When certain personalities get to the point of being celebrities, it’s easy for us non-famous people to forget that they are still people. And no matter what public image celebrities might portray, they’re in the middle of their own life journey with their perspectives on life, priorities and, yes, faith.
Despite the faith’s demographic popularity—78 percent of all American adults identify as Christians—it can still be surprising to encounter conversations about Christianity in the media, outside of religious outlets. But even when it’s not within the context of church or Christian TV, the influences of the Bible and faith are prevalent among everyone from comedians and rock stars to business leaders and celebrities. And while their lifestyles and personal choices may not necessarily reflect a conventional view of faith, their thoughts certainly provide an enlightening—even inspiring—window into their spiritual journeys.
Here’s a look at six unexpected conversations about faith, church, Jesus and Christianity in mainstream pop culture.
Bill Gates on the Existence of God and the Importance of Church Attendance
Bill Gates recently sat down for a long interview with Rolling Stone magazine to discuss consumer technology, wealth and the huge amounts of anti-poverty work currently being undertaken by The Gates Foundation. (“I’ve been very lucky, and therefore I owe it to try and reduce the inequity in the world. And that’s kind of a religious belief. I mean, it’s at least a moral belief.”) Toward the end of the interview though, the discussion took a turn for the spiritual when Gates is asked about his views on faith. Not only does he discuss the importance of going to church (“The moral systems of religion, I think, are super important. We’ve raised our kids in a religious way; they’ve gone to the Catholic church that Melinda goes to and I participate in”), he also says that for him, the existence of God seems evident in creation:
But the mystery and the beauty of the world is overwhelmingly amazing, and there’s no scientific explanation of how it came about. To say that it was generated by random numbers, that does seem, you know, sort of an uncharitable view [laughs]. I think it makes sense to believe in God, but exactly what decisions in your life you make differently because of it, I don’t know.
Ira Glass on Why Christians Are Unfairly Portrayed in the Media
“What Christians really are is not being captured by the press,” This American Life creator and host Ira Glass said. “So that just created an opportunity for us to document the way people live their religion.” If you listen to the popular public radio and podcast series This American Life, you will likely encounter documentary-style stories on a variety of topics—including faith. But, unlike some outlets, on TAL, Christians have routinely been portrayed as complex, thoughtful subjects, navigating faith in difficult circumstances. In a 2012 interview with author Jim Henderson, Glass, who is an atheist, said that decision was intentional:
I feel that Christians are really horribly covered by the media … And there came a point early on in the show that I just noticed that the way that Christians are portrayed in movies and on television is almost always as these crazy people … Whereas the Christians in my life were all incredibly wonderful and thoughtful and had very ambiguous, complicated feelings in their beliefs. And seemed to be totally generous-hearted—totally opened to a lot of different kinds of people in their lives.
In this six-minute video interview, Glass tells stories of how interacting with Christians at work and on his show has helped shaped the way his radio series portrays real believers living their American lives.
John Lennon on Wanting the Beatles to Become a Christian Band
Though toward the end of his life, John Lennon seemed to embrace a New Age philosophy of religion, at one point in his career, he actually wanted the Beatles to be a Christian band. In an interview from 1969—which wasn’t unearthed until 2008—Lennon explained to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation that his infamous comment about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus had been misunderstood, and he actually wanted to spread Christ’s message:
It’s just an expression meaning the Beatles seem to me to have more influence over youth than Christ. Now, I wasn’t saying that was a good idea, ’cause I’m one of Christ’s biggest fans. And if I can turn the focus on the Beatles on to Christ’s message, then that’s what we’re here to do … If the Beatles get on the side of Christ, which they always were, and let people know that, then maybe the churches won’t be full, but there’ll be a lot of Christians dancing in the dance halls. Whatever they celebrate, God and Christ, I don’t think it matters as long as they’re aware of Him and His message.
According to Steve Turner’s The Gospel According to the Beatles, there was even a time when Lennon claimed to be born again and corresponded with televangelist Oral Roberts about faith. Though he later seemed to adopt a very complicated view of religion despite the comments, the other notable thing in the interview was that in some cases it was judgmental Christians—not Christ—that turned him off from the Church.
Kanye West on Why Christianity Is “Awesome”
Following the release of his controversial album Yeezus, Kanye West unveiled a theatrical tour that included a surprisingly theologically knowledgeable Jesus character in an on-stage skit. In an interview with The JV Show, West explained that he incorporated the skit only after consulting with a pastor:
I had a friend of mine that’s a pastor that was there when we started discussing how we wanted to deliver it. My girl [Kim Kardashian] even asked afterward, ’Hmmm, is it weird if Jesus comes on stage?’… [The pastor said], ’No, we do plays all the time [where] people play Jesus.’ You know what’s awesome about Christianity is that we’re allowed to portray God. We’re allowed to draw [an] image of Him, we’re allowed to make movies about Him … Michelangelo did it.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be too surprising that Kim and Kanye discussed the reverence of the skit with a pastor before making it a fixture of his shows. After all, the “Jesus Walks” rapper recently told his mother-in-law in a talk show interview, “I’m a Christian, and I just wanted to always let people know that’s what’s on my mind … It’s important to me that I grow, and walk and raise my family with Christian values.”
Megan Fox on Speaking in Tongues
In Esquire’s January 2013 cover story on Transformers star Megan Fox gained a lot of attention for the writer’s creepy fascination with her appearance (“The eyes match exactly. The brow is in perfect balance, like a problem of logic, like a visual labyrinth”). But it was Fox’s description of her church experience that took many readers by surprise. In the words of Esquire, the actress described how “Others in her situation have found release in booze and pills. Fox has found hers in church.” And for Fox, it is a Pentecostal church where she speaks in tongues during worship:
I have seen magical, crazy things happen. I’ve seen people be healed. Even now, in the church I go to, during Praise and Worship I could feel that I was maybe getting ready to speak in tongues, and I’d have to shut it off because I don’t know what that church would do if I started screaming out in tongues in the back … It feels like a lot of energy coming through the top of your head—I’m going to sound like such a lunatic—and then your whole body is filled with this electric current. And you just start speaking, but you’re not thinking because you have no idea what you’re saying. Words are coming out of your mouth, and you can’t control it. The idea is that it’s a language that only God understands. It’s the language that’s spoken in heaven. It’s called ‘getting the Holy Ghost.’
Russell Brand Respectfully Debating Westboro Baptist Protestors
In November of 2012, two members of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church visited the FX late-night talk show of English actor and comedian Russell Brand for a surreal conversation about their notorious anti-gay message. And though neither side represented anything resembling a conventional view of Christianity, what transpired (at least for the first half of the interview), was an entertaining and relatively well-mannered discussion about the dangerous—but passionately followed—theological perspective and hate-speech of the “church” members.
And though Brand did throw in a few off-color references, the discussion managed to strangely humanize the Westboro guests, even as they were booed for constantly using slurs. The interview doesn’t offer any real orthodox theology, but it managed to serve as one of the most interesting exchanges between the Phelps family and a media personality who was more interested in hearing what made them tick than just fighting with them. (Just a warning, the video of the interview embedded here does feature some slurs and crude references).
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.