July 2007
ENTERTAINMENT

Behind the Idoleyes

To be or not to be – in the entertainment industry as a Christian. That is the question.

How does one follow Christ’s command to be salt and light in the world without becoming part of it? For some, separation from the culture is the answer, and for others, engaging the culture is more effective.

Many Christians appear to be doing the latter in the entertainment industry – specifically in terms of reality TV shows. Take American Idol, for example.

Mandisa from season five of American Idol is one of several professing Christians who have been on the show. Not only was she given an opportunity to share her faith on national TV through song choice, testimony and a public act of forgiveness, she is now making her debut as a Christian music artist with her first album, titled True Beauty.

Mandisa’s success addresses the question of whether Christians can impact the culture for Christ through mainstream secular entertainment outlets.

A glimpse of Truth
Mandisa thinks they can because she has experienced first hand how reality programs can occasionally show real Christians living out their faith.

“I really do believe ‘preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words,’” Mandisa told AFA Journal of her opportunities to share her faith on American Idol. “I think so much of what people see in us is the way that we’re living our lives, even more than what we’re saying with our mouths.”

And she took that conviction to heart on American Idol. From preparing devotional books for certain contestants, to praying for her competitors, to witnessing, to starting each day with a quiet time, to worshipping off stage in a corner, there was no doubt about Mandisa’s personal relationship with Jesus Christ.

“They knew who I was and what I stood for,” Mandisa said. “And even if they disagreed with it, they respected it. … I was just living my life the way I do when people are not watching,” even though millions of eyes were following her each week.

“I’ve seen so many reality shows in which people who are Christians just say things and do things that I don’t feel reflect on the Lord very well,” she explained. “What … happens is people who are not Christians end up looking at us and saying that we’re hypocrites. … I didn’t want to be one of those people who reflected poorly upon the Lord. I really wanted to represent Him well.”

Which meant that Mandisa would be a reflection of her Savior during all aspects of the show – both good and bad. She had no idea just how bad things would get once the show began airing.

A blink of bad
Along with much of America, Mandisa watched footage of Simon, one of the contest judges, making harsh comments about her being overweight. As painful as his words were, Mandisa knew she had to forgive him, and she told him. Mandisa’s sincere sentiments of forgiveness were broadcast to millions, even after producers prodded her to lambaste Simon.

Her decision to forgive as her Savior forgives spoke volumes. But Simon’s words were only the beginning of the scrutiny Mandisa would endure.

During the sixth week of the show, she chose to sing a Christian song – “Shackles (Praise You)” by Mary Mary – and she introduced it with a brief testimony: “This song goes out to everybody who wants to be free. Your addiction, your lifestyle, and your situation may be big, but God is bigger.”

Mandisa was referring to her struggle with a food addiction and living a life of pure indulgence, but the word “lifestyle” was a red flag to gays and lesbians who assumed she was referring to homosexuality.

The media went crazy, and Mandisa was voted off the show the following week after singing a country song. She may never know for certain why.

“[But] it sent me into the deepest depression of my life because … my motives were pure and because that’s not what I was talking about when I was referring to lifestyle,” Mandisa admitted.

But to the press, that didn’t matter, even though Mandisa tried to set the record straight by doing interviews with homosexual media outlets.

 “They couldn’t see how I could love them and disagree with that lifestyle,” she said. “I was upset at the Lord, … and it wasn’t until a long time later that I actually began to come back to the Lord and realize that He never turned His back on me.”

It was the Father’s unconditional love that drew her back to Him, and Mandisa sees herself as a much stronger Christian now than when she was going into American Idol.

 “So it made it all worth it in the end. … I have no regrets whatsoever. I wouldn’t change one thing that I said. I wouldn’t change one song,” Mandisa explained. “It changed my life.”

And Mandisa believes her work in the entertainment industry has the potential to change others’ lives because she sees God using her to minister to others in similar situations.

