HBO’s new comedy The Righteous Gemstones, from comedian Danny McBride (Eastbound & Down), is the latest in what has been a fairly crowded month in the “evangelicals are creepy villains” genre. Indie film Them That Follow explored a community of snake-handling, science-skeptical Pentecostals in Appalachia—and one young woman’s struggle to break free from the sort of dangerous sectarianism that pits faith against medicine. Netflix’s docu-drama series The Family suggests that the National Prayer Breakfast is run by a clandestine Evangelical Deep State with ties to Russian and all sorts of nefarious, theocracy-seeking intentions in D.C. and around the world.
But in terms of “fun at the expense of evangelicals” entertainment value, Gemstones takes the cake. The satirical dark comedy skewers all things megachurch, televangelist, and prosperity gospel—often in vulgar, TV-MA sorts of ways (viewer discretion advised). To be sure, these things deserve much of the ridicule heaped on them. But this show (and I’ve only watched two episodes so far) also feels built on cheap shots and easy caricatures rather than empathy and incisive observation—which undergird the best satire. The show neither attempts to understand, nor is likely to convince, anyone who lives in the evangelical world it critiques. Which is a shame.
Created from a mood board that draws inspiration from Falwells, Bakkers, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Bieber-looking hypepriests, and PreachersNSneakers, the Gemstones are essentially the Ewings of holy-roller evangelicalism. Patriarch Eli (John Goodman) and his sons Jesse (Danny McBride) and Kelvin (Adam DeVine) live in opulent mansions where the sign on the gate says: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. No trespassing.” The three get around in matching Range Rovers and private jets named after the three members of the Trinity.
When they aren’t flying around the world holding evangelistic crusades (the show opens with the trio baptizing thousands of Chinese converts in a Chengdu wave pool), they are indulging in gluttony, greed, lust, and most of the other seven deadly sins. In short: the Gemstones are the world’s biggest hypocrites. We see them praying, preaching, and passing offering plates one minute and doing drugs, stealing, and breaking and entering the next. All enemies and threats are chalked up to the devil’s forces at work against God’s chosen messengers. When one woman challenges the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Jesse’s wife Amber (Cassidy Freeman), she responds: “The devil just jumped right into you and made you challenge me.”
Except that, by the end of the first episode, it’s clear that if the devil is in anyone, he’s in the Gemstones themselves. Their evil behavior (which involves sex tapes, infidelity, theft, attempted murder, and constant creative deployment of obscene language) is the bad fruit of the unregenerate—all the more toxic because it reeks of the hypocrisy Jesus condemned: people who honor God with their lips, “but [whose] heart is far from me” (Matt. 15:8).
The main problem with Gemstones is that the hypocrisy is so over-the-top and blatant, and the Gemstone family so pernicious, that it undercuts what could be a critique of a wider and more recognizable swath of evangelicalism. The religious hypocrisy here is an easy target; few would fail to condemn it and most viewers (even evangelicals) will be able to distance themselves from it. A more subtle, closer-to-home attack on religious hypocrisy (on the shifting evangelical moral standards for elected officials, perhaps) might have given the show more satirical bite. But it feels like a missed opportunity.
The main problem with Gemstones is that the hypocrisy is so over-the-top and blatant that it undercuts what could be a critique of a wider and more recognizable swath of evangelicalism.
Narrow Critique of Prosperity Gospel
The same goes for the show’s depiction of prosperity-inflected Christianity. The bling-bling world of Gemstones is so excessive and (to most people) foreign that it threatens to “other” or exoticize the prosperity gospel—with the effect that viewers will absolve themselves of guilt by association. But the reality of most evangelical Christianity today (as with most pop “spirituality” in general) is that it is tinged at least somewhat with insidious flavors of prosperity theology.
Even if we aren’t watching televangelists or attending megachurches that feel like 5-star resorts, many of our churches and approaches to faith are oriented around us as consumers: what “meets me where I’m at,” scratches my itch, enhances my life. We may not go so far as to assume faith will lead us to health and wealth, but many of us still approach faith primarily through a “what does it do for me?” consumerist lens. Does the worship music give me an emotional boost? Does the preacher’s sermon add value to my life? Does the church recognize and affirm me in my gifting? Is Jesus helping me achieve my dreams? My best life now? Even among those who rail against the likes of Joel Osteen: are we so sure our flavor of Christianity—which doubtless we’ve chosen in part because it fits our tastes and preferences—isn’t also colored with consumerist impulses? Are we sure we’re not also guilty of seeking a church and a Jesus that conveniently affirms me in the direction I’m already going?
The reality of most evangelical Christianity today is that it is tinged at least somewhat with insidious flavors of prosperity theology.
A better satire than Gemstones would harpoon the beast of prosperity theology in all its wide-reaching tentacles, not just its most outlandish and extreme forms. It would also make an attempt to understand why prosperity theology, in its various iterations, is so appealing. Are the millions around the world who watch TV preachers, attend feel-good megachurches, or find comfort in the podcasts, books, and radio shows of celebrity pastors really to be dismissed as easily manipulated simpletons and cultural Philistines? It may be easy for the average HBO subscriber to ridicule the unwashed masses who unthinkingly buy into religion, but isn’t their sophisticated elitism just as unthinking and easy to manipulate? Satire is always more effective when it makes a concerted effort to understand the target. Before we critique the world of prosperity religion (and we should!), perhaps there are lessons to learn by examining its mass appeal.
What Can We Learn?
Speaking of lessons, what can we learn from the portrayal of evangelicals in Gemstones? Every movie or show that villainizes Christians (and there are a lot of them, from Night of the Hunter to Saved! to Jesus Camp) should be more than just an opportunity to cry foul over Hollywood’s anti-religion bias. It can also be an occasion for self-reflection.
Even if we can fault Gemstones for a too-narrow, too-extreme portrait of one really-bad-apple evangelical family, we must also know that the show is trying to make broader points about American evangelicalism; and to some viewers the Gemstones will easily stand in as a proxy for all of us. Have we done anything to deserve this ugly portrait? Perhaps we should consider that the way the show depicts the Gemstones—more interested in personal comfort than costly, Christlike love; one way in church and another behind closed doors; willing to cross ethical lines in order to preserve power and influence—is actually how many people perceive evangelicals. Perhaps that’s because it’s closer to reality than we’d like to think.
Like any piece of popular culture, shows like Gemstones, movies like Them That Follow, and docu-dramas like The Family are shaped by biases and agendas that should be taken with several grains of salt. But they also reflect, however imperfectly, some measure of reality. We can’t really influence the first part (bias), but we can influence the second (reality)—doing everything we can to live consistently Christian, honorable lives (1 Pet. 2:12) so that the raw material we give Hollywood isn’t so easily satirized.