- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2007

In the modern-day world of celebrity, religion often seems reduced to a commodity. A fashionable trend that can be bought into and discarded as easily as a red string Kabbalah bracelet or a designer yoga mat bag. A choice that has more to do with accessorizing than the afterlife.

Not that this should come as any surprise. Celebrities today have much on their plates. Between rehab stints, divorce proceedings, corporeal enhancement, criminal trials, the pesky paperwork generated by foreign adoption agencies, jail sentences and reducing carbon footprints — who has time for a spiritual practice?

For those who’ve lost their faith in the famous, however, there is a light: A few young film and music industry notables are showing that it’s possible to walk a religiously righteous path, even when it cuts through territory riddled with temptation.

It’s no cakewalk, but for faith-fame tightrope walkers like Mormon actor Jon Heder, Hasidic reggae artist Matisyahu, Muslim MC Lupe Fiasco and members of the Christian pop-punk band Relient K, to name a few, it’s the only route they know.

To one side of them are the skeptics, who may scorn their traditional beliefs and question their seemingly restrictive lifestyles.

To the other side are fundamentalists, for whom these stars will never be pious enough.

Ahead lies the financial compensation that typically awaits successful, talented artists — as well as gifts on a higher order, which might include the joy of bringing happiness to others and the fulfillment that comes from finding and following one’s God-given purpose.

What many of those engaged in this balancing act have found, however, is that staying the course requires putting blinders on. It’s all about tuning out the naysayers and the temptresses and developing core strength: a solid set of guiding principles and a firm sense of self.

The process and results vary for each individual.

Mr. Heder, for example, has had to find his footing in a hurry. Just three years ago he exploded into the film industry and popular culture as the nerdy title character of “Napoleon Dynamite,” a film written and directed by two of his classmates at the Mormon-affiliated Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Since then, Hollywood’s kept a-knocking, and it’ll likely continue to do so thanks to his appearance as Will Ferrell’s skating partner in this year’s smash-hit comedy “Blades of Glory.”

“My whole life has changed,” he says while sitting in a luxe Honolulu hotel room giving interviews for his latest project, the animated film “Surf’s Up.”

“My religion’s a big part of my life, and it’s not that I always knew I was going to get into the film business, but I always knew I was going to be faithful to my religion,” he says. “Getting into this, it’s just one step at a time.”

Figuring out how to reconcile his career and his values has been a very personal process for the actor, who’s married and just had a baby. In the Mormon religion “there’s no guidebook about ‘in case you become famous,’ ” he observes. Instead, the faith offers general “guidelines” for life and “whatever career you do, it’s up to you how to interpret it.”

Gray areas that require careful consideration, like the homosexual undertones in “Blades of Glory” and the stoner-esque quality of the laid-back surfing chicken he voices in “Surf’s Up” — both decidedly un-Mormon themes — do arise. The films earned his stamp of approval in the end, though, because Mr. Heder thought they told good, high-quality stories — and he made sure they contained no explicit references to taboo topics.

Other things clearly fall on the far side of a line that Mr. Heder won’t ever cross, regardless of the paycheck: He doesn’t drink, smoke or ingest caffeine, and he’ll 86 any script that casts him as someone who does drugs, curses or has a sex scene.

“I don’t really change my values as much as I change the script if I have that power,” he says. “My faith, my family come first.”

Hasidic musician Matisyahu sees his career in much the same light. Born Matthew Miller, he was raised in the Jewish faith and grew up in White Plains, N.Y. After spending his teenage years following the jam-band Phish, he became a Lubavitcher (a strict sect of Hasidic Judaism) around 2000, giving him just four years to catch his moral bearings before releasing his first Torah-touting roots reggae album, “Shake Off the Dust … ARISE.” The disc was the first stop on the road to snagging headlining sets at Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival, a Grammy nod and recognition from top industry rags.

Like Mr. Heder, the musician has also had to learn how to juggle family (he’s also married with children), faith and fame and operate in a cultural realm where traditional dress (he often dons a flat-brim hat, suit and prayer shawl) and values often carry the potential for misunderstanding.

“I’m doing this balancing act where I’m trying to stay true and I’m trying to enter the world as much as possible,” he explains on his tour bus at the start of this year’s festival season.

In his early days of touring, he believed that when he wasn’t onstage performing, it was necessary to isolate himself from secular society. Not only did it make it easier to stick to his religious tenets — like not working on the Sabbath, keeping kosher and not coming into physical contact with women other than his wife or mother — but it also gave him the opportunity to delve deeper into his religious study.

What he found, however, was “that doing it out of a fear-based motive can be growth stunting.”

In an attempt to engage the outside world a bit more, he’s done some experiments — such as hosting a Shabbat tent at two festivals he’s played (2006’s Bonnaroo and 2007’s Langerado). This entails arriving on the festival grounds early to avoid traveling on the day of rest, then holding Shabbat services there for his invited guests (rabbi friends) and any curious concertgoers who may wander in. This way, he can soak in the music and be of the moment while simultaneously abiding by his beliefs.

“I’ve definitely had to change my philosophy a little to encompass and make room for both worlds,” he says, “so my view on what is religious or what is godly, let’s say, has widened.”

Conversely, work by people such as Mr. Heder, Matisyahu or other pious purveyors of film and music has the potential to impact how their audiences view art and religion. Maybe these stars help illustrate how movies and music can function without gratuitous sex and violence — or how honorable isn’t synonymous with uncool.

Paul F. Knitter, Paul Tillich professor of theology, world religions and culture at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, also notes that someone like Matisyahu, who brings elements of faith into what’s typically a secular sphere, serves an important role because “a lot of people are just not finding the spirituality [they seek] in the churches.”

“There’s such a conglomeration of different cultures and religions,” Matisyahu says of this country, “and everyone is trying to figure out in this big stew who they are and what they’re made of, where they came from.”

“That exploration is important,” he says, “and at the same time, understanding what it means to be an American and seeing how the two relate. I think for a lot of people, I kind of represent that yearning to be able to mix those two perspectives.”

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