Pod people: Does it matter if celebrities/royals have faith?

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As the old saying goes, Americans don’t have a royal family. We have celebrities.

We even live in a day in which it is terribly important for American political leaders to be perceived as celebrities, with as much cool clout as possible if they want to be successful. Ask Mitt Romney about how that works out in the real world.

Meanwhile, the members of Great Britain’s royal family are now, arguably, the most important, the most popular, the most omnipresent celebrities in the world. The light of the exploding star named Princess Diana still glows hot.

On one level, the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to listen) was my post the other day in which I argued that there was interesting religious content (gasp) in that baptism service for Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge. I was glad that the online version of the USA Today feature on the rite included a nugget of crucial religious information, yet sad that the version of the story that millions saw in the ink-on-paper edition lacked those crucial paragraphs.

Surprise. The first thing the copy desk cut out of the baptism story, to fit it around the adds, was the factual religious content. The fashion material? In, of course. The gossipy stuff about who made the cut as godparents? In. Plenty of Diana references? In. In. In.

In particular, I wanted to know which version, traditional or progressive, of The Book of Common Prayer was used in the service, so that readers could know — if they really wanted to know — the content of the eternal vows taken by the parents on behalf of their first child. They almost certainly spoke these words or words very similar to them:

Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?
Parents and Godparents: I will, with God’s help. …

Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
Answer: I renounce them.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
Answer: I do.

Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Answer: I do.

Does this matter? Well, it matters if you are in any way interested in whether the royals remain committed to Christian faith in any way other than its ceremonial role in British life. The details of the service, the kinds of details reporters can seek out, may have offered clues.

You see, the international press said over and over that this rite made the baby prince a member of the Church of England. That is not what a baptism rite does, in the ancient faith. The rite was the doorway — at first through the pledges of the parents and godparents, backed by the work of the Holy Spirit — into the Christian faith. Period.

Is that content part of the news story?

Meanwhile, by this point readers may have asked a logical question: Why in the world is he bloody conclusion of “Training Day” at the top of this post about the baptism of a royal baby?

Good question.

After talking about the baptism issue, host Todd Wilken asked a question that took us off into an entirely different direction, one centering on that old saying about celebrities and royals that I mentioned at the start of this post. Readers who consume American media coverage of our royals — as in celebrities — would conclude that America is a land of atheists.

The reality, I stressed, was more complex than that. Take, for example, the complicated faith histories of two of America’s biggest stars — Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. If they can be trusted to describe their own lives accurately, both men spend many if not most of their Sunday mornings in church.

As Hanks told me a few years ago, in a press conference:

“I must say that when I go to church — and I do go to church — I ponder the mystery,” he said. “I meditate on the, ‘why?’ of ‘Why people are as they are,’ and ‘Why bad things happen to good people,’ and ‘Why good things happen to bad people.’ … The mystery is what I think is, almost, the grand unifying theory of all mankind.”

And Denzel Washington? He is even more blunt about the ups and downs of his religious pilgrimage and is even willing to go into the details of how his daily Bible studies have influenced his work on screen. Take, for example, that “Training Day” scene in which his character suffers the consequences of his many sins. Here is the top of a Scripps Howard column I wrote based on roundtable interview in which I asked him about his faith and work.

The first time Denzel Washington read the “Training Day” script, he had an intensely personal reaction to his character — the charismatic, but fatally corrupt, detective Alonzo Harris.

“I try to bend even the worst of my roles, like ‘Training Day,’ ” said Washington, the day after a press screening of “The Book of Eli” in Los Angeles. “The first thing I wrote on my script was ‘the wages of sin is death.’ ”

After that biblical pronouncement, the superstar pleaded for a crucial change in this role, for which he won the Oscar as Best Actor. In the original script, viewers learned about his character’s death in a television newscast. Washington insisted that this urban wolf be yanked out of his car and forced to “crawl like a snake” before being riddled with bullets, while people in the neighborhood turned their backs on him.

“I said, ‘No, no. … In order for me to justify him living in the worst way, he has to die in the worst way,’ ” explained Washington.

For Washington, this “bending” process is part of his ongoing efforts to make sense of his Christian faith in the midst of a career as one of Hollywood’s most powerful players in front of, and behind, the camera. The goal isn’t to sneak faith into mainstream films, but to pinpoint themes about sin, redemption, justice, dignity and compassion that mesh with what he believes to be true as the son of Pentecostal pastor and an active member of the giant West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

Does any of this matter?

Only if the role that faith does or doesn’t play in the public square matters. Only if the lives of the most influential people in our culture matter. Only if facts matter in the world of journalism.

Enjoy the podcast.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    Royals: any word on the baptismal formula? Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Creator, Redeemer, Strengthener?

    But as to Tom Hanks, I was hoping for a follow up question about where that mystery our transcendence was in Castaway.

  • Julia B

    speaking of Tom Hanks – it’s my understanding that he accompanies his Greek Orthodox wife to services on Sunday. What I want to know is: how does his religious sense justify getting so involved with the DaVinci Code BS, much less the Angels & Demons libel?

  • Nils

    And let’s not forget Sir Anthony Hopkins–it is my understanding that he is a Christian (he was married in the Church of Wales).

    I like stories that actually talk about how “the famous” have faith, and don’t just sweep it under the rug. So often it seems that the Hollywood set decries faith (apart from weird cultish stuff, cultural religious affiliation, and New Age beliefs), that any stories that really talk about how faith informs actors seem remarkably refreshing. Would that we saw more reporting on it.


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