“I know that what God has called me to do is be very vulnerable and transparent in the stuff that I went through,” Mandisa said.

One way she is doing this is through her book Idoleyes: My New Perspective on Faith, Fat and Fame (Tyndale House Publishers, 2007). She also addresses some of the same issues through the lyrics of the songs on her album.

 “I knew going onto Idol that it was an opportunity for me to be an example of what a Christian is. … I actually thought and still believe to this day that it gave me more opportunities to stand firm, and it gives me an opportunity to be an example of Christ to people who would never step foot in a church,” Mandisa explained.

She is certain that American Idol was something the Lord called her to do, and as a result Mandisa has realized the impact Christians can have on the world and the need for Christians to be in – but not of – Hollywood.

That concept is something Steve Taylor, former youth pastor turned music video director and filmmaker, longs for all Christians to understand.

The sight of Him
 “If we’re not actively engaging the culture, if we’re not showing our world the relevance of Jesus to all walks of life, we’re being disobedient,” Taylor wrote in an online article titled “Are you a Minister or Entertainer?” 

Taylor and Mandisa are not advocating that all Christians should compromise their values, soften their beliefs or appear on a reality TV show in an attempt to share their faith. Rather they are saying that grounded Christians need to recognize the opportunities they have to model Christ in a Biblical way to a culturally sensitive world. 

“We see good models of what it’s like to be a committed Christian and, say, football star, thanks to organizations like FCA [Fellowship of Christian Athletes] who have sown and reaped abundantly over the years,” Taylor wrote. “But we have a harder time imagining what a committed Christian who’s a movie star would look like, or a faithful Christian who’s a network television executive, or a morally grounded Christian who’s a mainstream rap star.”

And rightly so, Taylor is quick to admit.

“Imagine a vocation where compromise lurks in even the smallest decisions, where it’s dog-eat-dog 24/7, where sexual temptation is a constant threat and the use of illicit drugs is rampant,” he added. “I’m talking, of course, about the world of investment banking.”

Taylor explained that the business world is not necessarily a more ethical or moral industry than Hollywood, it’s just more accepted because it’s clothed in a suit and tie.

“Our young people need solid, Biblical training and the mind of Christ for any vocation they pursue, whether it’s writing network sitcoms or translating Scripture overseas,” Taylor said. “And Bible training sticks with them far more effectively if it’s modeled by living examples.”

“[I]f all Christians were to stay in their safe bubbles and only have Christian friends and only sing Christian music and never really walk outside into the world, then people would never get to know the Christ that we love so much,” Mandisa added. “So … I believe that God has placed people in all different types of marketplaces to be an example for Him.”

For Mandisa, it just happened to be American Idol.

EARLY IDOL

The legendary Pat Boone is an example of a Christian who has impacted Hollywood through his 50-plus years in the entertainment industry.

He, too, got his start in the industry by competing in American Idol-type contests of his day such as the Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour (right) and Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts show. Less than a year later, Boone made his first record, which sold millions, just as Elvis burst onto the scene.

As Elvis and Boone jostled up and down the music charts, Boone let his church upbringing guide him. Family was an important part of his life, but over time Boone and his wife Shirley began to fall to the pressures of the industry.

Only the Lord could change each of them from the inside out, and He did just that in the late 1960s.

“Our lives changed quite dramatically from that time forward,” Boone wrote in his autobiography titled Pat Boone’s America: 50 Years (B&H Publishing Group, 2006). He knew his position in the industry belonged to the Lord.

Boone was not only an advocate for morals and family, he also used his influence in politics by campaigning actively against the industry’s acceptance of pornography and in favor of race relations – among other issues.

“For 30 years, at least, the executives in Hollywood have wished I would move away because … my family’s presence is a contrast to what goes on around us all the time,” Boone explained. “[But] somehow God has kept us and let us flourish in an environment and in an industry that is so alien to the Lord and to the Gospel and to Judeo-Christian principles. …”