IRVINE, Calif. (RNS) In more than 30 years as a believer, I’ve attended enough “Christian conferences” to expect at least a few of the speakers to be talking out of their … um … butts, if you will.
But Hollywood director Tom Shadyac was the first to do so literally when he began an address to several thousand young evangelicals by mimicking the posterior elocution of the lead character from his “Ace Ventura” films.
In fairness, Shadyac, the 54-year-old director of “Patch Adams,” “Liar Liar,” “Bruce Almighty,” and “Evan Almighty,” was trying to get Christian comedian Lanny Donoho — who was interviewing him at the Catalyst West conference — to “talk out of his butt” like Jim Carrey’s wacky Ace Ventura character.
Donoho demurred, and Shadyac, a lanky ball of energy clad in T-shirt and jeans with long curly hair and spectacles, took his seat, still riffing.
“I get three strikes and I’ve already got one – let’s all pray,” Shadyac said, grinning. “I have not said anything controversial yet. I didn’t even use the word ‘ass.'”
“There’s an ‘x,'” Donoho retorted, playfully marking a sheet of paper in front of him. Cue the nervous laughter.
Loosen up a bit, people. Saying “ass” will not buy you an express ticket to eternal damnation.
Later in his half-hour-long chat, when Shadyac mentions the openly gay talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, a palpable uneasiness descends on the audience.
“Dead silence,” Shadyac said, naming the 900-pound gorilla in the room. “DEAD. SILENCE.”
Oh, for the love of God, I thought. Lighten up, shiny happy Christians. It won’t kill us to laugh at ourselves.
Now, before anybody accuses me of being a self-hating evangelical, let me be clear: Evangelicals are my family and I love them. And sometimes they make me want to pull my hair out.
Shadyac is not Catalyst’s usual fare of trying-to-be-hip pastors. But that didn’t seem to bother the zany director in the slightest. He moved from quick-witted one-liners to deep discussions of faith and God’s role in the creative process.
After the box office disappointment “Evan Almighty” in 2007, Shadyac’s life turned “upside down,” he said.
A lifelong athlete, he almost died in a cycling accident, suffering through six months of stultifying “post-concussion syndrome” that he had to sleep in a darkened walk-in closet. It was into those darkest hours, when he believed he was facing his own demise, that transcendent light broke through.
“I could feel the pull of God in me to go deeper,” he said. “Because I faced my own death, because I saw that I literally had nothing to lose, I dropped into an authentic place and I said, ‘If I’ve got one shot at speaking my story, what do I want to say?’ And I created this film called ‘I Am,’ which is what I really care about: What has gone wrong in this world and how might we all participate in building a new world.”
Shadyac built a new world for himself by dismantling his old one. He sold his private jet and his 17,000-square-foot estate and moved into a trailer park in Malibu. And he stepped away from Hollywood.
“I find hypocrisy all over our lives – especially mine – and certainly in the church. … I think Jesus loves everybody. Everybody. The second we call somebody a ‘nonbeliever,’ we have put a wall up between us and them. They are all children of God.”
With a wink and a crazy-eyed smile, Shadyac was, ostensibly, calling the crowd on its own … uh … baloney.
“Forgive me, I’m personally a little tired – God’s not, but I am – of khaki-wearing, Docker-delivering, Christianity,” he said. “If you’re out there in Dockers or khakis: God loves you, but I’m still a work in progress.”
And, when given the chance, Shadyac gently corrected the tacit implication that Hollywood is Babylon.
“You know what I would say to the church, to you guys, if I had to? ‘Come on. Let’s stop it,'” the director began. “We have become so whitewashed that when I literally say the word ‘ass’ – which is actually in the anatomical dictionary – because we are so born of the Puritan fear (you freak out). Guess what? God made the ass. He made the ass.
“You’ve just gotta get over that. I don’t believe the world is godless. Because if I believe in omnipresence and omniscience, and I take the Word at its word, that God is in EV-ERY-THING,” he said. “When another person is loving another person, God is all over their lives. I don’t need to judge them and to tell them where God is in or out or what words they need to say. That is not up to me.”
Shadyac knew he was being provocative. This is the way he understands God, a life of faith, and service to God and others. But it’s not the only way.
“I just encourage you to love,” he told the audience, “and let God take it from there.”
(Cathleen Falsani is the faith & values columnist for the Orange County Register.)