Public Faith: Chris Pratt, Hollywood, and Religion
Death, taxes, and an internet mob sharing strong opinions about Chris Pratt, some things in life are a guarantee. Actor Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy, Jurassic World, The Lego Movie) is one of Hollywood’s A-List leading men. He is also the subject of seemingly unrelenting hot takes and outrage, most of which seems to arise from the scandalous fact that he identifies as a Christian. He’s too bold about his faith for some and not outspokenly Christian enough for others.
Pratt was recently featured in a cover story for Men’s Health magazine (you can read it here). During the lengthy interview, he touches on his acting career, the controversies, his family, and his faith. The interview is both fascinating and enlightening, as it touches on and reflects several larger conversations regarding faith in the public sphere.
The “Face of Religion”
In the interview, Pratt reflects on an acceptance speech he gave at the MTV Movie & TV Awards in which he declared, “God is real. God loves you. God wants the best for you.” In the interview, he concludes,
“Maybe it was hubris. For me to stand up on the stage and say the things that I said, I’m not sure I touched anybody,” he offers, and he gets why people were put off.
That the statements, “God is real. God loves you” are deemed offensive reflects the spiritual condition of today’s society. The incident may also reveal something about Christians’ expectations of public figures.
Much of Pratt’s frustration with how he is perceived stems from being elevated to “the face of religion.” If secular culture is guilty of turning Pratt into the unwilling face of religion, then the church is too. Christians want champions—the cooler and more famous the better.
Pratt is the latest in a long line of celebrities whom the church has latched onto and forcefully given the role of public evangelist and Christian poster child in Hollywood. As a result, we get uncomfortable when he chooses not to make token statements from an award’s stage, when he uses profanity in an interview, or when he acts in a movie we deem inconsistent with a biblical worldview. We’ve placed a celebrity on a pedestal simply because of his fame and put immense pressure and expectations on him to live up to it.
Despite clear religious differences, several of his colleagues (James Gunn, Mark Ruffalo, Collin Trevorrow, etc.) have quickly jumped to Pratt’s defense, affirming that he practices what he preaches. He is clearly having an influence. But some Christians appear less interested in Chris Pratt’s Christian witness in Hollywood than in public affirmation and validation.
Religion v. Relationship
Pratt goes on to say:
“Religion has been oppressive as [bleep] for a long time […] I didn’t know that I would kind of become the face of religion when really I’m not a religious person. I think there’s a distinction between being religious—adhering to the customs created by man, oftentimes appropriating the awe reserved for who I believe is a very real God—and using it to control people, to take money from people, to abuse children, to steal land, to justify hatred. Whatever it is. The evil that’s in the heart of every single man has glommed on to the back of religion and come along for the ride.”
Pratt seems to be echoing the popular evangelical slogan, “It’s not a religion; it’s a relationship.”
The general confusion about his denial of being “a religious person” by those outside the church—to whom church attendance, prayer, and Bible study all seem to be the definition of “religious”— may expose that the distinction is one without much substance.
There are several implications of the religion v. relationship distinction. On the one hand, the basis of Christianity is not a religion, at least not in a work’s-based, earn-your-way-to-heaven sense. The essence of Christianity is the good news about a God who desires a loving relationship with people.
But that distinction quickly becomes hazy because the relationship typically manifests itself in religious activity. “It’s not a religion,” declares the churchgoer who is sitting in his Sunday morning pew singing hymns, celebrating a baptism, and partaking in the Lord’s Supper. These customs aren’t man made. They were established by Christ. In other words, “religion” is not necessarily a negative word, nor must it be set in opposition to a relationship.
The distinction sometimes reflects a bashful attitude toward religion and a desire to evade its negative cultural stigma. It’s a way to differentiate from those Christians over there and can lead to a lone ranger, “just Jesus and me” mentality. It’s akin to the secular equivalent, “I’m spiritual but not religious,” which typically reflects an individualistic worldview that conforms to the person’s own desires. There are many reasons why young people are leaving the church in large numbers today, but perhaps part of the blame is the continual downplaying of “religion,” even by those within the church.
“In the name of Religion”
Pratt’s apology for the evils done in the name of religion clearly reflects only part of the story of Christianity (equal attention should be given to the church’s humanitarian work, including the countless hospitals and orphanages it has established). Nevertheless, it is still an unavoidable part of that story.
I’ve often heard Christians make statements to unbelievers such as, “We’re not perfect. We’re just like you.” Beyond the implicit arrogance of that cliché statement (spoiler: nobody thought we were perfect), there is also a touch of hypocrisy. As Christians, it’s easy to say, “We’re not perfect,” but it’s more difficult to confront that imperfection. We can fall into a game of “well, actually…” and attempt to explain away every evil and abuse. The Crusades were politically motivated; the witch trials were vastly overstated; and the Christian slave owners weren’t “real Christians.” Yet, by dismissing every wrong or injustice Christians have committed under the pretense of “they were obviously not true Christians,” then the implication is that Christians are perfect (or at least close to it).
That’s not the gospel. The power of Christianity isn’t that Christians never do evil things but that we needed a savior because of our sinful nature. Christianity is not a faith of perfection but of transformation. There is no need for a “new creation” if the old creation is in mint condition.
Pratt may lean too far on the side of apology and distancing (at least in this interview), but he isn’t wrong to own up to the evils Christians have committed in the name of religion.
Chris Pratt is an ongoing case study about the intersection of faith and the public sphere. His fame doesn’t make him any more qualified as a spokesperson for Christianity, but it certainly makes him more scrutinized. Christians should pray for those to whom God has given a public platform, but we should also be cautious not to place our faith in people rather than in God. It’s easy to be an armchair evangelist, judging every action of those attempting to live out their faith in the unbelieving world. But ultimately every Christian is called to be a public representative for Christ wherever God places us.