For those who care about such things (and sadly too few Christians do), the whole thing was a hoax. Actually it wasn’t so much a hoax as it was an extended publicity stunt. Joaquin Phoenix—best known for his role as Johnny Cash in Walk the Line—took performance art to a whole new level (not seen since the days of Andy Kaufman), by playing a distracted, disoriented, and disturbed version of himself for nearly two years. Phoenix claimed that he was giving up acting and striking out on a career as a hip-hop musician. In reality, he was taking his acting career more seriously than most by staying in character everywhere he went. Phoenix’s brother-in-law, Casey Affleck, let the cat out of the bag in a New York Times interview last week and Phoenix himself (as himself) appeared on David Letterman’s show last night to set things straight after his infamous interview—as the incognito Joaquin—more than a year and a half ago. The movie that documents the whole affair—directed by Affleck—is entitled I’m Still Here and was released last week to a pitiful opening, “attracting so few moviegoers this past weekend that it only made $115,000 in 120 theaters, a per-screen average of $953 per theater.”1
Although the film has not generated the amount of viewership that Affleck and Phoenix had no doubt anticipated, it does have much to say about the social and psychological makeup of the intended audience. Much like a horrific car accident, Phoenix’s apparent meltdown from an Oscar-nominated actor to a talentless hip-hop artist generated much discussion and jaw-dropping stares. But when it was revealed that all was well and Phoenix was just “playing a part,” the audience simply moved on; just as they would have done if they were told that no one was seriously injured in the wreck. And for their part, most Christians will simply state that they never knew that Phoenix announced his “retirement” from acting and don’t care anyway. “Why should we be concerned with what Hollywood and its pampered cultural idols do,” they will say. “It shouldn’t matter to Christians what celebrities do or don’t do,” they will piously claim, “Christians should be studying their Bibles and evangelizing the lost.” To which I would respond: “True, true, and amen.”
However, we must remember that in addition to evangelizing the lost, we are also called to understand and empathize with them. Jesus was known as a “friend of sinners and tax collectors” (Matthew 11:19). He told the Pharisees that He “did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt. 9:13), and He tells us to “make friends quickly with [our] opponent” (Mt. 5:25). At Mars Hill, the apostle Paul showed a perceptive understanding of both the intellectual and the popular culture of his day (Acts 17:16-34). As Christians, we should be well aware that pop culture itself is a disposable commodity—all the rage one day, forgotten about the next—but this doesn’t mean that the people making and consuming it are disposable. They are merely looking for a reality, something they can believe in and get excited about.
Unlike Pontius Pilate, Christians understand that truth is not a “what,” but a “Who” (John 19:38; cf. John 14:6). Truth is not found in things, but in the person of Jesus Christ. When Christ is absent, as He is from the vast majority of pop culture, it should come as no surprising revelation that pop culture as a whole is a denial of maturity and responsibility.2 Pop culture is a celebration and externalization of the religion of secularism—the worship of the moment, the here and the now—and best summarized by Jim Morrison when he said, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen man, but I wanna have my kicks before the whole s**thouse goes up in flames.”3 Morrison was honest enough to admit that his own worldview of nihilism led him to view the world in which he found himself as nothing more than a pile of refuse. Because Morrison had no hope for the future, he also had nothing to offer the future. His recordings will be forever associated with the period from which they came, because that is the only context in which they make sense. Kids today don’t need Jim Morrison to get their nihilism, they have a plethora of modern pop culture icons offering them same thing, translated into their own fragmented and rudimentary language.
But I digress. My point in this article is not to recommend that Christians should keep tabs on pop culture (although I think they should to some degree), I really want to discuss the idea of being in character; something that we are all very familiar with, whether we admit it or not. Shakespeare said that the entire world is a stage and we are all but players in the grand drama. This idea of playing a part, one in which Joaquin Phoenix took very seriously, is something we all do, every moment of our lives. Paul tells us that he is the chief of sinners (1 Timothy 1:15) and that he has two laws (flesh and spirit) at work in his one body (Romans 7). Paul goes on to tell us that what he wants to do he doesn’t do, and what he doesn’t want to do he does. He describes this as something of a tug-of-war between his sin nature and his redeemed nature. Theologians have long debated what this passage is describing, but suffice it to say that Paul is describing a tension in the “inner” man that may or may not be obvious to others. In a sense, Paul is describing a person who is playing a part by either not allowing himself to be as “bad” as he could be, or by not allowing himself to be as “good” as he should be.
