Television dramas about flawed dynasties are having a moment. Succession. Yellowstone. Monarch, a forthcoming series about a multigenerational country music clan. Righteous Gemstones—currently in its second season on HBO—is at once part of this trend and a thing apart. Focusing on the first family of a fictional Southern megachurch, Gemstones is an action comedy with the tribal violence and factional intrigue of The Godfather by way of the absurd, privileged narcissism of Arrested Development’s Bluth family. It also features a surprising amount of heart, and a sincere respect for the Christian faith of the deeply flawed Gemstone family.
“Any type of response I’ve gotten from the religious community has been supportive of it,” said show creator and star Danny McBride in a recent interview. “They’ve been of the mindset that they like that the show doesn’t take pot shots at religion.” At the same time, however, those viewers don’t mind that “these assholes”—the not-always-virtuous Gemstones—“are the butt of the joke,” McBride explains: “I think if you’re a religious person, you don’t like to see a megachurch pastor profit off of the good word.”
McBride plays Jesse Gemstone, the status-conscious oldest son of patriarch Eli Gemstone, played with complex grandeur by John Goodman. Eli’s other two children are Judy, a spoiled woman-child played by Edi Patterson, and Kelvin, Workaholics and Pitch Perfect’s Adam Devine as a tragically hip, strangely asexual youth pastor with a passion for Jesus and personal fitness.
Popular social media accounts like PreachersNSneakers and Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast have attracted both criticism and praise—from practicing Christians of all stripes, as well as from outsiders and from deconstructing evangelicals—for taking aim at Christian megachurch celebrity culture and the hypocrisy of its leaders. It would have been easy for Gemstones to mine the same vein for laughs, tapping into the current elite-skeptical zeitgeist without much consideration for whether or not these people actually, on some level, really mean what they’re saying.
The genuine, positive spiritual impact these megachurches can have on their members can be easy to miss. Mark Cosper, producer of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, though reporting in-depth on the rot and hypocrisy that pervaded the inner circle of Pastor Mark Driscoll, is careful to note that the rank-and-file church membership often had experiences that they believe benefited their lives. A former megachurch member speaking on background said that while a lot of the stereotypes about megachurches definitely ring true for them experientially, the nuance that gets lost is in some ways unfortunate.
For instance, Gemstones features plenty of sociopathic behavior, such as arson, elder abuse, and cycle ninjas (who, while not technically ninjas, are still quite menacing) in the second season alone. McBride and his creative partner Jody Hill also follow Eli Gemstone’s efforts to poach smaller local churches’ congregations, and the saga of Zion’s Landing, a proposed Christian timeshare and pleasure dome. But the show also takes pains to show members of the Gemstone family in sincere private prayer, and extending to each other genuine forgiveness for what are sometimes extremely serious offenses. The content of their sermons is never outlandish or inauthentic, even if the trappings often are.
The show’s serious treatment of religious faith pervades the show, with aptly chosen episode titles drawn from scripture. “Now the sons of Eli were worthless men” is one such title in the first season. Like his namesake in Gemstones, Eli, the Temple priest in the book of Samuel, doesn’t always get the most flattering treatment in the Bible, and his sons even less so. The biblical Eli is rarely portrayed in action: He’s either sitting by the doorpost of the Temple, or sleeping elsewhere while his protege, Samuel, remains in the Temple near the Ark of the Covenant. With poor eyesight during a time when “the word of the Lord was withheld” and “vision had not broken through,” Eli is a sort of Fisher King, his personal malaise and ailments manifesting in the conditions around him. Eli Gemstone, while formidable, is clearly past his prime, overseeing a large house of worship where his sons are selfish stewards of the lives and needs of the people of whom they are ostensibly shepherds, cynically manipulating their religion to suit their temporal purposes.
Nevertheless, for all their flaws, both Elis are true believers. In the Bible, Eli recognizes God is calling Samuel as the younger man lies in the Temple before the Ark. His heart trembles for the fate of the Ark of the Covenant as his sons go out to battle against the Philistines. But while the biblical Eli is a genuine man of faith in God, the show suggests Eli Gemstone’s faith is rooted primarily in his love for his late wife, the deceased family matriarch Aimee Lee, who sang in a Carter Family-like brother/sister duo with her brother, Baby Billy (played with bizarre energy and pathos by Walton Goggins, and who still goes by his stage name despite being somewhere in his 60s).
The late Aimee Lee is portrayed in flashbacks as all sweetness, part Dolly Parton, part Amy Grant. Her apparent faith in the Gemstone calling to ministry anchors her family, even as their children’s shortcomings, already manifest, are met with either indulgence or seeming obliviousness by Gemstones père et mère. No one is perfect in The Righteous Gemstones.
