Knox McCoy on HBO Show ‘the Righteous Gemstones’ Satirizing a Televangelist Empire

For most of my life, pop culture and Christianity have resolved to exist separately together.

Though Christ figures and spiritual journeys were common enough pop culture tropes, the entertainment I was drawn to didn’t really concern itself with contemporary Christianity. And the Christianity around me stayed in relative cultural isolation, occasionally creating its own “popular culture” of music, literature, TV, and movies.

And mostly, this was a beneficial arrangement, a kind of peaceful truce.

Recently, though, as our cultural borders are blurring across spheres of society, the separate peace I enjoyed between the church I love and the entertainment I love began to crumble.

Growing up surrounded by both Southern Baptist and prosperity gospel principles, I’ve noticed the ethical fluidity that Christians can apply to money and wealth. Earlier this year, an Instagram account called “PreachersnSneakers” generated a firestorm of reaction when it highlighted certain evangelical pastors and their taste for expensive and culturally fashionable footwear. And for years, a similar ire has surrounded pastors who pay for private jets and mansions.

And now, this corner of the evangelical world—which sometimes feels like satire being played out in real life—has made its way to HBO, in its new series, The Righteous Gemstones.

Starring Danny McBride, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson, and the incomparable John Goodman, The Righteous Gemstones is a heightened look at a family of evangelical royalty. Think the Kennedys, but less polished, more Southern fried, and strategizing Jesus instead of politics.

As the series opens, they’ve just returned from a mission trip to China and they are settling in to the business of expanding their evangelical empire, but alas, for all of the characters, the seeds of struggle are coming to bear, culminating in Jesse Gemstone (McBride) being blackmailed for a tape showing him participating in some very unbiblical behavior.

Christian culture on TV

The arrival of Gemstones is exciting because, historically, we don’t have a ton of precedent when it comes to TV shows that aspire to authentically recreate the Christian subculture in popular culture.

Kevin (Probably) Saves The World on ABC and God Friended Me on CBS were two network comedy-dramas that debuted last year, somewhat on the tail of the supernatural-themed NBC hit The Good Place. As far as actually examining the life of a pastor and Christian family, Seventh Heaven would probably be the most straightforward example we’ve seen on TV.

The Righteous Gemstones, though, takes a less traditional and far less wholesome approach. In this respect, it skews more toward the Fleabag Season 2 template when it comes to considering religion.

Of course, every believer establishes their own boundaries around entertainment, and verses like Philippians 4:8 and Romans 12:1 have been used to justify and condemn a range of options. Like many HBO shows, there are more than enough content flags to keep The Righteous Gemstones off Christians’ TV lineups, and I understand and respect the impulse to avoid it altogether. The language is more locker room than fellowship hall, as are the visuals, which, in the pilot episode, include both male and female nudity.

But there are many Christians, myself included, whose Sunday plans include worship in the morning and an HBO series at night. And for us, The Righteous Gemstones raises issues beyond the television content warnings. This is a bawdy comedy about the church. Is it really okay to watch the body of Christ being played for laughs? What about when it’s a deeply flawed expression of the church that many of us would indeed condemn?

The richness and capability of this satire presents a complicated proposition. While some Christians declare any negative portrayal of the church as biased or an attack on our faith, there are also good reasons for us to be sensitive to Christianity being mocked. We know Christ loves the church fiercely, and we want to defend it as his expression and a force for good in the world. And we don’t want to see our God or our sincere faith belittled (I imagine that most people, faithful or not, would agree with that).

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Source: Christianity Today