A Theology of Duck Dynasty (Or What Duck Dynasty Says about American Culture and Christianity)

A Theology of Duck Dynasty (Or What Duck Dynasty Says about American Culture and Christianity) July 29, 2013

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.

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  • Jakeithus

    You are totally correct about mainstream television and movies being more reluctant to talk about Jesus. It is certainly a deliberate effort to limit his mention, because Jesus is offensive in a way God is not. I think Christians can too easily fall into the trap of supporting a “positive” message about God rather than the exclusive truth claim and message of sacrifice, submission and suffering found with Jesus. It’s probably why the religion for so much of North America is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, rather than authentic Christianity.

    To your point about Duck Dynasty, I’ve never found anything particularly entertaining or theologically stimulating about the show itself. I have seen a number of the cast members speaking about Jesus and the gospel in intelligent and heartfelt ways, which is rare among mainstream media members. I’m not sure it crosses over to the show all that much however.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Just some notes jotted down while reading this post.

    “Many Christians, including evangelicals, are comfortable talking about God but not as comfortable talking about Jesus.” Even in church. Even in churches where the hymns are full of Jesus, the dialogue tends to mention him far less often. Sometimes it even seems we are more interested in the First Testament than in the Second. God is the man.

    “And I’m not sure it’s real Christianity if it avoids mentioning Jesus.” Agreed. It’s a dead give away that something else is intervening. A poorly thought out version of inclusiveness, a theology that sees a God behind Jesus – or even a God behind the Father.

    God is just a word, as you say. When someone says, “I don’t believe in God” our first question/statement should be “Tell me what god you don’t believe in; chances are I don’t believe in that god either.” I said this a while back at church in a discussion on the fundamentals of the faith (Baptist version). The statement was met with a mix of nervous laughter and puzzled expressions.

    And, we can do what you do re insisting on praying in the name of Jesus without diminishing in any way other’s sincere desire to know God. The scandal of particularity is far less of a scandal with Jesus in the front row. While there is only one way to the Father, everyone is somewhere in relation to Christ. That’s what is so important about the centred set replacing the bounded set when thinking about who’s in and who’s out. We are all moving in some way with respect to the centre, Jesus.

  • Melissa

    yes- I like this. Don’t know if you’ve seen the uproar around Reza Aslan’s new book (and subsequent Fox interview)- I haven’t read it and am not sure if I will, but anyway, the uproar was due to the fact that he is Muslim. In a much more nuanced interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air he mentioned that he left Christianity because he could never really understand the Trinity or believe in Jesus as divine- he just could not accept a divine human being. In a way, he (and many other Muslims I’ve talked with) recognizes and acknowledges the “scandal of particularity” more than many Christians (though in another way not, since he then compared the divinity of Jesus to the divinity- or more accurately semi divinity- of pagans such as the Roman emperor; to me the concepts are utterly different).

  • Todd

    I guess you didn’t watch the very end of any episode… there is always a prayer around a dinner table where Phil (the patriarch) finishes his prayer with, “in Jesus we pray. Amen.” I still think the point you make is valid though. If you research the show some more you will find that the Robertsons are much more Christian than the producers originally wanted. They also wanted more swearing and fighting which you won’t find in Duck Dynasty.

  • Don

    “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.” Don’t you mean “But I’m SURE it’s NOT real Christianity if it doesn’t offend some people some of the time. And I’m SURE it’s NOT real Christianity if it avoids mentioning Jesus.”?? The gospel is an offence to those who are perishing, is it not? The RSV puts Gal. 5/11: But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. And the NRSV does call it ” the offence of the gospel”. And if we are ashamed of Jesus does that not mean we will be judged ourselves? (And I am not saying that just because the name of Jesus is not spoken that we are therefore, ipso facto, ashamed…but that is ONE reason why we might avoid verbalizing the name of Jesus.)

    Your comment that civic functions have (at least occasionally) asked you to pray and not use the name of Jesus. Do they not see how that is an offence to us? If you ask someone, as a member of the clergy, to pray, is it not obvious that s/he will pray as a representative of that faith?

    I do agree with you, Roger, that “Christian-oriented” whatever does NOT represent Christianity at all if Jesus Christ is not included centrally and specifically. (At least, I think that you would agree with this!) As much as I enjoyed Touched By An Angel, I saw clearly that it did not represent Christianity, only some amorphous semi-Biblical divine being with “good family values”. I too have capitulated to the culture, though. I too need to change. May my Lord and Saviour (Canadian spelling, OK?) Jesus of Nazareth hear and answer. Amen.

  • Dr. Olson,

    Right on, brother. This is one of your best articles!

    Incidentally, I have seen about as much of Duck Dynasty as you have; I am pretty sure I saw a clip where they prayed “in Jesus Name.” Also, I watched one of the family members share his testimony on the 700 Club (which I also don’t usually watch), and thought it seemed compelling and authentic (to my great surprise!).

