06.18.09

The Gospel According to Speidi

Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt are embarrassing true believers with their awkward Jesus-driven media blitz. But will young fans follow them to church?

Statistically speaking, Christians can be annoying. That’s according to a poll cited in the new book Lost and Found, in which religion researchers Ed Stetzer, Richie Stanley, and Jason Hayes reveal that 46 percent of non-church-attending young adults agree with the statement, “Christians get on my nerves.”

It’s not surprising that pushy evangelists and holier-than-thou Jesus freaks are an irritant to many. What’s surprising is the stat: Only 46 percent? The researchers could have recorded a far higher rate of annoyance had they identified specific Christians: Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt get on my nerves. Agree or disagree?

That’s the only conclusion one could draw following an active fortnight of on-air proselytizing from Montag and Pratt, the married stars—collectively known as “Speidi”—of the MTV reality series The Hills. This two-headed publicity monster has dominated the celebrity news cycle with Gosselin-like ubiquity this week, dishing out Christian drama and name-dropping Jesus Christ like old-time celebvangelists.

“If Heidi were my daughter, and professed to follow Jesus, I’d tell her that we live in the era of fig leaves and she needs to put some clothes on,” says one pastor.

In case you’ve only been paying attention to Iranian elections and other events that don’t merit coverage in Us Weekly, here’s a recap: Last week, the couple appeared as contestants on the first two episodes of NBC’s I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here, during which Montag prayed with Patti Blogojevich (wife of the disgraced Illinois governor), Pratt got baptized by fellow contestant and born-again Christian Stephen Baldwin, and the two of them generally annoyed the other D-list contestants. Then they quit the show. Then they unquit, and then quit again. At some point, Montag was rushed to the hospital with a gastric ulcer, and Pratt alleged that they were tortured. Then he took it back, presumably for contractual reasons.

Montag recovered, thankfully, in time for the publicity tour, during which we learned that the couple is still very committed to Jesus, and that Montag posed for the September issue of Playboy. “God made humans naked,” she told Ryan Seacrest on Monday. “We weren’t even born with clothes!”

But the couple’s awkward public embrace of religion has left some true believers flummoxed. The pro-Christian message that Speidi is espousing becomes garbled when blended with TV’s need for sensation and sleaze. Then again, in an era where the church could use a PR boost, Montag and Pratt are providing Christianity the type of pop-culture credibility that could wrangle new followers. Whether this tradeoff is worth it depends on who you ask.

Michael Criner, pastor of a college ministry near Baylor University in Waco, Texas, thinks Playboy was probably not the best decision, and that the God-made-us-naked analogy only goes so far. “If Heidi were my daughter, and professed to follow Jesus,” he says, “I’d tell her that we live in the era of fig leaves and she needs to put some clothes on.” Despite her possession of a beautiful God-given ( surgeon-assisted) body, Criner believes parading it around as an object of sexual desire is not a Christ-affirming choice.

Other Christian leaders worry less about potential lust and more about Montag’s self-image. Mike Foster is a Los Angeles-based author and speaker, and the co-founder of XXXChurch, which ministers to people in the pornography industry. “Without question, she’s following a path many young and attractive celebrities have had success with,” he says. “I see someone like Heidi believing that her worth and value are found in her body—not in who she is as a person.” Sexy photos don’t necessarily say much to prove or disprove her faith, he says, but reveal more about how she sees herself and hopes to attain happiness.

Montag’s mix of sex appeal and piousness recalls the recent Carrie Prejean kerfuffle. The evangelical Christian subculture recently got jazzed about the now-dethroned beauty queen when she lost the Miss USA title, presumably after a Perez Hilton-baiting answer in defense of traditional marriage. For a week or two, Prejean enjoyed a surge of interest in conservative religious circles. She signed with a big-time Christian publicist. She basked in a standing ovation at the Dove Awards, the Gospel Music Association’s big awards show. But once a topless-photography scandal overwhelmed her inarticulate cultural stance, the church quickly backed away.

Speidi, however, has the advantage of not being placed on the Christian pedestal. “It’s hard to take their faith seriously at all,” says Jared Wilson, pastor of Element Church in Nashville and the author of Your Jesus Is Too Safe. Wilson watched their encounter Monday with Al Roker on  Today and observed, “They demonstrated zero humility, grace, or patience. Obviously, becoming a Christian doesn’t change your behavior overnight, but it does change you.” Of Pratt, Wilson offers this opinion: “It looks like he’s just trying on Christianity like he would an Armani coat.”

David Sessions, editor in chief of Patrol, an independent arts and culture magazine with a religious bent, goes a step further. “Carrie Prejean at least did something to be quasi-persecuted for. As far as I know, Heidi and Spencer haven’t done anything but yell about Jesus on TV, which makes them look like tacky opportunists and makes religious people in general appear ridiculous. Most Christians would look at their prissy, entitled, hateful behavior—it’s all right there on tape—and conclude that anyone who took their beliefs very seriously wouldn’t behave in such a fashion.”

But if they are serious, they should consider avoiding the spotlight for a while. The instant publicity that accompanies celebrity conversions—from Bob Dylan in the 1970s to Hollywood bad-boy Joe Ezsterhas more recently—concerns pastors like Wilson. “Christian culture is sick with celebrity worship just like the world,” he says, “so we need to stop pouncing on every Stephen Baldwin and Gary Busey who suddenly say they got saved.”

Wilson says it’s possible to follow Jesus under the paparazzi’s scrutiny, but it’s not necessarily wise. “Conversion begins with repentance, and repentance really does call for a new way of life,” he says. “These folks need helpful Christian mentors to come alongside them—with no vested interest in whether their protégé maintains celebrity status—and help them sort out what repentance looks like.”

So Speidi might be a pair of hypocrites. But aren’t we all? The couple’s savant-like combination of spirituality and vapidity rubs almost everyone the wrong way, but original sin being what it is, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised by this. “We don’t expect Christian used-car salesmen or the [Christian] mechanic to be perfect,” Criner asks, “so why should we expect [Montag and Pratt] to be perfect?”

That’s a Christ-like thought. But perhaps we should expect more from our proclaimed celebrity Christians. After all, isn’t the Speidi spectacle the natural upshot of our fame-driven, religion-drenched culture? In that context, Montag and Pratt could be just a small, terrifying glimpse into what we’ll be dealing with 15 years from now, when those precious Gosselin kids grow up, and become Speidi quadrupled.

Jason Boyett is the author of the upcoming books Pocket Guide to the Afterlife, Pocket Guide to the Bible, and Pocket Guide to Sainthood, releasing in August from Jossey-Bass. He blogs about religion and culture at jasonboyett.com.