Chris Seay was the founding pastor of University Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, one of the earliest examples of generational church planting. He now pastors Ecclesia of Houston. Seay also loves HBO's The Sopranos and has written The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (Tarcher Putnam).
How did you come to the faith?
I'm a third-generation Baptist pastor, so I came to the faith quite naturally. But in the kind of churches my father and grandfather pastored, there weren't a lot of people who really cared about social justice and who were connected, kind, and loving people, which is what I saw in Christ, the epitome of real Christian love.
I also saw peers that were rejecting the church, and somehow I knew that if I were in ministry, it would be radically different. So the churches that I've started are very much connected with young people and artists.
How did you end up starting a church?
If my faith was going to be my own, I knew I had to venture out and find it. And in my university years I found that the reason that my peers were abandoning the church was because Christianity was more about Western ideals than it was about Christ. I had to ask, What is Christ really about? I ended up starting a church in Waco, Texas, with just a few people. Within six weeks the church was running over 600 people. It grew rapidly. Just people longing to connect to Christ in a creative way.
When I started that church, I knew that I wanted those who were being isolated outside of faith. We believe that artists are our current day preachers and storytellers, so we do things through visual art and film and literature that we couldn't do otherwise. We believe that that's the best way to tell the story of God.
When you grew up, Christianity was also a subculture cocooned from the broader culture.
I still think one of the great fallacies of Christian thinking is this kind of garbage in/garbage out mentality. You know, I remember being 16 years old and being taught that kind of thing. "Stay away from culture because what you think you will absorb. See, your brain is a sponge, you'll absorb whatever you hear and see."
And I began to study Scripture and I read passages like that in Daniel, where Daniel was educated by sorcerers, magicians, pagan priests, and astrologers. It says at the end of chapter one that he became ten times wiser in those things than the people that taught him. And yet, clearly, he wasn't a pagan priest or a sorcerer. Scripture was his guide through all of the mess of his own pagan culture that I find to be very similar to our culture.
What did you come to understand culture is about?
I've found it as a place where people are longing and asking spiritual questions. In music and movies, you see all of these deep spiritual questions. And the people that are supposed to engage those questions have removed themselves. We pull away from culture to the point where we can no longer affect it. Somewhere right in the middle is a really healthy place, but it's a difficult one to find.
You say your "primary relationship growing up" was with M*A*S*H. That's a very sad commentary on life in a pastor's home.
It is. It was a family affair, though. It was the closest to a real spiritual experience I ever had with a television show. I think in large part it was because my dad's dad died in the Korean War. M*A*S*H was our connection to him. Somehow as we watched these half comedian/half doctors joke around, it was almost as if his dad sat with us for those 30 minutes each night.
How does one identify beliefs and provocative issues out of any cultural artifact?
Think critically. Do I agree with that? Do I not agree with that? Is this something that is explicit Christian truth? At times I hear stuff in The Sopranos and I think, "I could preach that without changing a word of it."
You say in your book's introduction, "I remember one night watching Tony Soprano … cursing up a blue streak, as a throng of naked women with near-perfect bodies crowded around him. I flipped over to CNN a few times, but always turned back." How do we know what our relationship with culture is supposed to be?
I'm not sure we ever do. I hope that that tension never leaves me. I hope that when I see evil it ought to bother me a bit, and yet in the midst of it, it wasn't death that I turned back for. The Sopranos has a story of sin and redemption I continue to turn back for. Or at least the longing for redemption. Tony Soprano is full of sin and anger and murderous rage and greed — and was looking for some way to make it right. Yet in therapy there were no real answers.
How do you relate to comments that watching these kinds of behaviors indulge our worst appetites?
If your temptation is to become a mob boss killer, and that's a major temptation for you, maybe you should avoid the show. But I do not believe that this show, in particular, glorifies violence or deviant sexuality. I think you see how bankrupt and how sad a life that most of these people lead.
My dad and I had this argument, and he has some of the same fears. He never has watched the show, and I don't know that he will. We joke about it because the reality is, some of the shows that he would take me to watch when I was a boy, like James Bond movies, very much glorified violence and sexuality.
There are people who argue that "amusement" means to watch without your mind. So people are clicking over to Sopranos and watching without their mind. How do you respond to that?
If you watch any of this, if you listen to music, whether it's on your Christian radio station or any other, or you go see any film, you're foolish if you turn off your mind. We can't afford to do that. Just because Mariah Carey sings about love songs does not mean she's an expert on love. We have to be critical thinkers.
Shows like The Sopranos become the cultural metaphor. It becomes the speaking points, the place that we refer to. It becomes the common story. And so we need access to that story to begin a launching point for a dialogue. The reality is everybody else is watching this show. These are people that are outside the faith and I want to speak the gospel into their lives, and it's the perfect opportunity.
Why does The Sopranos strike a chord with people?
We see Tony Soprano as he really is. He's a sick man, and yet he's a beautiful man. There are all of these things present with him. And I think most characters that we get in popular film and television are not very real to life. Most of the ones that we have emerging from Scripture are very real when you read them in Scripture, but we have distorted them. We've tried to make them into morality heroes, which they are not. These were really broken men and women. They were very messed up, very sinful. The beauty of the story is that God continues to meet them there.
I don't think that Christ ever fixes it all. He definitely didn't for the people of Scripture. These were not people that were somehow fixed by God. I don't think we are either. The hope is that we don't have to take our sin to the point that Tony does. Redemption takes place in us much quicker.
You call Tony a neo-Solomon. What does Tony represent as a person?
You know, Solomon is incredibly honest in his journey, especially in the book of Ecclesiastes where he says, "I went out to find meaning and purpose apart from God. And I wanted to find something that would sustain me that had nothing to do with God." And so he does. And yet it's empty.
What's likable about Tony?
He's the ultimate anti-hero. He does really sick and mean things and yet he loves his wife, he loves his family, he loves the people that he works with in this criminal family.
These Mafia members on the show are very macho, but they do show love don't they?
Christian men send me strange e-mails that say, "I want to be a part of a Christian mafia." What they are really saying is, "I want to be in a place where strong men are honest about the fact that they love each other." And so what you see, and the reason you love these men is they have a lot of fun. They sit around, they eat together, they spend a lot of time hanging out together. And when they see each other they're thrilled to see each other. They hug and kiss each other and they're loyal to the end.
But in the midst of all of this wonderful closeness, there's this whole theme of isolation in The Sopranos.
Tony seems to have it all, a family that loves him, a criminal family that loves him and respects him, and yet he's constantly living in fear that somehow they will abandon him or leave him. He's longing to find some kind of unconditional love. He wants to find someone that will love him and really know how messed up he is.
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