Mission to Hollywood
by Ed Blum
Jen and I were sitting in the office of our pastor discussing how best to organize our congregation’s relationship to local and foreign missions. Somehow the topic of his daughter’s acting career came up. Rachel wants to be an actor, she discovered, after completing her degree in literature. She’s not sure when, but she’ll probably move to Los Angeles – to Hollywood – in her effort to make it in the industry. “We need more Christians in Hollywood,” Pastor Steve explained. I muttered into the awkward silence that punctuates so many of my conversations. With my best South Park Cartman voice, I said, "yeah, like Mel Gibson.”
Another awkward silence followed and then Pastor Steve and Jen burst out laughing. An object of intense social and religious scrutiny, especially after Gibson’s passion for Jesus and against Jews emerged several years ago, Gibson signifies an odd relationship between Christians and Hollywood in the twenty-first century. Then things got really strange (perhaps providential). As I jetted from there to a therapy session, I zoomed by a parked 18-wheeler with the words “Jesus Christ is NOT a Swear Word” emblazoned on the side. On the back of the big rig, a big Hollywood emblem was crossed out in Ghost Busters style. Geez, I thought, people in Southern California seem to think a great deal about the relationship between the film industry and religion.
Growing up in suburban New Jersey – where making money, just saying “no” to drugs, and interrupting people as a way to show you care were the cultural norms and the entertainment industry was something way out there – I never thought too much about religion and film. I tried to avoid movies with too much swearing or nudity (except for the time a youth group friend compelled me to see Natural Born Killers, which I still haven’t recovered from; yes, Kevin Pepper, you scarred me for life). Southern California is a different animal. If you aren’t in a band or trying to land your Screen Actors’ Guild card, you can’t be very important. The entire culture confuses me.
Thank goodness for Gerardo Marti. An incredible interpreter of congregational life who had examined in his first book a multiracial church in Los Angeles, Marti published last year Hollywood Faith: Holiness, Prosperity, and Ambition in a Los Angeles Church. It is an exquisite book on evangelical Christianity’s relationship with Hollywood, particularly on one congregation: Oasis Church. In a land of dreams and dreamers, of sex, drugs, and Tom Cruise, Oasis provides refreshing spiritual, social, and cultural water for its more than 2,000 members. A diverse congregation, Oasis is 45% African American, 40% white, and 10% Hispanic. It’s also full of wanna be actors, writers, dancers, and artist. In New Jersey, we would call these individuals “waiters” or “bartenders” or “receptionists,” but they self-identify by their “cover stories” of working in the entertainment industry. Oasis is a fascinating congregation for so many reasons – seated near the heart of Hollywood, racially diverse, and full of population of individuals who aspire to the entertainment industry.
Marti has not only identified a remarkable congregation, but he analyzes them, their history, and the relationship between Hollywood and religion with incredible insight, sensitivity, and theoretical savvy. After an excellent historical survey of the relationship between evangelicals and the film industry, Marti launches into his examination of the congregation itself. He shows how the church ministers and markets to its niche – individuals who love performance and the theater, who prefer fun over fundamentals, and who will fail in their careers far more than they will succeed. For these reasons, the church leadership outfitted an old movie theater into their sanctuary; they style the service and the church’s ministries after trends in the entertainment industry, and they address how to keep your dreams alive when they seem statistically impossible.
I think Marti is at his best analyzing how Oasis appeals to aspirants in the entertainment industry in ways similar to how historically black churches have appealed to embattled African Americans who often experienced economic problems, setbacks, and frustration more often than whites. Marti suggests, I think brilliantly, that Oasis bridges the gap between older black congregations that looked to “advance the dignity and rights of African Americans as a racial group” and the newer black churches that emphasize “individual upward mobility.” Oasis seems to have filled the gap not only for its African American members, but also for the others whose life experience may have resonances with people of color.
Marti’s book is a great read; it taught me a great deal about contemporary evangelicalism and Southern California. Someone who works in psychology and religion may inquire into the religious psychology of the individuals at Oasis; perhaps she or he will find a confusing mix of narcissism and altruism that can only be resolved by ecstatic faith. But those are considerations for the psychologically inclined, and not for Marti, an expert sociologist.