Today, stories about younger white evangelicals leaving megachurches under painful and difficult circumstances abound. Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker cast long shadows in the American popular memory. But there are other stories and experiences that add complexity to the megachurch phenomenon.
For one thing, there is the word “megachurch” itself. The websites for these large, usually nondenominational Protestant churches—replete with state-of-the-art campuses, thousands of members, and amenities like bookstores, coffee shops, and epic tree forts—don’t tend to embrace the term to refer to themselves. “Megachurch” is, however, frequently used pejoratively in the broader cultural context; even the Christian Babylon Bee couldn’t resist using the term when poking fun. But not everything in a “megachurch” is quite so “mega”: Like Gemstone Ministries, real-life Abundant Life Christian Fellowship church offers breakout groups for young people and various smaller faith-sharing groups where believers “face trials, and hold each other accountable,” although the language is probably (much) less colorful than the one Jesse Gemstone facilitates.
The circle that surrounds the show’s eponymous clan is diverse, which may strike outsiders as inaccurate, given the stereotype of megachurches being overwhelmingly white and Southern. However, according to a recent study, the majority of U.S. megachurches are now multiethnic. Over 30 years old, Abundant Life expanded in the early ’00s to a renovated former plastic wares factory in order to accommodate what was then a growing congregation of 6,000. Its website proudly proclaims its multiethnic congregation, and describes itself as being located “right in the heart of Silicon Valley,” not Dallas or Atlanta.
Because of popular perceptions of megachurches, the benefits of their diversity can be overlooked. There aren’t many places in America today where people from different persuasions, walks of life, and generations gather on such a scale to hear the same message and work together to build something larger than themselves. People who attend megachurches are making a rare, even vulnerable, commitment to be surrounded by people who are potentially very different from them. They are taking a chance on an institution that may not be totally aligned with their original beliefs—a countercultural choice as more people are disaffiliating from institutions altogether.
In 2009, Abundant Life had a pastor step down after a self-professed, ambiguous “moral failure.” The person with whom I spoke on background says the lack of denominational hierarchy may pose some of the difficulty when it comes to holding megachurch leaders accountable (Abundant Life, for example, is autonomous). As to why the leaders go astray in the first place? Even a pastor with a “huge heart’” for their congregation, the former megachurch member said, “never necessarily imagined leading such a big enterprise.” Accordingly, things can spiral out of control, even as the church expands. They said there can exist a “really tough and nuanced line between when expansion feels like this colonial project,” and when “it’s intended to be something that is like a managed growth of good change, and religious communities wanting to exert an influence over the development of communities that they want to champion and advocate for and work with and empower.” While doing this in a way that keeps their Christian beliefs front and center, the temptation is to “go big.”
The Gemstones are perhaps less Corleone than Medici: a family of steely-eyed, social climbing businesspeople who commingle faith and commerce to achieve cultural and ecclesiastical power.
“Medieval people often did not see, as I think modern people of faith don’t either, conflict where an outsider may see conflict,” said medieval scholar David Perry. “Medieval Venetians get a bad rap because they’re also making lots of money, and so they’ll do things that are religious and then, people say, ‘Oh well, those Venetians, they didn’t really mean it, they didn’t really mean the faith,’ and I can tell you that’s just not how they wrote about their own world.”
Perry describes a “great tension” that exists within both medieval Venetians and modern people of faith. “They’re aware that they’re living a secular life, but they also believe something that may be in conflict with it, and they’re wracked with doubt and guilt or fear, and they again respond to that in all the different ways you might expect: some by doubling down on the hedonism, and other people by building great churches, or trying to do both at the same time.”
Similar to his biblical analog, Eli Gemstone’s metaphorical vision is clouded by personal and familial ambition. To quote a Bible verse with which the Gemstones would no doubt be familiar, “Whoever loves son or daughter more than me,” Christ says to his followers, “Is not worthy of me.” He puts it more strongly elsewhere: “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles Bishop Robert Barron often explains this difficult passage this way: “Well yes, hate them in the measure that they have become gods to you. For precisely in that measure are they dangerous.”
Each member of the Gemstones is depicted as idolizing some mixture of family pride, fame, wealth, and status over the God they profess to serve. And both intentionally and unintentionally, to themselves and to the people in their orbit, they are indeed dangerous.
This story is part of a series Tablet is publishing to promote religious literacy across different religious communities, supported by a grant from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations.
Maggie Phillips is a freelance writer and former Tablet Journalism Fellow.