When will I learn? The answers to life’s problems aren’t at the bottom of a bottle. They’re on TV!
John 3:16 is probably the most famous Bible verse there is. You’ve seen it on Tim Tebow’s eyeblack, on the cups at In-N-Out, on the bags at Forever 21. If you’ve been to Sunday school once or twice you can probably even quote it: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Have you ever wondered how it got so popular, though?
“Duh,” you’re saying, because you’re the sort of person who’s condescending to harmless humor columnists, “it’s basically the best summary of the gospel there is.” But is it? There are dozens of other verses that do just as good of a job, and John 3:16 is actually part of a weirdly esoteric pericope in which Jesus explains some of the profoundest mysteries about the Trinity, the sacraments, and salvation to a bewildered Pharisee. Sure, it works, but it doesn’t seem like that obvious of a choice. So how did it ever get so ubiquitous?
It’s hard to know for sure, but I think a guy in a rainbow afro may have been at least partially to blame.We all expect to have important, dramatic lives—that every event in our lives will mean something and will lead to something bigger. We all think we’ll turn out to be heroes.
If you don’t remember the late ’80s or early ’90s, you’re probably saying “Huh?” right now, but I’m speaking of the famous “Rock’n” Rollen “Rainbow Man” Stewart, who spent almost 15 years dressing in a ridiculous outfit to hold up a “JOHN 3:16” sign at sporting events. And he did it enough that at the height of his fame, he was getting referenced in a Simpsons gag and a song by Christian rock star Steve Taylor, and even played by Christopher Walken in a Saturday Night Live sketch (as, I think, we all hope to be someday). But let’s start at the beginning.
Stewart was born in 1945, into an almost immediately troubled childhood. Both of his parents were alcoholics—a disease that killed his father when he was only 7; when he was 15, his mother died in a tragic fire. After a failed marriage, Stewart moved to the mountains, started farming cannabis, and watched way too much TV. He emerged from this mass-media-drenched funk, as anyone would, with two things: (1) the world’s most impressive mustache, and (2) a profound desire to be famous.
Like most people who pine after fame, Stewart moved to Hollywood and tried to become an actor. Unfortunately, he quickly discovered the same thing that every rando who moves to Hollywood discovers: those people with degrees from Juilliard are, like, way better at acting than us normals. No problem, figured Stewart: if he could just force his way onto TV enough times, he’d be famous by default. Then maybe he could parlay that into commercial appearances, and, maybe after that, some legit acting gigs. Inelegant, sure, but arguably a better plan than your average YouTube personality has.
Stewart was aided in his plan by a recent invention: the portable TV. He started his quest for fame by attending PGA tournaments with his handheld set in tow; once in, he was able to see where the cameras were pointed, and from there it was just a matter of watching on the screen to wait for the one aimed at him. When the moment arrived, he would jump out in his trademark candy-colored wig and flash the viewers at home a thumbs-up or an “okay” sign to remember him by.
He continued to expand his repertoire to other major league sporting events and it led to fame, of a sort, but not really the kind he had been looking for. He didn’t even manage to score any commercial gigs, aside from a single Budweiser ad, and as we all know, Budweiser will hire anyone, including a sufficiently charismatic bull terrier. By 1979 (1980 in some tellings), he had managed to score an appearance at the Super Bowl, but he still felt empty. Depressed, he retired to his hotel room and (naturally) switched on the TV—only to come across televangelist Charles L. Taylor’s program Today in Bible Prophecy. Enraptured (haha, get it?) by the end times exegesis on display, Stewart repented of his sins, and—like seemingly everyone who converted to Christianity in the ’70s—became convinced that Judgment Day was imminent.
Clearly, this was a message Stewart had to get to the masses, as quickly as possible—but how to go about it? If you’re thinking the answer is “Do the exact same thing he was already doing, but even harder,” congrats, you win the prize. Stewart—now living out of his car and subsisting on donations from churches—continued to be the Rainbow Man, mugging for the camera at every major event he could get into (including Princess Diana’s wedding and both major U.S. parties’ national conventions), except now he was holding signs that read “REPENT,” “JESUS SAVES,” and, yes, “JOHN 3:16.” The idea, apparently, was to tease people with just enough of the gospel message to get them to open their Bibles, find Jesus, and repent—before it was too late.
And how late was too late? Stewart figured the Second Coming was guaranteed to happen by 1992—which is why, as that year approached, he became increasingly desperate and discouraged. His message had failed to give way to the widespread revival he had hoped for, and TV producers were starting to resent him—officially because his presence distracted from the gravitas of the events, but I imagine it was also partly because he stubbornly refused to hold up one of those stupid signs that turn “ESPN” into a contrived acronym. Reportedly, at least one producer threatened to fire any cameraman that showed a glimpse of him, and to top things off, his fourth wife (yes, fourth wife—he was a Baby Boomer, after all) left him, allegedly after he tried to choke her for holding the “JOHN 3:16” sign in the wrong place.
And still, the clock was ticking. As he became convinced that the Rapture was imminent, Stewart’s methods became increasingly desperate and violent. He perpetrated a series of bombings—mostly stink bombs—before eventually barricading himself in an L.A. hotel room and taking a maid hostage. He then threatened to start shooting at the planes taking off from LAX unless he was given a three-hour press conference in which to deliver his apocalyptic message. Thanks to the no-fun LAPD and their concussion grenades, however, he didn’t get to do either of those things.
Stewart was offered a plea deal, but rejected it, in hopes that a public trial would give him one last opportunity to preach his end-times warnings. That worked about as well as you’d expect—he got beaten up by a pair of bailiffs for trying to preach and is currently serving out three life sentences in Mule Creek State Prison. Oh, and you may have also noticed that the world didn’t actually end in 1992. So, that’s a bummer (sort of).
And if there’s anything to learn from the whole saga, I’d say that Cecil Adams, author of the long-running syndicated column The Straight Dope, probably says it best in his intro to his piece about Rainbow Man: “If you doubt that too much TV is bad for you, you won’t…” I’m not sure we’ve fully reckoned with the impact mass media (and now, online media) has had on our culture, but one side effect seems to be that we’re all obsessed with fame—and that finding Jesus doesn’t do much to cure that. We all expect to have important, dramatic lives—that every event in our lives will mean something and will lead to something bigger. We all think we’ll turn out to be heroes.
In reality, very few of us will. And maybe we should be grateful for that.
After all, being a “hero of the faith” like (for instance) the Apostle Paul, braving shipwrecks and prison and winning the world for Jesus, might sound cool—until you remember that Paul spent nearly all of his life starving, sick, cold, and alone. In his first epistle to the Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear that we shouldn’t want what he has:
But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more, and to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you, so that you may walk properly before outsiders and be dependent on no one.
The highest goal, for most of us, will be to faithfully execute our vocation and serve our neighbors. And while that doesn’t come with a lot of glamor (or a rainbow wig), at least it doesn’t usually result in multiple life sentences.
But then again, I’m a guy writing butt jokes on the internet in hopes of scoring book deals, so I’m probably the last one you should ask about this stuff.