The cult of evangelical celebrity

The cult of evangelical celebrity

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god, for a little while.”

I still remember hearing that line from the lips of a well-known Christian pastor.

It has truth to it. I’ve felt it in rare moments. And he meant it as a warning.

To be a person’s “god” is to be the proverbial frog in boiling water: The hot tub is luxurious, until it cooks you.

In a few months, this same famous pastor would resign amid a cloud of scandal.

In his case (unlike some recent ones), the charges were not of sexual misconduct, but of ego run amok, a lack of accountability for someone deemed “too big to fail,” and a tendency to use celebrity as a “Find and Replace” for integrity when the cameras were switched off.

On second thought, perhaps it’s not so different from the recent sexual scandals involving well-known church leaders.

A common denominator (to misquote Eisenhower) is what I’d like to christen as “The (evangelical) celebrity industrial complex.”

A MUST-READ

In one of the more important blog posts of the year, Andy Crouch submits that it’s time for evangelicals especially to reckon with the insidious danger of celebrity power (Read here).

The reason for the “reckoning” is noted in his Introduction.

In three separate cases [this week] in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds.

All three were […] seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation.

Since the article, still more allegations have surfaced against the most famous of these leaders—and he has since resigned while not admitting guilt.

Several of these charges come from high-profile female leaders, one a former CEO of Zondervan, alleging that the well-known pastor pressured them to bring wine and meet alone with him on his private jet, his private yacht, and his private beachside vacation home.

Like Crouch, I choose not to name the leader for at least two reasons. First, I do not know if the allegations are true.  And secondly, to focus on the “Name” may be to perpetuate one aspect of our problem: a fixation on the famous people and their escapades: their yachts, their private jets, their beachside villas.

It sounds like a Jay-Z song.

Like it or not, the church is hardly different than the culture in its celebrity addiction. And the culture is rife with it.

One need look no further than the contexts from which we now choose our leaders–The Apprentice, The Terminator, The Oprah.

Crouch again:

In the Oval Office of our country sits a man [… who] is simply brilliant at manipulating the power of celebrity.

He has colonized all of our imaginations—above all, one suspects, the imaginations of those who most hate him, who cannot go an hour in a day without thinking about him.

HOW CELEBRITY POWER IS UNIQUE

But wait a minute; aren’t all forms of authority prone to such corruption?  “Power corrupts,” said Lord Acton, “and absolut… [yada, yada, yada].”

True enough. Yet Crouch makes a key distinction between institutional and celebrity power, especially as the latter is now driven by technology and social media.

Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy. 

It is the power of the one-shot (the face filling the frame), the close mic (the voice dropped to a lover’s whisper), the memoir (the disclosures that had never been discussed with the author’s pastor, parents, or sometimes even lover or spouse, before they were published), the tweet, the selfie, the insta, the snap. All of it gives us the ability to seem to know someone—without in fact knowing much about them at all, since in the end we know only what they, and the systems of power that grow up around them, choose for us to know.

Crouch’s claim is that “institutions” of power have been largely replaced by individuals—celebrity leaders—whose charisma is both branded and broadcast (via technology) in order to achieve an illusion of intimacy with millions of followers.

Yet in this process, we create idols who behave like monsters—in part, because they both crave and (ironically) resent the fame now thrust upon them.

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god, for a little while.”

“DEAR BROTHERS” ~BETH MOORE

As proof, note how the problem with sexism (and sexual misconduct) often interfaces with the cult of celebrity within the evangelical world, as in others.

Hear the powerful words of the conservative Bible teacher Beth Moore on the subject (here):

About a year ago I had an opportunity to meet a theologian I’d long respected. I’d read virtually every book he’d written. I’d looked so forward to getting to share a meal with him and talk theology. The instant I met him, he looked me up and down, smiled approvingly and said, “You are better looking than ____________________.” He didn’t leave it blank. He filled it in with the name of another woman Bible teacher.

While this sounds almost tame compared to the exploits of Weinstein and Cosby, it still raises questions for the average, decent person.

“Who talks like this!?  What kind of person thinks this is an appropriate way to begin a conversation, let alone with a woman, let alone with a preacher, let alone with a female preacher you have never met!?”

Answer: a celebrity.

Because part of the business of fame is the conscious and unconscious learning that you get special treatment.

“When you’re a celebrity they let you do it. Grab them by the __________.”

ANOTHER KIND OF POWER

There are exceptions of course.

