WHEN MY WIFE AND I AND OUR FAMILY moved from New Zealand to the United States in 1989 we experienced a culture shock. I went to give blood at a hospital and was handed a form to fill out. In my country, a check mark on a form can mean ‘yes,’ and an X can mean ‘no.’
The questionnaire asked if I had had certain diseases. I ran the pen down the list of 20 to 30 serious ones and quickly put an X beside those I didn’t have.
When I took the form to the counter, the nurse looked at my list and then up at me as if she had just given blood. According to my form, I had venereal disease, tuberculosis, yellow fever, AIDS, malaria and about 20 other major diseases.
Another culture shock for me was the open way Americans talked about God. I watched a woman in Oklahoma testify on national television to the power of a tornado that ripped her home apart. She concluded: “It’s just God’s grace that kept us safe. We prayed, and He took care of us. My family is safe, and that’s all that really matters.”
This was secular news! Open talk about God just didn’t happen in other countries. America was unique.
In recent years, talking about the things of God has intensified in the media. ABC, CBS and NBC have all started covering spiritual issues even more. The foremost secular magazines have published stories on prayer and the life of Jesus Christ. Books on spirituality have been flying off the shelves and holding their places for months on ‘The New York Times’ best-sellers lists. A December 2004 ‘Newsweek’ poll revealed that an incredible 93 percent of Americans believe Jesus lived and that 82 percent believe He was and is the Son of God. When ‘People’ magazine published its cover story about ‘The Passion of the Christ’ in April 2004, it posed the question: “Does Hollywood Have Faith?”
According to the popular publication, Hollywood had some believers, but they were few and far between – or very hard to find. The stars, for some reason didn’t reflect the spiritual light of mainstream America. Soon after the movie burst out of the box office and into the bank, ‘The New York Times’ stated: “Hollywood producers and studio executives, witnessing the overwhelming success of Mel Gibson’s ‘The Passion of the Christ,’ are reconsidering whether they have been neglecting large segments of American audiences eager for openly religious movies.”
The film made obvious the spiritual disparity between Hollywood and the rest of America. The reluctance to produce movies with a positive spiritual theme had been there, although Hollywood had known for years that films such as ‘The Ten Commandments’ and ‘Ben Hur’: A Tale of the Christ’ (which won 11 Oscars) are loved by American audiences.
After the release of Gibson’s movie, I began research on my book ‘What Hollywood Believes: An Intimate Look at the Faith of the Famous’. At first (as seemed to be the case with ‘People Magazine’) I found it difficult to uncover the beliefs of celebrities. It was as if Hollywood was spiritually bankrupt. But with stubborn persistence and comprehensive research I amassed more than 120 spiritual beliefs of the famous. The research was almost addictive. Each time I found a quote it was like finding a golden needle in a great mountain of information.
To my surprise I discovered that more than a few had convictions about the supernatural realm and the Bible. One celebrity thought God was a woman. Others had an intellectual belief in God, but it was obvious they didn’t have a living faith.
What was of deep interest to me was the wide variety of beliefs they held. It confirmed that each of us has an innate desire for something spiritual (proving God is real and that He has placed eternity in our hearts as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says), and that celebrities often latch on to whatever spiritual belief system they encounter – for the simple reason that they encountered it. It sounded good to them, so they embraced it.
That’s why Christians who love God and have a concern for the lost need to stand up and unashamedly speak the truth. We want them to cling to “the old rugged cross,” not “whatever they come across.”
The stars I researched weren’t strictly from a bygone era. I discovered the spiritual thoughts of Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen, George Lucas, Robert Duvall, Kevin Costner and many others. However, the difficulty I had uncovering them confirmed what I had suspected for some time – many do have a faith in God, but their light has been deliberately “hidden under a bushel” - Matt 5:14-16.
I witnessed this in Hollywood in 2002 during a meeting with the managers of a well-known actor. I heard them say that any public talk about his faith would mean the death of his career.
They spoke the truth. America may not be anti-God, but Hollywood evidently is, and celebrities who are actually prepared to live out their convictions will be blacklisted, unless they are too big to touch.
In November 2004 Jim Carrey, for example, boldly told CBS’ ‘60 minutes’ he took strength from the spiritual side of his life and that those who didn’t like him expressing strong spiritual beliefs would just have to deal with it. Big stars, like Carrey, can let their lights shine without any fear of dark and negative repercussions.
