Hollywood’s awkward God dance

A few weeks ago, I had what I call a “parenting failure.” I realized that my girls, ages 1 and 3, knew all the words to Justin Bieber’s “Baby” song.

You see, I learned a few months ago that the song had a bizarre calming affect on my, shall we say, temperamental youngest. It got played with more frequency than it should have. And then they knew all the words. I reacted as any sane parent would — by telling them they had to learn by the end of the day the words and dance moves to Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope” song. You should see the little one do her moves.

Anyway, young Bieber has been getting some Godbeat coverage lately. A lot of this has to do with how his new documentary. Religion News Service had a great piece “Justin Bieber: Tween evangelist?” a few weeks ago by Piet Levy:

With a smooth voice, a signature mop of hair and a string of hits, Justin Bieber has accumulated millions of fans and sold 3.7 million albums in the United States last year.

Now Bieber’s handlers are showcasing another side of the 16-year-old pop sensation: Christian icon for the tween set.

The story focuses on the marketing issues, noting that the same tools are being used to promote this film as were used to promote “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Blind Side.” The story put the elevation of this angle in context:

Bieber has never shied away from faith. He was singing Christian songs on YouTube before he became famous. His born-again Christian mother Pattie Mallette has shared her spiritual conversion on a Christian TV show and openly shares her beliefs and Bible verses with 281,000-plus Twitter followers.

What I liked about the piece was that it even discussed the risks of highlighting one’s Christian faith, including being held to a higher standard than other pop artists. Charisma reports, by the way, that the Bieber’s have a “travel pastor” and Christian advisor to help with spiritual formation. Interesting.

Other media outlets have written about this, too. Tim Townsend at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a piece that began:

Ever since Mel Gibson’s Aramaic flog-fest “The Passion of the Christ” brought in $84 million on its opening weekend in 2004, en route to a $612 million worldwide box office draw, film marketers have sought to emulate Gibson’s courtship of the almighty Christian dollar.

Over on Twitter, former Godbeat scribe Eric Gorski (who has returned to the Denver Post on its investigative team!)gave Townsend kudos for getting the phrase “Aramaic flog-fest” into his lede. I’ll admit that Townsend’s copy is very snappy, but I actually took offense. What do you think?

In another story about marketing films to Christians, The Hollywood Reporter had the perfect lede for describing what it calls studios’ “awkward dance with the faith-based community“:

Tom Hamilton prayed for the best but expected the worst. He and his family, all devoted Christians, thought they had lost their bid to keep an overt reference to the Bible in the upcoming film Soul Surfer, based on the true story of Hamilton’s daughter Bethany, who, at age 13, had her arm chewed off by a tiger shark in Kauai but returned to her board to pursue her dream of becoming a pro surfer.

When religious leaders were shown an early version of the Sony movie, set for release in April, the words “Holy Bible” had been digitally removed from the cover of the book in a scene depicting Hamilton reading in a hospital where his daughter was fighting for her life. Hamilton says producer David Zelon, an executive at Mandalay Pictures, had lobbied to tone down the film’s Christianity in an effort to broaden its appeal to non-Christian audiences. But the Hamilton family objected, and when they attended a subsequent screening, they were pleasantly surprised with what they saw.

“I could see the words bright and clear,” Hamilton says. “I looked at my wife and whispered, ‘Thank you God, they put it back.’”

The digital alterations work both ways, with a neckline raised to cover some cleavage in the upcoming Indie flick “Doonby.” My favorite anecdote from the piece was about how country singer Carrie Underwood plays a spiritual mentor to a tight-knit community of Christian surfers. She quotes Scripture, which the producers were fine with, but they didn’t want the film to mention where the Scripture verse came from.

It’s nice to read the details of how these awkward marketing ploys are shaped.

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  • Karen

    And just this week there has been a spate of articles on the Jewish influence that Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun AKA Shmuel ben Eliezer, a Conservative Jew, has on him. Bieber recites the Shema before his concerts, always has a charitable component in his concert contracts and apparently Braun is a moral father figure for him.