Not all celebrities leverage fame toward abusive or destructive ends. And it’s easy to be critical  from the cheap-seats. After all, who’s to say how celebrity would affect me?

“It’s fun to be somebody’s god,” until it isn’t.

One point, however, is how different this pursuit of fame and famous people differs from the way of Jesus. At various points in the Gospels, Christ was thrust onto the very cusp of (ancient) celebrity.

In John, after feeding five thousand people, we learn that the crowds had decided to “make him king by force” (Jn. 6.15).

This, after all, is one way celebrities are minted—almost without the permission of the one cast into the limelight. In some cases, a gifted and talented individual wakes up to find (almost to their chagrin) that they have been made into the “face” of an industry or movement overnight, without ever intending to be.

“I never asked for this,” they think – “I was just trying to speak truth, make art, or craft music.”

Too bad.

You’ve been made “king” by force. And the only way off the ride is to push the self-destruct button.

Or is it?

Christ chose a different path. He didn’t self-destruct exactly, but he did intentionally put the kibosh on the celebrity sausage-maker (a very unkosher metaphor).

After this same miracle, he says the following:

I am the bread that has come down from heaven. […] Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no part in me.

The publicists stopped calling after that one.

And the next time they “made him king by force,” it involved a crown of thorns.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus flees the crush of the adoring crowds in order to pursue more meaningful relationships, to pray, and to reenter the region of obscurity. Prophets are made in the wilderness, after all, not on the red carpet, and not in the Twitter-verse.

Crouch:

The visible image of the invisible God left no portrait. The one time he wrote, he wrote in the dust (Jn. 8.6). He had a different way of using power in the world, a way that turned out to outlast all the emperors, including the Christian ones.

He offered no false intimacy—his biographer John said that he entrusted himself to no one, because he knew what was in every person’s heart (Jn. 2.24 –25) —but he kept no distance, either.

He let the children come to him. He let Mary sit at his feet and let another Mary wash his feet with her tears. Hanging naked on a cross, he forgave, blessed, and made sure that yet another Mary would still have a son.

His power, truly, was not of this world.

If there is a solution to the evangelical celebrity industrial complex, it’s in reclaiming this strange kind of power.

Why Jesus was called “teacher”

Why Jesus was called “teacher”

A WORD OF THANKS TO PUBLIC EDUCATORS

In John’s Gospel, it’s interesting that the first title Mary gives the risen Christ, upon recognizing him on Easter morning, is that of “Teacher.”

She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”) (John 20.16).

To be honest, other titles might seem more exalted.

How about “Lord,” or “Son of God,” or “President and CEO of all Creation”™?

No. She calls him “Teacher.”

I’ve been pondering the value of that title recently as my daughter Lucy has been home from school due to the walkout over Oklahoma public education funding.

Lucy adores the teachers she has had so far (Mrs. Daniels for kindergarten, and Mrs. Hymel for first grade, along with others).

Like me at that age, she was so catatonically shy that she hardly spoke or made eye-contact for the first months of the semester.

But despite the herculean task of wrangling over twenty tiny-but-tornadic students, her public educators have taken a personal interest in her; they have loved her; and they have helped her to grow in confidence rather than just in “standardized test scores.”

So when Lucy mentions “Mrs. Daniels” and “Mrs. Hymel” her voice betrays a kind reverential awe that’s usually reserved (in our culture at least) for celebrities and star athletes.

It’s Mary-like:

“Rabbon-esses!”™

(Though she doesn’t know that word, that I made up.)

A SACRED CALLING

Perhaps that’s one reason why Jesus was called teacher–and not just as “King of kings” or “Great Physician.”

Because teachers have enormous power.

Just before writing this, I stumbled upon a post by New York Times Best-selling Author, Jon Acuff.

Acuff.png

I became a writer because in the third grade my teacher, Mrs. Harris, laminated some of my poetry and told me I was a good writer.

Teachers, the challenging thing about education is that you often don’t get to see the results. They don’t happen instantly but years and years later. Just know that you’re not teaching kids, you’re launching adults. And I for one am very grateful.

How many of us could tell similar stories? (without the NYT bestseller part…)

I could.

OKLA-HOME

In the years to come, I hope we (in my home state especially) will come to see the honored nature of this title—and then put our money where our mouths are.

“Second Worst in the nation” is not something to be proud of when it comes to teacher pay and education funding.

In light of that, I’m grateful for the recent move to finally (though begrudgingly) bump funding in a positive direction—even though there remains much more to do.