Madonna too was a big enough star to make Jewish mysticism cool, with her much publicised belief in Kabbalah. She gave more than $25 million to the religion in 2004.
However, a person with a genuine faith in Jesus Christ will live his life accordingly, and that can cause problems in the movie business. A sincere Christian actor will not take his clothes off and jump into bed with a woman, even if the rationale is, “It’s just a movie.” He will strive to be blameless.
So when a sexually explicit script comes his way, he will either turn it down or seek to make changes, and few scriptwriters want actors making changes to their scripts. Any hold-up in production can be very expensive, so he quickly becomes known as a troublemaker.
An actor friend of mine once called me and said he had been offered a great movie deal but that he had a problem with one part of the script. The story-line was wonderful, but as is usual in a romantic movie, it included an intimate conversation and ended with a passionate kiss.
He was offered $100 000 for doing the movie but answered, “I won’t kiss another woman like that, and besides, what would my kids think of me if they saw the movie?” He turned down the part because it could have been used to undermine his Christian testimony.
I greatly respected him for that. Think of it. Could you bring yourself to kiss someone other than your spouse for 10 seconds – for $100 000?
Despite the fame and the accolades that attend them like no other human beings, actors are like the rest of us. They think deeply about the issues of life and death, God and eternity. Real life, after all, isn’t a movie.
Why then are the Hollywood elite so out of step with the rest of the country? Why aren’t they producing wholesome movies with a deep spiritual theme? Why are they so anti-God?
The answer is simple. Those in the entertainment industry are typically self-confident and talented people, many of whom admit to having rather large egos. They are proud of who they are and what they have achieved.
They want to be in front of the camera, the spotlight. They are not the type of people who gravitate toward the selfless humility of Christianity.
Rather, they are offended by the principles of a religion that talks of modesty, of childlike faith, of a Babe in a manger, of a King on a donkey. Any talk of the reality of personal sin and the need for God’s forgiveness in Christ is, to them, abominable. Consequently, we have a nucleus of people in the entertainment business whose life’s philosophy is Godless, and this is clearly reflected in their “God-less” industry.
But we’d be kidding ourselves if we didn’t acknowledge that celebrity is very powerful. Recently I interviewed a gentleman for a new TV programme about celebrities and spirituality. As an appreciation to those who were willing to be interviewed I gave away complimentary copies of ‘What Hollywood Believes’.
At the conclusion of our interview I said to the man, “I have a free book for you.”
“I don’t want it,” he replied. “I don’t like reading.”
“You will want this one.”
“No, I won’t,” he said.
“Yes, you will,” I mumbled, but again he adamantly responded that he did not want it. I handed it to him anyway and said, “It’s the spiritual beliefs of 124 big-name celebrities.”
He looked at the cover, exclaimed, “Kevin Costner!” and walked off clutching the book. Ten minutes later he returned and said, “Hey, thanks for the book.”
Yes, celebrity is powerful. If you don’t believe it, just take a few minutes to check out prime-time TV programming and see what holds the interest of the world. You will find ‘Hollywood Squares’, ‘Hollywood Justice’, ‘Hollywood HD’, ‘Access Hollywood’, ‘Celebrity Blackjack’, ‘Entertainment Tonight’, ‘Extra’, ‘The Insider’ and more.
All those programmes major on celebrities – what they think, do, say, wear, work on; and whom they date, marry, hang out with, and so on.
I travel regularly with actor Kirk Cameron, and we are both amazed at the power of his celebrity. When we are in public I normally walk a few steps behind him and when people recognise him, I hand them literature that has been especially printed for such times.
To explore and discuss the reality of celebrity and faith, Kirk and I are creating a new TV programme titled ‘What Hollywood Believes’. He will interview A-list celebrities about their spiritual beliefs.
There has never been a television programme that has combined those two powerful dynamics – celebrity and spirituality.
Hard though it may be to believe, Hollywood began with a spiritual heritage. In the early 1900’s, the town was giving away free land to anyone who promised to build a church on the property. Things have changed since those days, so it is even more essential for us not only to live our faith but also to spread it. We need to be salt and light. The Church’s saltiness can help preserve moral decline, but it is the light of the Gospel that will transform Hollywood and bring it back to God.