Of all the made-for-TV celebrities, I’m not sure that there are many stranger than Duane “Dog” Chapman. He’s a study in opposites: a tough guy who cries, a foul-mouthed dude who quotes Scripture, a family man who has had twelve children by at least five wives. His show, Dog the Bounty Hunter, has developed a strong following, making Chapman a rather unlikely and unusual celebrity.
In 2007 Chapman released his memoir, You Can Run But You Can’t Hide, a book that shot straight onto the New York Times list of bestsellers and sent him on a nationwide book tour. That this book would end up on the bestseller list is culturally significant. Just two years later he released Where Mercy Is Shown, Mercy Is Given, a second memoir. That seems odd unless you know what has been going on in Dog’s world.
In 2006 Dog was arrested by U.S. Marshalls and very nearly deported to Mexico to face some old kidnapping charges. Near the end of 2007, just as that situation was being resolved in his favor, his son released to the National Enquirer a tape in which Chapman repeatedly used the “n-word.” The outcry was deafening and resulted in the immediate suspension of production of Dog the Bounty Hunter. Chapman made all of the right apologies and even went on a kind of Apology Tour. After it all, when his penance was complete, the show resumed production and continues in production today. Where Mercy Is Shown, Mercy Is Given is based around these two episodes. It covers each of them in some detail with occasional intermissions to discuss hunting down a particularly noteworthy criminal. It is, then, an update to the last book and one that gives an adoring audience a further glimpse into the life of their hero.
If you’ve ever seen Dog the Bounty Hunter you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Dog considers himself a Christian, always pausing to pray before a big hunt and often rebuking criminals with words from the Bible. That faith factors significantly in this book. It is full of phrases like this, supposed explanations from Scripture that come with not a shred of understanding of the text’s true meaning: “In the Bible, there’s a verse in Hebrews that says ‘God will give you the shaking that comes on your spirit when things are not right internally.’” Of course in that case I can’t even imagine what text he is referring to. I’ve read and studied Hebrews and I’m quite confident stating that such a verse does not exist, especially when this is the way it manifests itself in a life: “For the first time in years, I was able to catch my breath because I felt I no longer had to worry about my lawyers. In finally felt that I had three lawyers working for me, and that was a good feeling–really good.” In aftermath of the “n-word” controversy Dog says this: “The Bible says ‘the unsaved watch us all the time.’ They’re judging everything we say, do, and whether or not we will live up to the standards they’ve set for us. I have tried to live by my convictions, my morals and values. If you are willing to sacrifice yourself for what you believe in, God will be there, and so I finally had my answer and knew what I had to do.”
This strange brand of mysticism mixed with Christianity pervades the book. He claims to often hear from God, directly and verbally, receiving instructions on what to do, what to say, how to act and react. When he is not quoting (or misquoting) the Bible, Chapman is quoting his hero Tony Robbins. Somehow he misses the contradictory messages of Robbins’ New Age, self-help mysticism and the Bible’s message of faith alone. In this way Where Mercy Is Shown, Mercy Is Given stands as an example of the kind of spirituality that so often passes for Christianity. It is a buffet line kind of faith, one that takes a little bit of this, adds a dash of that, and combines them all into a strangely muddled whole that may seem satisfying but which has no internal cohesion. It is ultimately a religion that places self in the center and moves God to the periphery. How could it be otherwise when we ourselves stand as the arbiters of what is true and what is not? There is no external standard to look to, no outside authority. Dog has tried to live by his convictions, his morals and his values. But how are we to know whether these are also God’s convictions, morals and values?
One quick aside. When Chapman discusses the fallout from his use of the “n-word” he talks about the role of the smarmy Hollywood spin doctors. There he reveals an interesting fact: that as soon as the news broke, he was told to head to rehab. Never mind that he needed no rehab (exactly what kind of rehab would help in this situation?). When a celebrity makes a major gaffe or is caught in a particularly egregious sin (think Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, etc) the first thing they do is head to rehab. Chapman reveals that this is usually not because they seriously believe they need any rehab but, rather, because the public is then quick to forgive them. As soon as we see that there is a therapeutic answer to their problem we assume that there is also a therapeutic reason for it. And then we are quick to forgive and forget and that celebrity can exit rehab and move on with his life. After all, it’s not really his fault. It’s all a big scam. I think we already know this, but it is interesting to hear it from the mouth of just that kind of celebrity (and, to his credit, one who refused to play that particular game).
Dog is fantastically entertaining; there is no doubt about that. There is something comical about watching him bash down doors with nothing but a can of mace in his hand; something funny about him treasuring his bounty hunter badge as if it is a sign of any true authority; something bizarre about the whole nature of his business in which he bails people out and then makes himself rich and famous by capturing them again. As we Canadians are so fond of saying, “Only in America…”