For most of my life, pop culture and Christianity have resolved to exist separately together.
Though Christ figures and spiritual journeys were common enough pop culture tropes, the entertainment I was drawn to didn’t really concern itself with contemporary Christianity. And the Christianity around me stayed in relative cultural isolation, occasionally creating its own “popular culture” of music, literature, TV, and movies.
And mostly, this was a beneficial arrangement, a kind of peaceful truce.
Recently, though, as our cultural borders are blurring across spheres of society, the separate peace I enjoyed between the church I love and the entertainment I love began to crumble.
Growing up surrounded by both Southern Baptist and prosperity gospel principles, I’ve noticed the ethical fluidity that Christians can apply to money and wealth. Earlier this year, an Instagram account called “PreachersnSneakers” generated a firestorm of reaction when it highlighted certain evangelical pastors and their taste for expensive and culturally fashionable footwear. And for years, a similar ire has surrounded pastors who pay for private jets and mansions.
And now, this corner of the evangelical world—which sometimes feels like satire being played out in real life—has made its way to HBO, in its new series, The Righteous Gemstones.
Starring Danny McBride, Adam Devine, Edi Patterson, and the incomparable John Goodman, The Righteous Gemstones is a heightened look at a family of evangelical royalty. Think the Kennedys, but less polished, more Southern fried, and strategizing Jesus instead of politics.
As the series opens, they’ve just returned from a mission trip to China and they are settling in to the business of expanding their evangelical empire, but alas, for all of the characters, the seeds of struggle are coming to bear, culminating in Jesse Gemstone (McBride) being blackmailed for a tape showing him participating in some very unbiblical behavior.
Christian culture on TV
The arrival of Gemstones is exciting because, historically, we don’t have a ton of precedent when it comes to TV shows that aspire to authentically recreate the Christian subculture in popular culture.
Kevin (Probably) Saves The World on ABC and God Friended Me on CBS were two network comedy-dramas that debuted last year, somewhat on the tail of the supernatural-themed NBC hit The Good Place. As far as actually examining the life of a pastor and Christian family, Seventh Heaven would probably be the most straightforward example we’ve seen on TV.
The Righteous Gemstones, though, takes a less traditional and far less wholesome approach. In this respect, it skews more toward the Fleabag Season 2 template when it comes to considering religion.
Of course, every believer establishes their own boundaries around entertainment, and verses like Philippians 4:8 and Romans 12:1 have been used to justify and condemn a range of options. Like many HBO shows, there are more than enough content flags to keep The Righteous Gemstones off Christians’ TV lineups, and I understand and respect the impulse to avoid it altogether. The language is more locker room than fellowship hall, as are the visuals, which, in the pilot episode, include both male and female nudity.
But there are many Christians, myself included, whose Sunday plans include worship in the morning and an HBO series at night. And for us, The Righteous Gemstones raises issues beyond the television content warnings. This is a bawdy comedy about the church. Is it really okay to watch the body of Christ being played for laughs? What about when it’s a deeply flawed expression of the church that many of us would indeed condemn?
The richness and capability of this satire presents a complicated proposition. While some Christians declare any negative portrayal of the church as biased or an attack on our faith, there are also good reasons for us to be sensitive to Christianity being mocked. We know Christ loves the church fiercely, and we want to defend it as his expression and a force for good in the world. And we don’t want to see our God or our sincere faith belittled (I imagine that most people, faithful or not, would agree with that).
As someone who attends what could be reasonably labeled a megachurch, I feel a balance between catharsis and defensiveness in watching Gemstones. On the one hand, I love seeing the prosperity gospel exposed for its simplistic reduction of the gospel into fortune-hunting. The show succeeds at highlighting overlap between religion and emotional manipulation.
But on the other hand, I fear that Gemstones might feed into the clichés and stereotypes many of us are working so hard to subvert. Thus far, the harshest criticisms seem to be reserved for the Gemstone family and the archetype of oily and dishonest televangelists, but there is a part of me anxious about whether or not this critical gaze will be leveled at members of the faithful.
Humor with humanity
Any show taking on such a dense, complex subject as American megachurch culture is bound to be an approximation, but surprisingly enough, Gemstones taps into a faithful dysfunction that is, at times, both sympathetic and satirical.
For example, the show is incredibly shrewd in its depiction of the evangelical blurring of capitalism with ministry. The scale and immensity of the casual wealth of all the Gemstones children is unremarked upon but a powerful subtext throughout.
But the series also captures some of the smaller, unsettling details that come up among Christians in the spotlight or the megachurch stage. One of my favorites: Bad Christian Haircuts. If you’ve been at a trendy church lately, you probably noticed a couple on staff, and Gemstones reflects this by featuring characters whose hair styles manage to straddle the line of looking both expensive and idiotic.
For me, the pilot episode of Gemstones works because it is set up as a story about family first, and the larger context of evangelical Christianity is what surrounds that. The religion part is definitely played for laughs, more silly than stinging. There’s a bit at the beginning of the pilot episode concerning a 24-hour marathon baptism session conducted in a wave pool that is ruined by someone accidentally triggering the wave pool function leading to mini-tsunamis ravaging the gathered faithful.
But clearly, Gemstones isn’t interested in being a referendum on Christianity, though the church is the setting for its antics; it is primarily a show about family dynamics and the impact and corrosiveness of unearned privilege.
In this regard, Gemstones has a considerable amount in common with another HBO show, Succession, a satirical comedy about a dysfunctional family at the helm of a corporation. Where Succession abandons its characters’ humanity and instead leverages greed and power to propel the story, Gemstones seems to obfuscate its characters’ humanity and faith enough to that you start to doubt whether it actually exists but still hold out hope for them to resurrect it.
Whether or not Gemstones’ satire will manifest deeper truths about this ministry landscape, I can’t say. There is certainly an opportunity to skewer the most appalling aspects of high-dollar televangelism without putting the entire body of Christ on blast. The show does a good job of highlighting the very real tension of pursuing godliness versus pursuing the facade of godliness, something I struggle with and most Christians can relate to.
Christians tend to consider satire the same way we think about doubt; both are things that exist but are not really encouraged, lest they give root to darker impulses. To me, a good satire—like doubt—functions with the interest of sharpening our awareness and pushing us to find a deeper commonality. Here’s to hoping that Gemstones will succeed on that front.
Knox McCoy is the cohost of The Popcast with Knox and Jamie and author of The Wondering Years: How Pop Culture Helped Me Answer Life’s Biggest Questions.