence. Can the church exercise power rightly? How does the church function when it is the dominant power? Are cultural power structures antithetical to the way the church is supposed to function?

I don’t have the answers to that.

My sister made a good point when I raised this church-in-power conundrum. I was suggesting that the church’s role was to serve—period—not exercise authority. And she pointed out that influence can come through serving, but influence is not the reason for serving. Serving is its own end, but influence often is a byproduct. Look at Joseph or Daniel or Nehemiah. I think she’s right.**

So perhaps Kris will have some influence from his position as “American Idol.” In mass culture, I think it will be almost inconsequential. In the opportunities it brings him to personally rub shoulders with celebrities of all stripes, I hope he represents Jesus well.

Is the church in power a bad thing? My brother-in-law challenged me. I couldn’t support my reasons for saying Yes very well. A church that serves from a place of power could certainly be good for the people served under its authority.

I guess my big concern is for those (Kris’ fans, and followers of other popular evangelicals) who put their hopes not in the church’s service but in its power. That power, that influence, isn’t established by the church, nor by God. It’s defined by the culture in which the power is exercised. It’s power that is given by those who defer to it. The value system underlying that power is not like the church’s value system. So even while the church may be given that power, the people who give it likely do so based on values the church cannot stand for.

* It’s a bit disorienting to talk about cultural systems like they have human motives and strategies. Only people can have them. I doubt Kris set out to strike a blow to “the liberal TV media” or to chalk up a victory for Jesus. But I’m sure that many of his evangelical fans have seen it as a victory for the good guys. The same goes for the people sitting in board rooms doing the business of American Idol: I don’t think they’re looking to upend evangelicalism.

** But we get so focused on influence that we often begin to pursue that, at first through serving, but later more directly, more efficiently, without all the costs associated with serving. But I digress.

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