A Theology of Duck Dynasty (Or What Duck Dynasty Says about American Culture and Christianity)
A while ago a good friend suggested I “check out” the television “reality show” Duck Dynasty. He said that it’s indicative of an aspect of American culture and, as a theologian who believes theology should be culturally aware and relevant, I should at least know about it. He also mentioned that many people consider the show “Christian” in some sense as at least some of the stars speak in churches. He was right—that I need to know about these things.
Not long after that I walked into the local store of a national chain of what we used to call Christian book and supply stores. I’ve been in several of these and one thing I’ll say about them is it isn’t all that easy to find the books, so I won’t call them bookstores. They specialize in Christian home schooling curricula materials and “holy hardware.” Just inside the entrance, the first thing I saw as I entered, was a rack of “Duck Dynasty” DVDs (for sale, of course).
Yesterday (Sunday, July 28, 2013) Parade magazine featured the Duck Dynasty clan on the cover and in a cover story entitled “The Mighty Ducks” (cover title) and “Just Ducky” (inside title).
I can almost guarantee you that somebody, somewhere is right now writing a book entitled Duck Dynasty Theology (or something like that). It may have already been written. I won’t be surprised to see it on display when I attend the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Baltimore in November (where over 100 religious publishers display their latest and best-selling titles). (A couple years ago I bought a book entitled Redneck Liberation at a publisher’s booth at that convention! It was about the music of Hank Williams and its theological significance as an expression of “redneck” values and aspirations.)
So you wonder whether I accepted my friend’s advice and watched some episodes of Duck Dynasty? Yes, I did. I’ll start by saying it’s not my cup of tea. But, then, hardly any reality shows are. One I enjoy watching from time to time is Little People, Big World. Well, “watching” may not be the right word; I hardly ever watch a whole episode of any reality show. But what I’ve seen of Little People, Big World is inspiring.
About Duck Dynasty I’ll just say that I don’t get it. But I know quite a few people I respect who do and who find it funny and inspiring.
The episodes I watched did not reveal the “Christian” side of the show. Maybe I didn’t watch enough. True, the stars of the show mentioned “God Almighty” a couple times and they weren’t swearing. I didn’t hear the name of Jesus mentioned, but that could be the producers’ fault. I’ve watched many supposedly Christian television shows that featured a lot of God-talk without any mention of Jesus. I assume television producers forbid it because it might offend someone or “turn off” some viewers (and their television sets).
But it won’t come as any surprise to anyone who reads my blog regularly (or even some recent posts here) when I say that I don’t consider a television show (or movie or book or anything) “Christian” if it doesn’t include Jesus. (And I must say, of course, just because it does mention Jesus doesn’t automatically make it “Christian.” An example is the movie Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby!)
Now, please understand me here. I’m not attacking Duck Dynasty. That I didn’t find the few episodes I watched particularly interesting and that I probably won’t watch it on a regular basis (if again at all) says nothing about its quality or whether other people should or shouldn’t watch it. I’m no reliable critic of popular culture! (Is anyone or is it really just a matter of taste?)
So here, in this post, I only use Duck Dynasty as an example of something I’ve noticed as a trend in so-called “Christian”-oriented entertainment. (Once something is sold en masse at the world’s largest chain of Christian stores I think it’s safe to call it “Christian-oriented!”) And I see it bleeding into Christian communities and manifesting in individual Christians’ spiritual talk.
Many Christians, including evangelicals, are comfortable talking about God but not as comfortable talking about Jesus.
For the most part, with some notable exceptions, American culture rewards God-talk. A political candidate who doesn’t mention God now and then may be in trouble when election day comes around. (Some commentators thought this was a major reason Michael Dukakis lost his presidential bid—he never used God-language during his campaign.) However, it is becoming increasingly considered a faux pas (at least) to utter the name “Jesus”—especially in mixed company. (I mean religiously mixed, of course.)
I don’t remember Jesus ever being mentioned on notable Christian-oriented network television shows such as Touched by an Angel or Seventh Heaven. (Yes, I used to watch these—mainly with my family when we had children at home and also in order to know what they were when people asked me about them!) These and some other programs have been heavy with God-talk and religious values, but light on anything particular. One often got the impression they were trying to draw in as many viewers as possible while at the same time not offending anyone. But I’m not sure it’s real Christianity if it doesn’t offend some people some of the time. And I’m not sure it’s real Christianity if it avoids mentioning Jesus.
This cultural embrace of a kind of deistic Christianity (an oxymoron) has, I fear, bled into Christian churches. I have noticed a decline in the practice of praying “in the name of Jesus,” singing about Jesus, preaching about Jesus, telling the “story of Jesus”—not just “then” but also now—with us. To me, “God” is just a word. Until filled with some specific content I don’t know who or what is being referred to.
What I’m getting at here is what theologians have identified as the “scandal of particularity” at the heart of Christianity and its gradual decline among Christians under cultural pressure. The scandal of particularity is that the gospel, the good news, what makes it authentic when it refers to Christianity, is that God really (not mythically) entered human history as one of us, through a particular woman, in a particular time and place and lived and died as a particular human being. For us, for Christians, it is impossible to think of God without thinking of Jesus. Sure, we can focus on God, but only as the Father of Jesus Christ. Sure, we can focus on the Holy Spirit, but only as the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We go to God in prayer as “our Father” because of Jesus Christ and in the name of Jesus Christ. We exercise the gifts of the Spirit in order to exalt Jesus Christ and edify the Body of Jesus Christ, the church.
My point should be obvious by now. I fear that our American culture’s offense at Christianity’s scandal of particularity and resulting pressure for Christians (especially in public spaces) to abandon the name of Jesus is having a deleterious effect on Christians even in Christian spaces.
So let me bring hit home. If a national television network (for example) invited me to create and star in a Christian-oriented reality show series about…whatever…but with the proviso that neither I nor anyone else on the show could mention Jesus by name I would decline. I have declined to pray at public meetings (e.g., city council meetings) when told I could not pray “in the name of Jesus.” Jesus-less Christianity is not authentic Christianity. And its rise among Christians is evidence of cultural capitulation.