Stephen Baldwin is hugging me. Yes, that Stephen Baldwin. And I feel a tad uncomfortable. I should add that I had only met him about an hour ago, here in the green room of a local FOX affiliate. And, yet, here we are—hugging.
Allow me to explain.
Baldwin is the self-proclaimed Jesus Freak of Hollywood. Keep in mind we’re talking about a guy who has starred in movies with less-than-holy names like The Sex Monster and Threesome. But the New York native ditched his ungodly ways and became a born-again Christian about a month after 9/11. Apparently, a terrorist attack on his hometown screamed Armageddon. The Rapture. Resident Evil.
I’ve been an observant Jew for more than three decades and he was trying to undo it all in under an hour. Now that’s chutzpah.
But you’ve got to give this guy some credit. Becoming a born-again has completely changed Baldwin’s life. He started his own skate punk ministry (although I’m not really sure what that means), became a cultural advisor to President Bush (um, ditto), and wrote a 2006 memoir about his spiritual sojourn, The Unusual Suspect, a play on the name of the one movie he’s actually famous for. This is a guy who, while appearing on The Celebrity Apprentice, told Donald Trump to take his Sodom and Gomorrah business acumen and shove it. But his book actually made it onto bestseller lists. That’s a testament if I’ve ever heard one.
Call him the PT Barnum of evangelical Christianity. As Esquire’s Sean Gibson once described, “Baldwin's nurtured a unique kind of religious conviction, one that's equal parts scripture and Mountain Dew Code Red.” His hard-core fundamentalism—peppered with hyperbolic overuse of the term “dude”—really boils down to this: Accept Jesus or you won’t get into heaven.
As for me, I’m Jewish, from a family of rabbis no less. You can see where Baldwin and I might disagree. And yet here we are, two men of faith, hugging it out in a FOX green room. Rupert Murdoch would be so proud.
Stephen Baldwin’s predilection for all things Christ was actually not news to me. I spent a year immersed in Christian pop culture and let’s just say his name came up a time or two. But I never imagined I would actually meet him. I guess it’s divine intervention that we are both here promoting books we wrote—mine, a memoir of my year living like a Christian and his a Moral Majority message masked in detective fiction.
As we were chatting about faith, the fact came up that I had visited 52 different Bible Belt churches and not once had someone tried to convert me. Stephen’s pupils went from their default half-mast glazed-over look to the wide-eyed look of a Baldwin on the prowl. Apparently, I had woken the beast.
“How much time do I have before my segment?” he asked his publicist.
“About an hour,” she called back from across the room.
“An hour,” Baldwin said, “should be enough time to convert you, Ben.”
He was taking this challenge as a badge of honor—that somehow he would be the first Christian to try and convert me—and actually succeed. My first thought? I’ve been an observant Jew for more than three decades and here was a guy who played Barney Rubble in the Flintstones sequel trying to undo it all in under an hour, like a twisted LensCrafters for the soul. Now that’s chutzpah.
Rolling up his sleeves, Alec’s little brother began spouting verse after Biblical verse. I tried cutting him off, explaining to him that I’ve been an Orthodox Jew my entire life. He could quote either Testament until the Messiah came home, and it wouldn’t make a difference to me. Being a guilt-ridden Jew is part of my DNA and, for better or worse, will always be a part of me. Like Crohn’s disease. Unfortunately for him, these theological acrobatics were simply bouncing off of me, as if I was sporting some sort of military-grade Baldwin-proof vest.
The hour went by. I was still Jewish. He was still the non-Pauly Shore lead in Bio-Dome.
We agreed to disagree. And that’s when I experienced the aforementioned Great Big Baldwin Hug. For some reason, standing there with my Jewy face pressed against his cross necklace, I actually felt bad for the guy. That I had somehow let him down. Sure, I wasn’t going to convert, but I think we both got something out of this back and forth interfaith dialogue. So I told him I would try to catch up with him later that day at his book signing. What can I say, he grows on you.
When I arrived at the bookstore that night, Baldwin was already in front taking questions from the audience. Just as I was sneaking in quietly, he spotted me.
“My Jewish friend Ben just walked in,” he felt compelled to say into the microphone. The crowd whipped around to lay their eyes on the lucky Semite. “Let’s see if we can convert him.”
This time Baldwin opted for a different approach. Instead of pelting me with liturgy, he dialed it back a bit. He talked about his personal journey, how his life was transformed when he stopped being Stephen Freaking Baldwin for just one moment and let a Higher Power in. It was his own spiritual narrative and it was surprisingly, serenely, humbling. Call it the Gospel According to Stephen.
We chatted some more after he finished signing books. I told him I respect him for being a man of faith, and admire his efforts to convert me—twice. After all, his faith obligates him to seek out new converts. He’s just doing his job. Just as I do mine by keeping kosher. He’s looking for fresh meat; I’m trying to avoid the shellfish. I guess at the end of the day, it’s not so hard to take spiritual cues from a guy who appeared on Celebrity Mole—twice.
Benyamin Cohen is the author of My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith (HarperOne). He can be found at www.myjesusyear.com.