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Christianity and American Idol

I have a confession to make. My very favorite television show is found not on one of the Adventist offerings but rather on the Fox network. It is neither a political nor a religious program. It is American Idol.  I know that, by confessing this, you are immediately thinking you need to send an e-mail to Alexander and Bonnie suggesting that I have lost my mind or, at least, my Christianity and should never be allowed to write another blog post for Spectrum. Before you start that e-mail, hear me out.

I do not love American Idol because of the music. While some of the songs are from my generation, most are not.  Rarely do the contestants choose songs that I hate and rarely do they do songs that I love.  I have never purchased an album or even a song by an Idol contestant. I am somewhat bothered that I love a show whose title contains the word idol used as in a positive context. Yet, for all of that I love both the early city-by-city tryouts and the Hollywood shows where you begin to see those with real talent and star power. Every year I have my favorites and my not-so-favorites. I have liked some years better than others and some judges more than others.

For all of that, there is a single aspect of the show that compels my wife and me to tune in each week.  It is the single-minded passion that drives each contestant to do their very best each week. As soon as one show is over each of those remaining has to step back and try to figure out how they can pick the right song, the right costume, and the right moves on stage to impress the judges and the viewing audience. Here is a brief review of what the process looks like:

During the summer American Idol travels to half a dozen or so cities across the country.  In each city ten to twenty thousand young people fill-out paperwork, comply with a list of do’s and don’ts, get assigned a number and stand in long lines for a chance to sing 30 seconds of a song to an American Idol producer. This producer will make an instant decision as to whether the contestant is good enough to go in front of the judges. These young people have taken time off work, have traveled long distances to the audition city and practiced their entire lives for this one chance at an audition that will last less that a minute.

Of those ten to twenty thousand, some 100 to 200 are chosen to sing before the celebrity judges. Once again they have a minute or minute and a half to do their very best, to put it all on the line.  This step happens weeks or months after the initial audition, again requiring an expenditure of time and money. 

Finally, the top 200 or so end up with a free trip to Hollywood. On the show this feels like the ultimate prize. Once in Hollywood, the group is further culled to get the final twelve or thirteen contestants.  After each show viewers are asked to vote for their favorites by phone, text, or over the Internet.  The one who receives the lowest number of votes for that week is eliminated. Finally there is just one person left and he or she is proclaimed that year’s American Idol.

Although competitive, American Idol differs from the reality show Survivor where the goal is to destroy the competition, using whatever means possible. Lying, scheming, treachery, manipulation and deception are expected and encouraged. It appears to be a requirement if one expects to have a serious chance of winning. It is absolutely needed in order to maintain the audience. 

On American Idol the contestants seem to create a family-like bond, encouraging each other to do their very best while knowing that, each week, one of their family will be eliminated. Each week, when the results are announced and one of them is voted off the show, viewers see deep emotions including tears of sadness. (And no doubt relief for those who remain.).

Each week as I watch the show and marvel at the passion of these young people, I find myself wondering how it is that tens of thousands of young people can turn out with such passion and commitment for something so fleeting, so improbable, while we as Christians, we as Adventists, seem to have so little passion for something that has eternal value and where the odds of winning are stacked in our favor. It is rare to find anyone in our church who is willing to put it all on the line for Jesus and, when they do, we rarely celebrate them in the fashion that the world celebrates the stars of American Idol. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are a few in Adventism. Perhaps the best examples we have are the Frontier Missionaries.  These, mostly young people, who in many cases can’t be identified by name because of the places they work, are kingdom “stars”.  They are the people who are engaging in kingdom work with everything they have.

 In Luke 5 we find the story of Jesus calling Peter, James and John from a life of seeking fish to seeking men. The story closes in verse 11 with these words: “So when they had brought their boats to land, they forsook all and followed him.”

Imagine how the world would change, how the kingdom work would shine like a light on the hill if our young people had the passion and commitment of the disciples of the American Idol contestants. For those of us who are a bit older, just imagine what kind of impact we would have if we had a tiny fraction of that passion. Instead, most of whatever passion we have is focused on avoiding doing evil (as defined by the church) or praying and reading (ultimately focused on personal salvation). There is little focus on others. I pray that the passion of my own life will be to do kingdom work. I pray that, somehow, this church will have American Idol-esque public passion for kingdom work.

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