I want to expand on the previous post about the tribalist celebration of Christian athletes — the quest for “the new Jeremy Lin or Tim Tebow.” And to illustrate what I mean, I want to turn again to our old friend Cam-Cam, former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron.
Lauren Markoe of Religion News Service just profiled Cameron: “From prime-time heartthrob to ‘Hollywood freak.’” Markoe, accurately, notes that Cameron’s embrace of tribal Christianity has put him at odds with many of his fellow actors:
Hollywood scolds and even mocks Cameron who, at 41, is a vocal evangelical Christian, and, in the view of many of his fellow celebrities, kind of a jerk.
Cameron’s more recent acting and directing projects almost always carry a deeply Christian message, and he knows he is now the darling of only a certain segment of America. He even seems to take some pride in the fact.
“I’m kind of a Hollywood freak,” he said in a recent interview. “I didn’t really turn out the way most people turn out growing up in this industry.”
… In the past 15 years, Cameron has starred in the “Left Behind” franchise, a series of Christian thrillers. … He also headlined the 2008 drama Fireproof, the highest-grossing independent film of 2008, about a firefighter who saves strangers but neglects his wife. Christian critics loved it. Mainstream critics found it preachy.
As he has pursued his Christian film projects, Cameron also founded, in 2002, a radio and television ministry, “The Way of the Master,” with New Zealand preacher Ray Comfort. The two men joined forces to inspire and teach Christians to evangelize, and the shows have further endeared Cameron with committed, traditional Christians.
Markoe’s thesis about Cameron’s views creating friction with his Hollywood colleagues is true. His sarcastic ignorance about evolution, embrace of Bartonian dishonesty about history, and his smiling condemnation of the alleged gay menace to civilization are, indeed, views that set him at odds with most other actors, writers and artists (as amusingly illustrated in this Funny Or Die video starring some of his fellow former child actors).
But Markoe doesn’t examine the biggest problem that most actors and artists have with Kirk Cameron: his utter lack of seriousness about the craft of acting. Other actors don’t respect Cameron because he’s a bad actor. And they don’t like Cameron because he’s a bad actor who’s satisfied with being a bad actor and shows no interest in becoming a better actor.
They’re working. He’s coasting. There’s a reason why he is known as “former Growing Pains star Kirk Cameron” while you’ll never read about “former Growing Pains star Leonardo DiCaprio,” or “former Empire of the Sun star Christian Bale” or “former Andy Griffith Show star Ron Howard,” or “former My So-Called Life star Claire Danes.”
Not every former child actor goes on to a career in the profession, of course, but Cameron’s career has traced a path that seems, to those who care about the craft of acting, to be cheating. He has exploited evangelical tribalism to carve out a niche for himself in which not very good will always be accepted as “good enough,” just so long as he keeps saying the expected things about evolution and gays and Jesus when he’s not acting.
That’s damaging to everyone involved. It’s bad for the art and profession of acting, it’s bad for Cameron himself, and it’s bad for the tribal audiences that settle for not-even-second-best. Cameron’s shortcut to pseudo-stardom within the tribal bubble is the same path exploited by dozens of mediocre musicians in the execrable “contemporary Christian music” industry.
In Markoe’s profile of Cameron, Patton Dodd talks about the tribal embrace of Kirk Cameron and compares it to the recent evangelical enthusiasm for Tim Tebow:
“It’s kind of like the difference between Peyton Manning and Tim Tebow,” Dodd said. Both are NFL star quarterbacks and believers. “But Manning is quieter about his faith. It’s just as fervent and strong by every indication. But he hasn’t made it part of his public image and Tebow has — and Cameron’s the same way.”
That’s an interesting comparison in that it illustrates what’s most important in this tribalistic approach to Christianity. Simple Christian faith isn’t what really matters. If it were then you’d expect evangelicals to be more fervent in their adulation for Manning than for Tebow because, well, Manning’s just a much, much better quarterback (just ask John Elway). But the key factor isn’t religious faith or devotion, it’s the culture war. Christian athletes like Manning or Albert Pujols don’t excite the tribalists the way Tebow does because, even though they’re among the all-time greats, they’re not culture warriors intent on reaffirming the relative righteousness of the tribe.
The good news for Tebow, though, and for all the Christian athletes celebrated within that tribal bubble, is that Kirk Cameron’s shortcut is not available to them. Professional sports doesn’t allow for a parallel subculture in which not very good will ever be good enough. Tebow’s public displays of faith and the things he says off the field may matter most to his tribalist fans, but unlike Cameron he doesn’t have the option of not caring about his craft and profession.
Because of that, Tebow will never become an “NFL freak” in the way that Cameron has become a “Hollywood freak.” He’s trying to be the best quarterback he can be. He’s doing his job as best he can and because of that, win or lose, he’s earning the respect of his peers — and of even his non-tribalist fans — in a way that Cameron isn’t.