Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Deep thoughts on Tiger King

Hey all you cool cats and kittens.

Gird your loins.

Like many people, my wife and I got sucked in to the Netflix documentary, Tiger King, as a much-needed distraction from our COVID-induced lockdown.

It was, well… a lot.

Admittedly, finding life-lessons in the show might seem as likely as extracting high nutritional value from a bag of Cheetos. But since Cheetos may be all I have left soon, here goes.

“I SAW TIGER”

For the uninitiated, the king himself (“Joe Exotic”) hails from down the road from me in Wynnewood, Oklahoma. He’s an openly gay, gun-toting, mullet-wearing, lip-synching, PETA-hating polygamist (technically: polyandrist) who owned several hundred live tigers in a private collection.

Joe ran for Governor in 2018 and received 18% of the Libertarian primary vote. But that was before his conviction in a murder for hire investigation, which sent him to a federal prison that is currently infected with COVID-19.

Caught up?

Some have argued that Tiger King’s absurd storyline (in which reality and Reality TV converge) is the perfect match for our current cultural moment. And by some people, I mean my friend Josh who sells electric motorbikes and month-by-month phone plans. (Hi Josh.)

K. B. Hoyle describes it this way over at Christ and Pop Culture:

[It is] not a documentary so much as a circus presented to a captive America during a time of crisis while we wait for the government to dole out to us our bread.

There are only villains and victims in this story—no winners and no heroes.

Hoyle’s claim is that when “bread” is short, we settle easily for “circus.” (Read the whole thing here.)

But what lessons can we glean from Joe in a time when schools, church buildings, and counseling offices are largely closed to the public?

I’ve boiled it down to three F-words: (1) freedom, (2) fame, (3) frauds.

1. FREEDOM

One question the series raises involves how far our individual “freedoms” should go. And that’s especially relevant in a time of social distancing.

Where else on earth can one buy, breed, and monetize hundreds of man-eating tigers in their own backyard? Answer: I don’t know. But I bet places like Oklahoma are just a teensy bit unique on planet earth.

We Americans like freedom, and rightly so.

We don’t like people saying we can’t do what we want: Even if what we want are two hundred live tigers, three husbands, and a private military arsenal in the woods behind a Casey’s gas station.

It’s in the Constitution. Or not. I’ll Google it.

But what if—and just go with me here…—total individual freedom is not the highest good? Perhaps in some cases, thumbing our nose at regulations—say, a social distancing order—could actually result in a massive loss of freedom for others (say, health care workers)?

(I say this after having driven by the local Lowe’s and noting how packed it still is. Do they sell food and ventilators now?)

Sometimes, a “freedom first” mentality has advantages—like an entrepreneurial spirit or a resistance to dictatorship. But absolutizing the “I can do what I want” mindset is as foolish as sticking your arm (or that of your ER nurse) inside a tiger cage.

2. FAME

A second point raised by the show is how far people are willing to go to be famous.

By the end, Joe’s friends all admit that his passion stopped being tigers and started being celebrity. It’s why he ran for Governor, started an internet show, created terrible lip-synched videos (see here), and filmed literally every moment on his giant tiger-topia—including some that helped land him in jail.

Herein lies a parable for “leaders” in the age of internet celebrity.

Chasing fame incentivizes ever more outrageous behaviors, statements, and hairstyles.

Before you know it you’re in federal prison. Or federal office. It goes both ways.

3. FRAUDS

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the documentary (nope, I take that back) is the way it slowly causes you to question which “tiger person” is most fraudulent.

Which big cat lover is actually most deranged and dangerous?

Joe, of course, wears his absurdity like gaudy earrings—nine per lobe. But his bête noire of big cat breeding is a tiger queen named Carole Baskin.

Carole is beloved in the animal rights community for her attempts to “rescue” cats from exploitative keepers. Yet as the series rolls on, you start to wonder if Carole and Joe are that different. (Not to mention the defacto cult leader “Doc” Bhagavan Antle, who runs another private zoo/harem.)