    Whether or not there is any real Christian value in Duck Dynasty is of course an open question; however, your comments regarding cultural Christianity are VERY DEFINITELY valuable. Thank you.



  • Rusty Pettus

    Enjoyed the article. I am a big fan of show and the producers do cut out the name of Jesus. The men go around preaching and do a great job sharing the gospel message of salvation through Jesus. I agree on bookstores and publishers they will have a no limit of crazy books and merch to make a dime.

  • david carlson

    holy hardware, a.k.a. Jesus Junk

  • Van

    I have been involved in Christian-Jewish relations for many years and have never been pressured to hide my Christianity or love for Jesus. However, when asked to pray in a mixed meeting of Jews and Christians, I always seek to respect present company by ending my prayer, saying, “…in the names of Abraham, Sarah, and Jesus!” It always resonates favorably. If you carefully think about it, you’ll figure out the reason why.

    • Don

      That strikes me as …weird! I pray to God, whether Father, Son or Holy Spirit. At first take, I saw you as praying to Abraham and Sarah as well as Jesus…now I did note that you are praying “in their names”…but that is still off-putting for me. I am sorry, Van, but this feels like compromise in order to avoid offending and that is not legitimate, again, as far as I am concerned. I guess I do not understand why a mixed meeting of Jews and Christians, knowing who you are and therefore aware to some extent or another of your beliefs, why should they be offended by you praying according to your own beliefs?

  • kertime

    Thanks Dr O! VERY prophetic, and once again, I’m conflicted: convicted yet blessed! I appreciate your help in keeping me focused on Jesus.

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    Phil Robertson (the dad who started the duck-call company years ago) used part of his fortune to construct a church building and actually runs a ministry of sorts. Episodes of the show have shown him in the church that he built, giving sermons from a pulpit. His son who just recently joined the show is also an ordained minister. They certainly don’t hide their faith, though I suspect the producers try to minimize it.

    It’s a great show, I like it immensely.

  • John

    The show in itself has little explicitly Christian content. But some of the family members have made video clips where they give their testimonials and speak at length about Christ and the necessity of faith in him. These are propagated heavily through social media and give context to the Christians who watch the show. I am not one of their viewers (I am a 7th-generation Alabamian who has no interest in redneck culture) but I know plenty of people who are.

  • Tom Giacondra

    You broke my first rule of credibility. At the end of almost every episode of DD, the Robertsons gather around the parents table and say Grace, and closing in ” in Jesus name”. At the end of last season, it made national news and became known that the Hollywood producers asked Phil Robertson to stop praying toJesus…it turns out they had started to edit out the ” in Jesus name” end of the prayers,leaving in just a simple ” Amen “…Phil told them, that if thats what they wanted…then as far as he was concerned the show was over. Ironically as I read this poorly researched story, I just happen to be watching DD and caught one of the edited dinner table scenes…I personally applaud Phil Robertson for telling the pagan hollywood folks to go pound sand…in Jesus name.

  • Aragond

    I commend you for raising this infinitely important point. Regardless whether the participants (I can’t call them actors in a reality show, can I?!) are Jesus-saved or not is beside the point: if their show is devoid of Christ, like 99.92% of television, it can hardly be called “Christian”. To fit that bill, Christ must be elevated, raised-up… albeit, indubitably, at the cost of millions of viewers. It is remarkable to me, speaking as a foreigner to the US, that this Christian nation, with vast resources, produces commensurately so little genuine Christian material and so much that has been compromised by another value system… one revolving around the words water and down.

  • beckersonchild1961

    I often watch the show. IT’S NOT A CHRISTIAN SHOW. Hello!! It doesn’t claim to be a Christian show. Never has. The members of the family are Christians. The show is about many things including their faith, but that never was the primary focus. They are duck hunters and make duck calls. They also happen to be Christians. The story is really about redneck to riches and how a family of rednecks became millionaires. My goodness can’t you just be happy that it’s a decent show devoid of vulgar language, lewd behavior and offensive content? The couples have been married for many years (Phil and Kay over 40). It’s a show that even little kids can watch. How many shows can you say that about? Have you ever listened to Phil give his testimony? Maybe you should. He talks about Jesus a lot.

  • Don Bryant

    God talk without Jesus talk has always made me uncomfortable. It always brings to my mind the biblical observations that even the devils believe in God. Nothing big going on there. But the exaltation of Jesus, worship of him, intimacy with him, focus on him is not of the earth earthy but of heaven heavenly.

  • Good and thoughtful article, Dr. Olson. Sorry I missed it earlier. Do you have any opinion on their affiliation with the Church of Christ where baptism is taught as necessary for salvation?

    • Roger Olson

      I did not know their church affiliation. I’ve opened that can of worms here before and it led to numerous Church of Christ apologists coming to defend against the claim that they (all) believe baptism is necessary for salvation. (Many others came just to argue that it is!) I think traditional Church of Christ people are Christians, just mistaken about baptism and their exclusivist ethos.