I found it rather interesting that so many people cared whether Joaquin Phoenix was serious or not when he announced that he was retiring from acting. One commenter accurately outlined the situation when she said: “This article is humorous in pretending that anything coming out of ‘Hollywood’ is real. If anything is announced, released, promoted or simply discovered in that industry it is all fantasy, prepackaged and synthetic, and all of it is completely unworthy of note or merit.” Indeed, Hollywood is the final destination for all things fake and pretentious, but I think this was exactly what Phoenix and Affleck were trying to say. During his Letterman interview last night, Phoenix claimed that he and Affleck were trying to make a film that explored the relationship between celebrities, the media, and the fans. And to that end, I would have to say that they were successful. Although they failed in making a film that anyone really wants to see, they succeeded in pointing out the plastic and surface-level culture that exists around Hollywood and its celebrities. Phoenix and Affleck used the industry to satirize the industry.
As I was thinking about this, I was reminded of a scene from The Illusionist, where a particular magician lived his life a certain way in order to pull off his greatest trick. The magician would walk hunched over and bow-legged everywhere he went for the sole purpose of being able to grasp a fish bowl between his knees, which was necessary for him to be able to do the “reveal” of his signature illusion. The man lived his act, even when he wasn’t on the stage. In other words, his act became a way of life. His life off the stage was really part of the act, the show never stopped for the illusionist; it was a perpetual act, even if only for an audience of one.
If we were honest with ourselves—as the apostle Paul was—we would admit that we are not much different. Although most will claim that we aren’t fake and inauthentic and that we aren’t “playing a part” when we go out into the world, the fact of the matter is that we are. How many of us can truly say that we act the same every hour of every day, regardless of which group of people we are around. Social expectations and pressures are very real things, and we would be dishonest if we claim that we are unaffected by them. In fact, Paul also says that he “becomes all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) so that he can effectively communicate to all men. Further, Paul says he does this “for the sake of the gospel,” which means that the gospel should be communicated differently to different groups of people. In the area of missions we refer to this as “contextualization,” and it means to take seriously the cultural beliefs and practices of a particular group and to tailor the gospel message of creation, fall, and re-creation for them, so that they can best understand it. This is exactly what Paul did in Athens in Acts 17. Rather than dismissing the culture (even the pop culture), we should be seeking to understand it so that we can best speak the truth of the gospel to it.
This isn’t to say that we should spend the greater parts of our lives immersed in the pop culture of the pagans because we have a biblical mandate to do so. Pop culture is not a very complex or deep thing. As I mentioned earlier, it is truly secular in that it is only concerned with the present and it is truly hedonistic in that it is only concerned with the individual. In that sense, pop culture is really only about serving the “law of the flesh,” which is sin (Rom. 7). However, we should always be keeping our eyes open and be ready to comment on golden opportunities like what Phoenix and Affleck have provided. They have effectively pulled the curtain back on the Hollywood machine and the entertainment media empire in one fell swoop. Although the film they made is a humanistic and depraved piece of tripe, they have revealed the heart of the system as being nothing more than a sweeping drama being performed by professional actors, acting both on and off the stage. And though I don’t recommend seeing the film, I would suggest that I’m Still Here is nothing more than an example of what man—free of the constraints of the law of the spirit—is capable of becoming. If anything, it gives lie to the idea of the “noble savage.” When they broke free of societal expectations—of the world’s (and Hollywood’s) stage—Phoenix and Affleck proved that the law of the flesh knows no shame—especially when it is being exposed for “art’s sake.”
For this reason, we can be grateful that even Phoenix and Affleck, despite their willingness to go where uninhibited sin might lead, still had the sense to come back to the restraining arms of societal pressures; to the vestigial remains of the Christian influence on the heart and soul of this country. If Christians continue to abandon the arts and pop culture because of its pagan influence, we shouldn’t be too surprised when it becomes overrun with paganism. We can no more escape pop culture than we can escape running into non-Christians. Our task of being ambassadors for Christ (2 Cor. 5:20) involves us coming into contact with the unbelieving world. And just as we have our own story and liturgy of the world, they have theirs and it is largely told through the medium of pop culture. Until Christians begin to recognize the importance of redeeming ALL of the world, we will be forced to watch (or piously ignore) the world try to tell its own story in its own way.