Like Joe, Carole Baskin also lives under a cloud of murder rumors (her millionaire husband disappeared mysteriously); she too makes money off of caged cats; and she too has legions of followers who serve as near slave labor for her big cat kingdom.

To cite Hoyle again, “There are several predators [here]”–and none of them are tigers.

Who really cares about the animals?

Who is the bigger fraud?

Now for my super-sentimental conclusion.

CONCLUSION

At the end of every Jerry Springer episode, Jerry shared a “Final Thought.” It was an absurd attempt to spin the show’s empty calories into something poignant and practical so viewers would feel better about having consumed them—like wrapping dog poop in a page from Chicken Soup for the Soul and handing it to the audience with a smile.

This blog post is like that.

Smile.

But after 27 seasons, Jerry’s final Final Thought was this: “We’re not better than these people. We just dress better.”

Is that true of me and you and Joe Exotic?

I don’t think so.

But then again, we loved the show; and we’ve been wearing sweatpants for weeks.

 


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When celebrities die

When celebrities die

What exactly is going on within our collective psyche when a very famous person dies under tragic circumstances?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching the subject of my next book. Its focus is upon the way “celebrity” and a celebrity-obsessed culture has come to influence American evangelicalism.

My claim is that a fixation on fame and famous people is creating certain problems for the church, despite our claim that only God be worshipped and adored. My argument is that evangelicalism needs to be “de-famed” so Jesus won’t be.

Then, in the midst this research, a helicopter crashed.

AN UNDENIABLE TRAGEDY

Kobe Bryant, his young daughter, and seven others were tragically killed.

The internet exploded.

Like most people, I never met Kobe. I wasn’t a Laker fan. And I wondered (years ago) about the sexual assault charge that was ultimately dropped against him. How do you judge the character of someone you’ve never met?

Still, like everybody else, I was shocked and saddened. A rush emotions followed: His daughter too!? It can’t be. What must his wife and family be enduring!?

I wasn’t alone.

WHAT IS A CELEBRITY?

Then I began to ask another question: How does my strong reaction to Kobe’s death fit with my research into our celebrity culture?

In his book Celebrity Worship, Pete Ward attempts to unpack just what is a “celebrity” and why they matter to us.

A celebrity, Ward says, is a “mediated person.” Celebrities are those persons who have been elevated and magnified by a complex mix of technology, media, industry, and social relationships. Ward’s claim is that our deep connection to celebrities is not actually about them—it’s about us, and the formation of the modern “self.”

To see the young and smiling face of Kobe Bryant, memorialized on CNN, is to be reminded of how fragile our lives are. It is also to be transported back in time to watching basketball with one’s own father or high school friend. It is to place myself in Kobe’s seat in the helicopter (the seat of a father), and to look into my own daughter’s eyes. It is to empathize with a grieving widow and grieving children. It is to relive our own grief and trauma vicariously.

And after that, it is to find a collective outlet for that groan on social media. (This isn’t wrong.)

In Ward’s words, “Celebrities are important, because they are one of the primary resources used in processing the project of the self” (4).

WHEN CELEBRITIES DIE

After the death of Michael Jackson, and in spite of widespread evidence of child molestation, Ward notes how the public reacted with intense grief and deep affection.

MJ’s music had formed the soundtrack for countless lives.

Hence the public was not mourning an accused child molester, or even a phenomenal performer (he was likely both). They were mourning what his music represented in their stories.

A man named Paul put it this way:

“I immediately thought of my brother with whom I held great parties and where we danced like MJ, we were teenagers […] My brother was important to me.”

LISTENING AND LEARNING

These kind of celebrity deaths also provide an opportunity for  us to ask important questions of ourselves. For instance:

1. What am I actually grieving?

Like the young man (Paul) who was thoughtful enough to link the death of Michael Jackson to his past relationship with his own brother—we should ask what our grief over persons we have never met might be trying to teach us.

What are we grieving beyond the individual who has died?

What if the death of Michael Jackson led not to a shrine at his personal amusement park (which, if we are honest, was more a crime scene than a temple), but to conversations with one’s own brother, mother, pastor, friend, or therapist?

We like to run from death and grief. And events like this ask us to connect to the deeper sources of our pain.

