Why Christian Pastors Are Talking About Scandal in Church

Shonda Rhimes's show deals with adultery, temptation, redemption, and the need for a savior—making it a ripe, but potentially perilous, Biblical teaching tool.

olivia pope pew.png

The first time viewers of ABC's hit drama Scandal see Olivia Pope go to church, she's there to oversee the success of a "fix" she negotiated for the wife of a prominent pastor who died on top of his mistress. Pope spends much of the episode counseling and empathizing with the mistress, while the long-suffering wife—still reeling from the depth of her husband's betrayal—has to accept both his lover and her secret child.

The second time we see Olivia in a pew, she's mourning the loss of a corrupt mentor her own married lover murdered. She's also there to hook up with that lover of hers—until she discovers that he knows she's betrayed him. Then, she's there to seek forgiveness—not from God, but from her man, President Fitzgerald Grant.

In short: Olivia Pope uses church for surprising reasons. Perhaps the same could be said for how the church uses her. Since Scandal's debut (its second-season finale airs Thursday night), its rapidly growing audience has taken to Twitter to live-tweet the series along with its stars. Pastors are capitalizing on the series' success by live-tweeting with the rest of the viewership, and even crafting sermons and conferences around the show and its protagonist.

It's a familiar technique. Churches, to remain engaged with popular culture, have been name-checking television shows, films, and pop songs for ages. The more risqué or controversial the media, the more rousing the congregational response. For better or worse, scandal—in all its varied forms—grabs attention.

But it can be tricky to pull off this tactic for connecting with congregants, and some ways of going about it can be more helpful—or hurtful—to churchgoers than others.

Dr. Tejado W. Hanchell, Senior Pastor of Mount Calvary Holy Church of Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is one of many ministers to use Scandal as an object lesson. In the May 2 episode, "A Woman Scorned," Olivia growls the instant-classic line, "You want me? Earn me!" to Fitz. In response, Dr. Hanchell used the hashtag #DearSingleSister to dispense a bit of admonition to any women who may have been looking to Olivia as a relationship role model. "#DearSingleSister," he wrote, "A married man can't 'earn you.' His assets are tied up in another investment." Other advice from that week includes: "#DearSingleSister, you can get free from your 'Fitz' but you can't do it alone. Seek help." And then there's this observation: "Fitz is acting like those pastors who lose their church over a side piece."

For faith leaders who use the show primarily to address the perils and fallout of adultery, useful commentary seems limited. Lessons along these lines assume that there's a great need for addressing extramarital affairs in church—and there very well may be. But these quips also place the bulk of blame on Olivia Pope. She—and by extension, the female contingent of a church's Scandal-viewing audience—become whipping girls for the Purity Police. The message is: Don't end up like Olivia Pope, the mistress who will most assuredly received her well-deserved comeuppance. And, apparently: Don't be a "side piece" who causes a pastor to lose his church. Beyond that, there isn't much of a faith message to be gained.

Dr. Hanchell isn't alone in his adultery-based critique of the show and its viewers, but some churches are using Scandal as less of a shaming device and more of a conversation-starter and a Bible study. Take Impact Church of Atlanta, where Pastor Olu Brown preached a series on Scandal that was strategically planned to coincide with the show's last three-week hiatus. Three Scandal-centric sermons, "I've Been Hucked," "Every Scandal Has a Harrison," and "The Olivia Pope Syndrome," dissect the show's characters and plot in interesting and less judgmental ways.

"Raise your hand if you're involved in a scandal," Pastor Brown begins his "I've Been Hucked" sermon. "Don't you dare raise your hand!" After the congregation chuckles, he continues, "That's why we're talking about this series. As long as we live, we will all face a scandal in our lives. How do we find some basis to talk about this for the next three weeks? I can think of no other book than the most scandalous book ever written: the Holy Bible."

Now we're talking. Faith-based discussion of Scandal has the potential to be very effective, but only when used to boost a congregation's understanding of its governing text.

After all, Pastor Brown is right to call the Bible scandalous, filled as it is with stories of murder, adultery, deception, theft, and other risqué activities. Scandal is no more salacious than the accounts of Old and New Testament biblical figures, from King David and his philandering-but-wise son, King Solomon, to Apostle Paul, pre-conversion. Rather than focusing solely on the extramarital affair at the show's core—and, by extension, turning Olivia Pope into Hester Prynne for a hip-hop generation—Impact Church's series discusses temptation, accountability, and redemption.

This method of engaging the series works well for a few reasons. Most importantly, it acknowledges that churchgoing women who enjoy the soapy plots of Scandal and even root for its heroine are not necessarily fledgling adulteresses looking to Olivia for tips on how to get a man to leave his wife.

The very best way for a church to engage Scandal—especially among feminist congregants—would be to consider that Olivia seems to believe she needs a savior. Huck, her troubled, crime-scene-cleaning staffer and confidante, is the one she's chosen. But an ever-growing cast of men is still vying for the job, from Harrison to Edison to Jake to the leader of the free world. Still, none of them is adequate. The best fit, by far, is the savior she's chosen for herself. But who can she turn to for unconditional love, devotion, and acceptance, when Huck's PTSD inevitably renders him a catatonic mess again?

Certainly, the church has an answer for that.