And like many, I’ve come to see my own complicity within the crisis.

To be blunt, I’ve been part of the problem. Because like lots of folks, I haven’t paid much attention to the small, local races that actually have a major impact on our state. And I intend to change that.

So to Mrs. Daniels and Hymel—thank-you, and I’m sorry.

May you and thousands like you know how special it is to share a title borne by Christ: Rabboni.

Or maybe: “Rabbonista.”™

Abby’s story

Abby’s story

This week I spend some time with one of my students–Abby Powell–talking about how Christ rescued her from an environment of drugs, abuse, broken marriages, and periods of homelessness.

The assumption sometimes is that “ministers” (or ministry majors, as Abby is) come from “safe” Christian homes in which they were taught the gospel at an early age.

Some do.

But not all.

Before feeling called to study ministry, Abby tells how she was homeless, sleeping on a lice-infested mattress, and wondering where God was.

Despite that, she is one of the most joyful and gifted people you will ever meet.

Beyond that, she shares how her encounter with Christ led to a transformation, not only of her own life, but those of her mom and twin sister as well.

Regardless of your story, I hope the interview is a powerful reminder of the radical and all-pursuing love of Christ.

abbypic

(Note: Apologies for some background noise; My university office is not a completely sound proof environment!)

Resurrection and Down Syndrome

Resurrection and Down Syndrome

Last week was Easter.

And in the Gospels course I teach, we spent time reading on the nature of the Resurrection.

As Scripture teaches, Jesus’ resurrected body was both like and unlike his prior one.

It bore deep scars of crucifixion, yet it no longer suffered, died, or was ravaged by disease.  His new body was “glorious” in a sense unlike the mortal one, and it did things—like passing through a locked door—that transcend normal limitations.

In other words, Christ’s resurrection life is physical sans fallenness. Or in the words of N.T. Wright, it is supra-physical.

This becomes even more relevant to us because, according to Paul, the same will happen to our bodies in the Age to Come.

Christ is the “first fruits” of resurrected humanity (1 Cor. 15.20), hence what happened to him will also happen to his people.  As Paul writes in Philippians:

the Lord Jesus Christ … will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body (Php. 3.20–21).

And in 1 Corinthians:

42 So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; 43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; 44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15.42–44).

But what does any of this have to do with Down Syndrome?

WHAT WILL MY SIBLING BE LIKE IN THE RESURRECTION?

In our class discussion, I pointed students to an article written by my friend, Ryan (R.T.) Mullins. He is a PhD theologian from St. Andrews, and his sister (Kelli) has Down Syndrome.

In the article, he interacts with voices from the field of “Disability Theology,” and in particular the theologian Amos Yong.  Like Ryan, Yong’s sibling (Mark) also has Down Syndrome.

But despite a common desire for the church to be more inclusive toward those with disabilities, the two thinkers (Yong and Mullins) come to different views on how the resurrection may transform their loved ones with Down Syndrome.

First, for Yong:

  1. TO ELIMINATE THE DISABILITY IS TO ELIMINATE THE PERSON (YONG)

Following Stanley Hauerwas, Yong contends that to eliminate his brother’s disability would be to eliminate his brother’s unique personhood and personality.  As Yong asks:

If people with Down Syndrome are resurrected without it, in what sense can we say that it is they who are resurrected and embraced by their loved ones?

It would not be a “healing” but a kind of murder.

After all, Down Syndrome is not a “disease” (from which people are “suffer”) but a chromosomal condition that is constitutive of their unique and beautiful humanity.

An analogy might be the extent to which the “XY” chromosomes are constitutive to my identity as biologically male.  To take that away (say, by giving me the “XX” building blocks) would be to erase an important part of who I am—even if it is not the MOST important part.

One strength behind Yong’s point would seem to rest in the sense that many of us have when interacting with persons with Down Syndrome; this involves the feeling that maybe WE are the ones with a “disability” of a different kind—a loss of childlike wonder, a resistance to joy, and a tendency to misplace our pity in ways that dehumanize others.[1]

But I’ll come back to that…

  1. TO ERADICATE A DISABILITY NEED NOT ERASE THE PERSON (MULLINS)

On the other hand, Mullins takes issue with Yong’s extreme assertion (taken from Hauerwas) that “to eliminate the disability is to eliminate the subject.”