2. What about the others?

Here’s another question to be wrestled with: Do I really believe that every person—no matter how famous, beautiful, or powerful—is created equally in the image of God?

Equality is a value in the modern West. But our responses to celebrity raise questions as to how deeply we believe in it.

Is the death of a poor and unnamed Chinese girl every bit as precious in the sight of God as that of Kobe Bryant? Do I actually feel this to be true, despite the fact that the young girl’s death (or that of the unborn baby) will get little personal coverage, in part because a given government has a vested interest in saving face?

Celebrity deaths give us occasion to grapple with these uncomfortable questions about equality and the sanctity of life.

3. Is the ache an echo of a Voice?

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held that God has placed eternity (or a longing for transcendence) in the human heart.

The ache over mortality is therefore meant to be an echo of a Voice. It is a “dispatch” from transcendence, and even ardent secularists can hear it.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Charles Taylor), the “closed take” on reality (No God, no transcendent meaning, no afterlife)

can’t seem to get rid of a certain haunting, a certain rumbling in our hearts. There is a spectre haunting our secular age, the “spectre of meaninglessness”—which is a dispatch from [divine] fullness.

CONCLUSION

In the end, it is good and right to mourn celebrity deaths. It is good and right because they are people made in God’s image.

Yet these tragedies may also serve as reminders of important truths (or falsehoods) that we would like to ignore.

All life is sacred. All human death is an intrusion into God’s good world. And this mortal ache—while painful—may form a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a Table where we hear the same truths Kobe did at his last worship service, just hours before his death:

This is my body.

This is my blood.

Do this in remembrance of the Christ who conquered death, and who alone is worthy to be worshipped.


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The cult of evangelical celebrity

The cult of evangelical celebrity

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god, for a little while.”

I still remember hearing that line from the lips of a well-known Christian pastor.

It has truth to it. I’ve felt it in rare moments. And he meant it as a warning.

To be a person’s “god” is to be the proverbial frog in boiling water: The hot tub is luxurious, until it cooks you.

In a few months, this same famous pastor would resign amid a cloud of scandal.

In his case (unlike some recent ones), the charges were not of sexual misconduct, but of ego run amok, a lack of accountability for someone deemed “too big to fail,” and a tendency to use celebrity as a “Find and Replace” for integrity when the cameras were switched off.

On second thought, perhaps it’s not so different from the recent sexual scandals involving well-known church leaders.

A common denominator (to misquote Eisenhower) is what I’d like to christen as “The (evangelical) celebrity industrial complex.”

A MUST-READ

In one of the more important blog posts of the year, Andy Crouch submits that it’s time for evangelicals especially to reckon with the insidious danger of celebrity power (Read here).

The reason for the “reckoning” is noted in his Introduction.

In three separate cases [this week] in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds.

All three were […] seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation.

Since the article, still more allegations have surfaced against the most famous of these leaders—and he has since resigned while not admitting guilt.

Several of these charges come from high-profile female leaders, one a former CEO of Zondervan, alleging that the well-known pastor pressured them to bring wine and meet alone with him on his private jet, his private yacht, and his private beachside vacation home.

Like Crouch, I choose not to name the leader for at least two reasons. First, I do not know if the allegations are true.  And secondly, to focus on the “Name” may be to perpetuate one aspect of our problem: a fixation on the famous people and their escapades: their yachts, their private jets, their beachside villas.

It sounds like a Jay-Z song.

Like it or not, the church is hardly different than the culture in its celebrity addiction. And the culture is rife with it.

One need look no further than the contexts from which we now choose our leaders–The Apprentice, The Terminator, The Oprah.

Crouch again:

In the Oval Office of our country sits a man [… who] is simply brilliant at manipulating the power of celebrity.

He has colonized all of our imaginations—above all, one suspects, the imaginations of those who most hate him, who cannot go an hour in a day without thinking about him.

HOW CELEBRITY POWER IS UNIQUE

But wait a minute; aren’t all forms of authority prone to such corruption?  “Power corrupts,” said Lord Acton, “and absolut… [yada, yada, yada].”