    Here is one such article from Aish:

    Coverage has been seen in the journal Haaretz http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/justin-bieber-s-jewish-secret-to-a-great-performance-1.343771

    The Jewish Forward: http://blogs.forward.com/the-shmooze/135394/

    And the Jewish Journal has an article on Braun and his influence on Bieber by Naomi Pfefferman:

  • Karen

    I don’t know whether my comment got through- got an error message, so here is another version:

    This week there has been a spate of articles on the Jewish influence on Bieber by Scooter Braun, aka Shmuel ben Eliezer, a young Conservative Jew who plays the role of manager and father figure to Bieber. They pray the Shema before concerts (Bieber also prays Christian prayers), have mandatory charitable clauses in their performance contracts, and no one is allowed to treat Bieber as an idol since the Talmud says that as difficult as poverty is, wealth is actually a greater test.

    The best of the bunch seems to be a Q&A of Braun in the Jewish Forward: http://blogs.forward.com/the-shmooze/135394/

    Jewish Journal has an article on Braun’s influence by Naomi Pfefferman: http://www.jewishjournal.com/the_ticket/item/the_jewish_star_of_justin_bieber_never_say_never_–_scooter_braun_20110206/

    Huff Post has an article asking if Bieber is really Jewish: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi-jason-miller/is-justin-bieber-jewish_b_801093.html

    And Aish had a better article on managing Bieber: http://www.aish.com/j/as/Managing_Justin_Bieber.html

    None of these is an outlet meeting the criteria GR usually covers, but it seems interesting to see the Christian and Jewish family values highlighted simultaneously.

  • Ira Rifkin

    no one is allowed to treat Bieber as an idol since the Talmud says that as difficult as poverty is, wealth is actually a greater test

    oh really?: http://www.buycheapr.com/us/result.jsp?ga=us4&q=justin+bieber+doll

  • Maureen

    So does this feed into the evangelical Jewish Christian thingy? Or is it just that Bieber (like a lot of Christians) likes to share belief-compatible prayer customs with a friend, and this friend/mentor is Jewish?

    Re: idol, I don’t think dollies count as idols. Although you can always use your cat as a false god detector, just in case. :)

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com mattk

    She quotes Scripture, which the producers were fine with, but they didn’t want the film to mention where the Scripture verse came from.


  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    Regarding the question about Tim Townsend’s “Aramaic flog-fest”: I’m fine with it. The movie is in Aramaic and it dwells far more on flogging than does the New Testament. I’ve heard medical doctors say that no one could have survived such a flogging, much less carried a heavy cross afterward. You can make an argument that the flogging was overdone to make a spiritual point about Jesus’ suffering to atone for sin. But it was, nevertheless, overdone.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Thanks for the comment. I guess what made me uncomfortable was the idea that this film was a happy celebration of flogging. That’s what fest means and it just seems like it’s inappropriate to describe something like Christ’s Passion (however inaccurate you personally may think such representation was) in that flippant manner.

  • http://yurconnected.blogspot.com Fred

    I have an alternative title for your blogicle. It’s “Christians Awkward Hollywood Dance.” In my humble opinion, it’s cool to claim Christ while dancing, singing, and praying our way to fame and riches – neither of which Christ sought for Himself. Christianity is so impotent today because we have compromised Christian standards so much that we look, talk, walk and play more like worldlings than followers of the Christ. I admire the great talent and gifts stars like Bieber have. I just wish that they would really come out of the closet and let the world know about Christ. In the words of Pastor Wintley Phipps, a world-renowned Christian recording artist: “You don’t have to compromise to be recognized.” Peace and blessings.

  • Suzanne

    “I guess what made me uncomfortable was the idea that this film was a happy celebration of flogging”

    That actually was one of the criticisms of the movie — that it was much like many other Gibson movies — Braveheart, Payback, the Lethal Weapon series — in the way the camera dwells almostly lovingly on brutalization of the main character.

    Example: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB107783749475040519.html

    I found “flogfest” to be a fairly apt description.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Right, but many millions of people certainly DID NOT find the film to be a “happy celebration of flogging.” So outside of a movie review, not sure this is a term I’d use even if I agreed with that — which I most certainly did not.

  • David Buckna

    Check out:


    Monday, February 21, 2011
    The Justin Bieber Bible Quiz
    By David Buckna