As Mullins writes:

I can imagine, perhaps as through a mirror dimly, my sister Kelli without Down Syndrome. This is because she is not identical to her disability. She has various character traits that are shaped by her Down Syndrome, but they are not causally determined by her Down Syndrome.

It is true … that her disability has shaped her personality, but why think that she would need to be continually disabled in order to retain that personality?

A RESURRECTED IMAGINIATION

While there is much more to Mullin’s argument, I want to focus on a single phrase within the quote above: “I can imagine…

Because while Yong’s treatment of disabilities in the Age to Come seems to spring from noble motives, it may also suffer (at least in my view) from a lack of biblical imagination.

Going back to Jesus, we saw that his resurrected body was both “like” and “unlike” his prior one in certain ways. The marks of wounds were there, but now scarred over. The physicality was real but amplified in power.

Perhaps even his appearance was altered. (Which might explain why some who knew him well apparently had trouble recognizing him [Jn. 20.15; Lk. 24.16].)

There is much we do not know about the life to come.

But that ought not quell our sense of hope and possibility.

EMILY WITHIN THE AGE TO COME 

After class, I brought some of these thoughts to the Dean of my department.

Dr. Weeter is himself a theologian, and the father of a daughter (Emily) with Down Syndrome.   Having known Mark and Emily for years, it was not difficult for my mind to wander to what she might be like ten thousand years from now.

After all, the hope of salvation is for everyone.

Is it possible to imagine Emily (and countless others) with all the beautiful aspects of Down Syndrome, without the accompanying trials? I think so.

Gone would be the heart defects, the vision challenges, and hearing loss that so often come with the condition.[2] Yet gone too would be my sense of misplaced pity or superiority when I and other (so-called) “able-bodied” persons sing next to her within the heavenly choir.

Gone might be certain mind-related limitations in both of us.  But who’s to say who might need more transformation. For Paul, the “darkened mind” had nothing to do with ACT scores; and Christ’s words were that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18.3).

With that as a pre-requisite for resurrected life, it seems possible that my own transformation from perishable to imperishable may be more dramatic than that of many image-bearers with Down Syndrome.

How recognizable will I be to my loved ones?

Whatever answer there may be to such speculative questions, the hope of Christ remains the same for all:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep [in death], but we shall all be changed (1 Cor. 15.51).

 

 


On the subject of Resurrection, I’ve been loving the new Andrew Peterson album (Resurrection Letters, Vol. 1):


[1] Credit to my student Sam Thomas for bringing up this point in class.

[2] Thanks to Rylee Kelly (a nursing major) for pointing out these accompanying aspects of trisomy-21 in class discussion.

For more on this subject, see:

Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco, 2007).

R.T. Mullins, “Some Difficulties for Amos Yong’s Disability Theology of the Resurrection,” in Ars Disputandi, Vol. 11 (2011), 24–32.

Laura’s story: the gospel and transgenderism

Laura’s story: the gospel and transgenderism

“Laura, are you trying to be boy!?”

It was this question, asked by her mother, that brought tears to Laura Perry’s eyes.

At the time, she had not yet told her parents that she had decided to transition from female to male. She would later go forward with that process. Yet even after an official name change (to “Jake”), doses of hormones, and an expensive surgery—something wasn’t working.

So it was, through an unlikely road, that Laura began to ponder her identity yet again—not merely in terms of “male” and “female,” but in relation to Jesus Christ and the imago Dei.

I sat down with Laura recently to hear her story.

You can find that interview below.

Before listening, however, I must say something as to why I did this post.

I despise the hyper-partisan environment in which we now live.  In fact, I hate it.  On that note, one lament is that literally every issue seems to have been turned into a “political football” by parts of both the Right and Left.

Make no mistake: this interview is about people over politics.

Like many Christians, I take a fairly traditional stance that gender is not merely a social construct. It has a biological basis, and I have written previously on how we ought to think about such issues in a way that fuses grace and truth (See here for my take on the great bathroom war of 2016).

Still, the thing that moved me about Laura’s story was the human factor.

I heard it as a parent. “How would I respond to my child?” My heart broke for her and others who struggle with questions of identity and gender. The suicide rate alone is testimony to how terrible that struggle is.

Thankfully, however, Laura’s story ends with hope and healing.

In her own words, she came to find her identity in Jesus Christ, and she lives now as woman set apart by his grace.

Listen to the interview below:

(Apologies if the sound quality isn’t perfect; I’m more a writer than a podcaster!)