True enough. Yet Crouch makes a key distinction between institutional and celebrity power, especially as the latter is now driven by technology and social media.

Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy. 

It is the power of the one-shot (the face filling the frame), the close mic (the voice dropped to a lover’s whisper), the memoir (the disclosures that had never been discussed with the author’s pastor, parents, or sometimes even lover or spouse, before they were published), the tweet, the selfie, the insta, the snap. All of it gives us the ability to seem to know someone—without in fact knowing much about them at all, since in the end we know only what they, and the systems of power that grow up around them, choose for us to know.

Crouch’s claim is that “institutions” of power have been largely replaced by individuals—celebrity leaders—whose charisma is both branded and broadcast (via technology) in order to achieve an illusion of intimacy with millions of followers.

Yet in this process, we create idols who behave like monsters—in part, because they both crave and (ironically) resent the fame now thrust upon them.

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god, for a little while.”

“DEAR BROTHERS” ~BETH MOORE

As proof, note how the problem with sexism (and sexual misconduct) often interfaces with the cult of celebrity within the evangelical world, as in others.

Hear the powerful words of the conservative Bible teacher Beth Moore on the subject (here):

About a year ago I had an opportunity to meet a theologian I’d long respected. I’d read virtually every book he’d written. I’d looked so forward to getting to share a meal with him and talk theology. The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, “You are better looking than ____________________.” He didn’t leave it blank. He filled it in with the name of another woman Bible teacher.

While this sounds almost tame compared to the exploits of Weinstein and Cosby, it still raises questions for the average, decent person.

“Who talks like this!?  What kind of person thinks this is an appropriate way to begin a conversation, let alone with a woman, let alone with a preacher, let alone with a female preacher you have never met!?”

Answer: a celebrity.

Because part of the business of fame is the conscious and unconscious learning that you get special treatment.

“When you’re a celebrity they let you do it. Grab them by the __________.”

ANOTHER KIND OF POWER

There are exceptions of course.

Not all celebrities leverage fame toward abusive or destructive ends. And it’s easy to be critical  from the cheap-seats. After all, who’s to say how celebrity would affect me?

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god,” until it isn’t.

One point, however, is how different this pursuit of fame and famous people differs from the way of Jesus. At various points in the Gospels, Christ was thrust onto the very cusp of (ancient) celebrity.

In John, after feeding five thousand people, we learn that the crowds had decided to “make him king by force” (Jn. 6.15).

This, after all, is one way celebrities are minted—almost without the permission of the one cast into the limelight. In some cases, a gifted and talented individual wakes up to find (almost to their chagrin) that they have been made into the “face” of an industry or movement overnight, without ever intending to be.

“I never asked for this,” they think – “I was just trying to speak truth, make art, or craft music.”

Too bad.

You’ve been made “king” by force. And the only way off the ride is to push the self-destruct button.

Or is it?

Christ chose a different path. He didn’t self-destruct exactly, but he did intentionally put the kibosh on the celebrity sausage-maker (a very unkosher metaphor).

After this same miracle, he says the following:

I am the bread that has come down from heaven. […] Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part in me.

The publicists stopped calling after that one.

And the next time they “made him king by force,” it involved a crown of thorns.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus flees the crush of the adoring crowds in order to pursue more meaningful relationships, to pray, and to reenter the region of obscurity. Prophets are made in the wilderness, after all, not on the red carpet, and not in the Twitter-verse.

Crouch:

The visible image of the invisible God left no portrait. The one time he wrote, he wrote in the dust (Jn. 8.6). He had a different way of using power in the world, a way that turned out to outlast all the emperors, including the Christian ones.

He offered no false intimacy—his biographer John said that he entrusted himself to no one, because he knew what was in every person’s heart (Jn. 2.24 –25) —but he kept no distance, either.

He let the children come to him. He let Mary sit at his feet and let another Mary wash his feet with her tears. Hanging naked on a cross, he forgave, blessed, and made sure that yet another Mary would still have a son.

His power, truly, was not of this world.

If there is a solution to the evangelical celebrity industrial complex, it’s in reclaiming this strange kind of power.