Long ago, when I taught media and culture classes at Denver Seminary, I had a large bulletin board in the lobby outside the auditorium on which I pinned all kinds of items from the mainstream press.
This wasn't a current events board. Instead, my goal was to show the seminary community that all kinds of things were happening in the world around them that raised questions that were essentially moral and theological in nature.
There was, for example, a newsweekly cover about female anger and the movie "Thelma and Louise." I wasn't suggesting that pastors show video clips from this R-rated drama. My point was that the controversy swirling around it was important -- especially for people whose churches were involved in divorce-recovery ministry.
Mostly, I was trying to get seminary people to tune in, whenever the culture talks about ultimate questions. Hang on with me for a minute, because this is taking us into the pages of GQ and that feature story called, "The Love Song of Robert Bentley, Alabama's Horndog Governor."
Here is a piece of a book chapter from that time, explaining this "signal" concept:
I believe that our media are constantly sending out "signals" that can help the church go about its ministry and mission work in this post-Christian culture. Sadly, the church and our seminaries are ignoring both the content and social role of popular culture mass media, which are among the most powerful cultural forces in the modern world.
So what is a "signal?" I have defined this as a single piece of media or popular culture focusing on a subject that is of interest to the church. It can be a newspaper article, a single episode of a television show, a compact disc, a movie, a new video, a best-selling book or some other specific item.
Thus, a prime "signal" is when the mass media raise crucial questions, even if their proposed answers are less than adequate, from the church's point of view.
That brings us to the media coverage of the tragic story of the Bentley family, which Bobby Ross, Jr., addressed in an earlier post.
This new GQ story is just packed with religious references, in part because it's a story about the fall of a conservative hypocrite. Thus, the more references to church stuff it contains, the better.
This is a stunning story, but ultimately hollow. It's a political drama, of course, which includes lots of details about people with broken hearts. But when it comes to drawing conclusions about the meaning of this tragedy, GQ doesn't have a clue. It's hard to judge the moral failure of a believer when the only ultimate sins are political.
Still, a prime signal is there and people are seeing it. Take, for example, this tweet from the Rev. Russell Moore, the top Southern Baptist voice in Washington, D.C.
Here is the overture for this drama, complete with some key faith-centered details:
Accompanying him on the flight was his wife, Dianne. The couple had been married for almost 49 years, raised four sons, and been bestowed with seven lovely granddaughters. For many happy decades, Robert, a doctor with a thriving dermatology practice in Tuscaloosa, would hustle home every day for lunch with Dianne. More recently, as governor, he'd return to the mansion from the state capitol in the early evening and sweet-talk her in the kitchen. Come Sundays, they were mainstays at First Baptist of Tuscaloosa, where Robert was a deacon and Dianne worked in the nursery. They seemed every bit the state's benevolent grandparents -- a model Christian couple for Alabamians of all political stripes.
But a few months earlier, Dianne started to notice something changing in the governor. As she later told a confidante, Robert was more taciturn when he came home from work and was more sparing with his kisses. She was puzzled that her husband -- a man so unconcerned with how he looked that his advisers would remind him not to wear his tattered gardening pants out in public -- had started sporting bright orange socks and snazzy ties. Dianne, a woman whose personality is as demure as her bobbed silver hair, tried to put these things out of her mind. But the oddities were stacking up.
You can see where this is going. Finally, the wife used her iPhone recording functions -- leaving it behind, running, while she took a solo talk on the beach -- to capture a telephone call between her husband and the other woman. The less said about the recording the better, since it resembles purple Playboy prose more than the biblical poetry of the Song of Solomon.
The GQ story also gets that religious motivations helped create this disaster. In the beginning, the governor, you see, was really trying to help out some friends who needed help. One just happened to be a former beauty queen with a bright smile.
Consider this Act 2 in the drama:
As political temptresses go, Rebekah Mason was, in some ways, a familiar one. A onetime news anchor, she'd done a tour of minor Alabama media markets before leaving TV to raise her children. In the summer of 2010, she and her husband, a meteorologist, were facing financial difficulties. Their church, First Baptist of Tuscaloosa, had tried to help the young family, praying for God's assistance. When their fellow congregant Robert Bentley had an opening in his campaign press office, one of his sons suggested the nice young woman from church who was struggling to make ends meet, according to a person familiar with the circumstances behind Mason's hiring. After Bentley was elected, he appointed the former TV reporter the governor's communications director, and he even gave her husband, Jon, a $90,000-a-year job as the head of the governor's office of faith-based initiatives. It seemed that everyone's prayers had been answered.
We can now cut to the chase. Mason gains political power. People notice. As suspicions turn into reality, the governor's children get involved. But the response is painful, with the governor actually being more open about the affair. There are lovey-dovey scenes in government meetings and a timely plunging neckline on a gown.
The governor does remove Mason from her state job, which only raises more questions about who is paying her (and her husband) to do what and why.
Meanwhile, what is missing? Readers keep hearing from political players in this drama and other onlookers. To be blunt: Where are the pastors and church leaders in this story?
If this is a story about political and personal sin, again, why only deal with the political? Might it be possible to deal with the religious issues in this story in some fashion deeper than wink-wink and, oh, "Aren't these religious people really tacky?"
In the end, the story features a final act that -- to be blunt -- preachers from coast to coast should carry into their pulpits so they can read this passage to their flocks.
The wages of sin is death? Check this out and brace yourself for the reference to the governor's new grandchild:
The two principals' lives, meanwhile, lay in ruins. Since Mason's resignation, she and Bentley now spend more time in the company of their respective lawyers than with each other, although Montgomery is aflame with rumors that she still advises her old boss via text and phone calls. Both have left the church they once shared. Mason continues to reside with her family in Tuscaloosa, where some of her children attend the same schools as some of Bentley's grandchildren, and everywhere she goes, she faces the stares and snickers of her neighbors.
As for Bentley, he's vowed to stay in office, clinging to the job that brought so much trouble. These days, when he goes home, the governor's mansion -- once a splendid reminder of how far he'd come -- sits empty save for the chef. If the hour is late, even he'll be gone, having left the governor his dinner on a counter. Bentley no longer talks to his family: He has yet to meet his eighth grandchild, born after he'd fallen out with his son. And on weekends, he no longer heads to the beach house; Dianne got it in the divorce. Instead, he'll steer that pale blue pickup of his out to the pond -- the one where he and Rebekah were suspected to have once met—and toss a fishing line into the water, alone.
Simply stated, that'll preach.