It’s NOT just a heart issue: On school shootings and false choices

It’s NOT just a heart issue: On school shootings and false choices

Imagine a particular township in which literally hundreds of people were dying every year from heart attacks.

Sadly, in this one municipality (unlike the others that surrounded it), the cardiac fatalities had become so common that they now went largely unnoticed, except for the extreme exceptions—or when the paramedics came to your front door.

In response, some citizens from a variety of backgrounds, began to study the situation and to form possible solutions that would involve a variety of factors: diet, exercise, smoking, family history, and better medical testing.

This wouldn’t end all heart attacks, of course, but it might stop some.

“Finally… one citizen began to think. Perhaps we could do something to reduce this blight that strikes only here with this kind of stupid frequency.”

But then imagine if a well-meaning Christian offered this:

“Stop bringing up all this stuff about diet, exercise, and smoking! Clogged arteries are a heart issueand only Jesus can heal hearts.”

How would we respond to such a person?

THE TROUBLE WITH FALSE CHOICES

While I can think of several less charitable phrases, let’s pretend that we are in a mood to be compassionate (since I wrote about that recently).

After all, the well-meaning Christian is not entirely wrong.

We might point out that “Yes, heart attacks are ‘a heart issue’—but they are not just that.” And because they are not just that, it would be foolish to go about preventing them with only prayer and preaching.

The reason, however, has nothing to do with prayer and preaching being weak.

Even “heart issues” require a variety of responses.

They have many causes and, thus, are not reducible to bumper-stickers. They require nuanced, both/and thinking, and they are not solved by false dichotomies: trans fats vs. lack of exercise; family history vs. sugary sodas; stress vs. smoking.

It’s not either/or—it’s both/and.  And yes, it is also “a heart issue.”

Unfortunately, in our current climate, such both/and thinking seems almost anathema, and especially in the land of social media–where nuance goes to die.

It is either “a heart issue” or “a gun issue.”

It is either “a failure of parenting” or “a failure of the mental health system.”

It is either “what happens when we turn away from God,” or “what happens when even self-advertising psychopaths can easily access their own private arsenal.”

Never in my life have I seen so many false choices.

In response, one is tempted to scream: “IT’S ‘ALL OF THE ABOVE’!!! And we won’t begin to fix it till we recognize that!”

Behold the challenge of discussing mass shootings in America.

JESUS AND FALSE CHOICES

Which brings me to Jesus.

One day after the horrific massacre in Florida, a student in my Bible class asked this:

“In the Gospels, why does Jesus almost never give people a straight answer to their questions?”

It’s a great question, and I was just about to answer it. Then I remembered Jesus. So I proceeded to ask questions and tell stories.

“Do you remember what was written on the whiteboard today when you came in?”

Some nodded.

Upon entering the room, I had noticed that another professor had apparently given his or her students a choice of essays. The topic was school shootings. OPTION ONE was to craft an essay entitled “Take away all guns,” while OPTION TWO was to “Give them to the good guys.”

(It’s possible, of course, that this way of framing the debate was designed to illustrate the silliness of such extreme dichotomies. And if so, kudos to whomever wrote it…)

Still, I asked this: “Is it possible that those might NOT be the only two solutions?”

What if framing the debate in such simplistic and false-dichotomizing terms actually prevents someone from answering the question intelligently?

What if that’s why Jesus rarely accepted the premises of his partisan questioners?

“Who sinned, this man or his parents?” (Jn. 9.2)

“Whose wife will she be in the Age to Come?” (Mt. 22.28)

As someone mentioned recently, it’s as if the binary codes that run our social media (all ones and zeros) have infected us. We have been conformed to their electronic image. And now we too must be all “ones” or “zeros” on every complex issue.

Brothers and sisters, this should not be.

ASH WEDNESDAY

It was a cruel twist that the latest in a long line of school massacres took place on Ash Wednesday—a fact painfully pressed home by the gray cross smudged across the forehead of a grieving mother.

Parkland Mother
Joel Auerbach, AP

In such moments, “Eloi, Eloi” comes to mind.

And as with Jesus’ cry upon the cross, the question hangs unanswered.

In the end, I don’t know how to solve all school shootings. They have many causes, and I suspect they will require many nuanced solutions—all of which will cost us something.

But I do know this: We’ll continue getting nowhere so long as we fall into our partisan talking-points of “gun issue” vs. “sin issue.”

It’s time to stop being “ones” and “zeros” and start being people.