Monday, December 16, 2013

How do you solve a problem like Carrie?

A little over a week ago NBC provided the country with a source of extended water cooler and dinner table conversation. For reasons not entirely clear, it revived the venerable Broadway classic "The Sound of Music" in a live, 3-hour broadcast. The reviews were mixed, at best, yet clearly NBC hopes this will become a "holiday classic" (it's already been repeated once).

Most of the controversy swirled around the show's star, Carrie Underwood, who played Maria. Nearly everyone agreed, whether they thought the event a success or not, that while Underwood's singing was more than adequate her dramatic performance fell short. In fact, many of those at the negative end of the critical spectrum thought her acting was simply awful, and said so.

Well, performers get used to taking their critical lumps and move one--or they get out of performing. Except apparently for Ms Underwood. For her the issue wasn't one of dramatics and critical interpretation but theology and spirituality. After becoming aware of the harsh judgment many critics rendered on her performance, she responded on Twitter in a remarkably un-Hollywood fashion: "Plain and simple: Mean people need Jesus. They will be in my prayers tonight... 1 Peter 2:1-25." Arts critics rarely get their positions by being nice and being called "mean" must certainly be one the the gentler words they hear. But Underwood's telling her critical detractors that they need to find Jesus is probably a first for most of them.

I hope that Underwood knows at some level how disingenuous such a response is. But whether she does or not, it remains yet another sad example of how conservative Christians now turn everything in their lives into theological platforms, if not battlegrounds. Her acting was mediocre at best and most critics called her out for it. As critics do, especially to keep an audience for their material, many used over-the-top language in saying so. Thus it has always been and thus it will always be.

In the piously distorted, self-important worldview of a Carrie Underwood, however, such an "attack" becomes another skirmish in her lifelong participation in the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness. Sadly, this has become one of the primary appeals of evangelical Christianity. People's lives are not important or valued in and of themselves. It is not their relationships, their experiences, their talents, their accomplishments, their loves found and lost, their joys and sorrows, their lessons learned and taught that are to be valued and cherished. No, it is their role in the cosmic battle of the forces of God against the forces of Evil. Their own individual identity is of little or no account. It is only their identity as a soldier of Christ that truly matters.

I don't know which is the more significant factor here: Is this about a declining culture providing fewer and fewer people with a sense of personal significance and worth, or a declining religion desperately playing on people's inherent insecurities to attract and hold members? Whichever is greater, no doubt both realities are at play. However, the church is not yet so immobilized that it cannot call-out distortions of its message when they arise. 

Traditional, conservative Christianity is on the ropes and for good reason. But rather than confront its challengers honestly it has become brittle, defensive and paranoid, filling its adherents with that same spirit. This is not the joyful, liberating voice of the gospel but rather the fearful shrieks and shouts of an institution in decline and under siege.

So rather than being coddled, Ms Underwood needs to hear more bracing yet honest words: Your critics did not attack you because of your godliness and piety. They attacked you because it is their job to tell you that your acting sucked. Now quit complaining and get some acting lessons, or get back on the stage and just sing. And there is no shame in choosing the latter because then you doing what we are all called to do as human beings: utilize our marvelous, God-given talents for the benefit of our neighbor. It is all that God asks.