Christianity and Pop Culture, Part 4: When “Christian” is Cover for “Unethical”

What did C.S. Lewis say about Psalm 109:8? “Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst.”

I am ashamed to write this blog entry as it is a painful act of truth telling and confession about Christian business practices and particularly those in the entertainment industry.  The reason I include it in this series is because of the enormous challenges facing Christians in the entertainment industry because of the reputation that Christians have in Hollywood for being slimy business partners. That’s not quite the reputation Christians should desire as they seek to participate in the media industries, but too often it’s the one we have.

It first begins with my own confession that I do not always keep my promises to people personally or professionally, and so therefore, but by the grace of God, go I.  I suppose that all of us commit this same sin in many aspects of our lives, and many times it is because of complicating factors beyond our control. The only solution is confession, apology and forgiveness.

All of us are guilty of a million broken promises and good intentions gone awry, but many of us do not honor those practices or make them part of our way of doing business.  Even the worst white collar criminals like Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay eventually face justice and pay for their sins.  But there are many other business practices that do not necessarily grab the attention of the news media but perpetuate horrible inconveniences and injustices for their innocent victims. The pain in this blog entry comes from the admission that those calling themselves “Christian” institutions, companies, artists and universities are sometimes some of the worst offenders.

riceOne example is a recent breakdown in the personal and business relationship between Catholic novelist Anne Rice and David Kirkpatrick at Good News Holdings.  Kirkpatrick allegedly made representations to Rice that the “Christian” production company was capable of producing and financing the script writing and production of her novel Christ the Lord.  These discussions took place on the basis of what Rice assumed was a common purpose and a strong friendship.  Kirkpatrick allegedly even used their prospective relationship to raise funds and market the company, even before Good News Holdings had performed for Rice.  Not only did the company not have funding to make the film or any reason to believe that they would, but they also took advantage of Rice and used her name for their own purposes.  You can read Anne Rice’s letter to David Kirkpatrick here:

** I have friends and acquaintances who worked for the company, and I do not want to insinuate that all of those who were or are employed at GNH are criminals or untrustworthy.

This is but one of the many stories I have heard over and over again from Hollywood believers and non-believers: If you want to get “screwed” in the entertainment business, just do business with a Christian.

But why is this the case? I know hundreds of generous, trustworthy and capable Christians in business.  Why this reputation?  Yes, part of it is probably the general cultural disappointment … and rightly so … with hypocrisy. If a person is not claiming to be a believer in a religion that teaches trust, generosity and truth telling, then the bar is not set so high. But if Christians want to “run with the big dogs” in places of cultural influence, the bar is set very high, and the fall is much further.  When Christian business practices fail to be consistent with the faith the business or institution espouses, don’t be surprised by the criticism.

Of course, there is the simplistic but true explanation that we … and our institutions … are human.  We all are capable of exaggeration on behalf of our self-interests or making promises we can’t keep. The bigger the institution or the money behind it, the more likely it is to happen. This happens to all institutions managed and led by human beings … but the bar is higher if you’re putting the Christian label on it. It just is.

But I believe that the reason that this happens goes deeper, and it is because too many Christians are concerned with perpetuating their own egos and careers under the guise of perpetuating the Christian mission.  Power and dominion over the cultural force (government, the arts, media, etc.) become the stated purpose and the operating principle rather than the humble creation of excellent work just for the sake of the honor of God and for its own sake. The “Christian mission” often becomes a pretext or a “cover” for questionable business practices, discrimination, and lies that are perpetuated in order to maintain the organization because it must be maintained at all costs (or the Kingdom of God will fail, I suppose).  If those same individuals and organizations would be more hesitant to call themselves “Christian” and just do God-honoring work (See the blog entry on U2), perhaps the leaders of these organizations would quit using the Christian mission to perpetuate unlawful and unethical acts.  They would not have a larger mission to justify their lack of trustworthiness but would have to stand or fall based on their own reputations and excellence.

It is not just Christians in the entertainment industry who act so unlawfully and unethically.  Ken Lay at ENRON regurarly attended church in Houston. Government leaders espouse Christianity but then perpetuate a culture of dishonest budgeting, illegal no-bid contracts that line their own pocketbooks or those of their peers, and encourage untruthful and demeaning campaign activities. Christian universities often have the reputation in their commnunities for not treating their employees well.

In the entertainment industry, these unethical and unlawful acts generally occur around issues of intellectual property and the lack of proper respect for it. The use of one’s name, work, or reputation without permission is such a common practice in the entertainment industry that the industry is forced to rely on mounds of paperwork and contractual agreements. Unfortunately, Christians in the entertainment business have become some of the worst offenders (is this because their pastors and churches often commit the same violations by using songs, sermons and quotes without permission or attribution as if the law does not apply to them, and thus disrespecting the creative process and the creator?).

It is time for a new code of ethics by those Christians who want to engage Hollywood, Washington, academia, or any sphere of cultural influence. It should begin with two basic commitments:

a) Don’t use the name “Christian” to describe the institution unless every aspect of business policies and practices are capable — not just intended — of honoring that claim.

b) But above all, be a prayerful and active disciple of Jesus in a community of saints (not simply a church attender) that encourages accountability, confession and mentorship.

Other practices would include:

a) Do not use, represent, or plagiarise the name, reputation or intellectual property of another without attribution, permission or the proper legal agreements.

b) To quote St. Paul, “Do not defraud another.” Do not promise more than what you can do.  Do not exaggerate your business client list or work history.  Do not over-commit yourself. Do not blame others for your own responsibilities.

c) To quote the Decalogue, “Do not steal.” Do not take from another their dignity, their reputation, their work or their money.

d) Live the principles of Gal. 3:28 — do not perpetuate discrimination against any person in a way that robs them of their dignity, humanity or worth to God and our common human enterprise.  The last people to discriminate against any person on any grounds n employment or creativity should be Christians.  It’s not just un-Christian; it’s illegal.

e) Never use the words “Christian” to cover for irresponsibility or dishonesty.  God isn’t impressed.

It seems to me that the greatest failure here is not one that belongs just to Christians in cultural institutions but to the church itself for somehow leaving the impression with its members that Sunday is more important to God than Monday. You don’t get a pass on stealing someone’s movie script just because you sat in a church pew on Sunday or made your pledge for the church offering.  Discipleship is all-encompassing, and it is always 24/7.  There are no exceptions on behalf of “Kingdom business” or the “Christian mission”.

Let’s do better. Anne Rice should be able to trust us.

2 Responses to “Christianity and Pop Culture, Part 4: When “Christian” is Cover for “Unethical””
  1. David says:

    I don’t understand how a business can be Christian. A person can be a follower of Jesus, but how can a business? A business is an organization, and it can be run by people who follow Jesus. The only organization which is supposed to be “Christian” is the church, and even the church does not always follow Jesus.

  2. Todd,
    Thank you for writing. I found this through your link on facebook. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Keep writing. I will pray about this issue today, Christians reputation in Hollywood and beyond.

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