Wait, wait…I don’t mean that the way you think I mean it. I don’t mean “palm sweating, voice quivering, omigawdisthatjlo?” kind of nervous. What I mean is I believe that fame is very, very dangerous, and I have a hard time trusting that anyone who has achieved (a verb that is certainly imprecise in its connotation in this case) fame has not had part of his/her soul devoured. Sound crazy or rash? Maybe, but I don’t think my nervousness is altogether irrational. Let me explain.
Well, before I explain, it’s probably worthwhile to issue a couple of my predictable context prefaces (which also occasionally morph into disclaimers). First, this particular rant is unprovoked. Okay, so not really, but it is in the sense that I haven’t had a particular recent encounter or experience with someone famous that provoked me. To the extent that this is provoked, it’s mostly a cumulative effect. And, beyond that, it’s just a good day to put a hot poker to lies and illusions. Why? Because it’s always a good day to put a hot poker to lies and illusions.
The second bit of context is this – I have a worldview. So do you, whether you realize it or not. It’s important to me that this site is accessible and worthwhile for a diverse collection of people, not so much because I have mass appeal or diversity as a goal, but because the loose-fitted community that has tended to hang around here is, at least in some ways, diverse. We’ve covered that before. That said, there would be little point to me continuing to post if I tried to boil the edge and opinion out of everything to make sure I didn’t lose or offend people. So I don’t. I mention that because what follows is a loose and incomplete assortment of thoughts and questions on fame as it relates to the Kingdom of God and following Jesus. Even if that doesn’t sound like your thing, you should play along with us anyway. I’m going to make fun of Christians if that helps. Oh wait, now the Christians are getting mad. Get over yourselves – none of you are famous anyway, so you’ll walk away with minimal bleeding (I said minimal, not not bloodless).
So anyway, if famous people make me nervous, famous Christians make me really nervous. The roots of this distrust are fairly deep for me, although they have at times been tangled up under the surface with roots of unhealthy admiration for and/or jealousy of some of the same people. I like to think most of those other roots have been yanked from the soil of my life, but I’m sure I’ll come upon a stray piece now and then as I continue to dig around in there.
Over time I’ve experienced varying levels of confusion, anger, cynicism, and grace on this issue. I’ll let you measure my words to determine my current state (if that matters to anyone but me), but I think I’m starting to settle into some real conviction to the end of wanting what God wants. That sometimes means awkward and hard declaration and conversation, but I think the Church needs to start having some family meetings about the parts of the house that are in disarray. So I guess I’m calling a family meeting, even if only about 20 people in all of Christendom will show up.
So, I’ve called you all here today because…
a number of us think enough is enough with all of the posing and posturing and rock-starring and spotlight-seeking by folks in this twisted little Christian subculture pretending to be the Kingdom. It’s time to call this what it is and stir up some trouble for the image-mongers who have subtly become the prophets and teachers of the subculture. Yes, we intend to make trouble. Much trouble. If we don’t do it now, a “Christian” version of People magazine is surely around the next bend, and I would prefer to avoid the fits of violent vomiting I will certainly experience when that rag finally hits the racks of the subculture retail shops selling the Gospel (and many other gospels) for profit.
We’re going to start (finally) with a potentially controversial discussion of this question: Does God want Christians to be famous (and, for the sake of clarity, what do we mean by “famous” in that question)? It’s a good question. Some people think it’s a bad question or that it’s the wrong question. They’re wrong. It’s a good question and, in the context of the utter chaos of culture and subculture, it is the right question so long as we get to the right answer. The most common dismissal of the question involves quick claims that God made people famous in the Bible, so I’ll give those folks home field advantage and start there.
Along with so many other clear transitions in the New Testament, I think we see a shift in the way God elevated individuals for widespread recognition. The OT is loaded with men and women who God clearly called out to be recognized and followed. Prior to Jesus’ arrival on the scene, He seemed to be giving his people particular individuals (kings, queens, prophets, etc.) to follow. Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets, and He is The Man from that point forward. Paul was well known, but hardly a celebrity. He shunned attention and personal loyalty (check out 1 Cor. 1:11-13) and very literally pointed people toward Christ alone.
I hate saying it that way because it’s so trite – “pointing people toward Christ alone.” It doesn’t mean much anymore because we have this Christian subculture full of celebrities who allege to deny glory and point people toward Christ (sometimes while onstage with smoke and lights and thousand dollar outfits), yet take millions of dollars from Christians (who may or may not be giving money to their churches, feeding the poor, caring for orphans and widows) and use that money to satisfy their personal desires and to reinvest in marketing themselves. I don’t care what you say you’re pointing people toward – that is not a reasonable mode of operation in the upside down economy of the Kingdom. Is that harsh and opinionated? Maybe. Do I believe it? Uh, yeah.
I know all of the justifications (including some biblical cherry picking) for rich, famous Christians, but I don’t believe we can ever reconcile that culture (broadly speaking) and lifestyle (on an individual basis) with the full counsel and ethic of the life of Christ and his immediate followers. The New Testament offers no reasonable model or support for any of us to live that way. Anyone trying to prove otherwise has to ignore a boat load of explicit warnings about money and such. Read James and try to imagine how you convince yourself that indulging in the pleasures of the world (a phrase I use to describe apparently amoral celebrity-living and not explicitly immoral indulgences) is a good way to spend your life for the sake of the Kingdom. It has to be rationalized backwards – you have to work (and need) to find a way to make yourself comfortable with the life you are already living (or want to live).
I don’t believe it just makes God mad; I think it makes Him sad. His investment in (or perhaps we should say of) the Gospel is a revolutionary gift of life in the midst of death. We are given the opportunity to detach ourselves from all that appears to satisfy and fill us and experience the life that is truly life. I am increasingly convinced that our attachments to money and "mammon" (the things money can buy) are, at some level, inversely proportional to our faith. Faith requires the unseen; it requires a belief that God will provide for our needs. The more we pacify ourselves with the non-communal affection of people and/or stuff, we settle for less than real community with Christ (and probably less than real community with other believers, which I believe is an under-valued and essential part of the Gospel).
And, of course, when comparing modern Christian celebrities to famous people in the Bible, you have to consider the enormous cultural gulf. We live in an age of wealth, marketing, and imaging. David never had an agent. Elijah didn’t have a marketing staff. John the Baptist didn’t have a concert rider that dictated what brand of honey and locusts he be fed while preaching at your church, though he did get His head chopped off for announcing the Kingdom. Peter didn’t have a big office, a book deal, a travel budget, or a 3,000 seat sanctuary with video close-ups of his face while he preached, but like John Baptiste, he was killed for the Gospel, maybe even upside down on a cross. Sorry, I keep gravitating toward those abrupt statements. I just think we have become more American than Christian; that we’ve lost touch with what it truly means to follow Christ and shed ourselves of all of the trappings of the world that DO NOT MATTER in God’s eternal economy.
Listen, I battle this stuff as much as anyone. I have a lot more stuff than I need, and I’m tempted to want more all the time. As often as I think about it, I am asking God to change my heart and to strip away everything that isn’t about following Jesus and loving people as He loves people. Amy and I are unified on that, and we’re blessed to be in a community of faith where this kind of thought and prayer is regular and necessary. We are far from complete, but we believe God will continue to draw us to completion and perfection as He said He would. We just have to keep letting go of things that are very normal and comfortable. I fear that most of our churches don’t get this. Affluence, success, patriotism, politics, and so many other things that appear to be good have distracted us from the real heart and power of the Gospel, which needs not money, power, country, or political victory to affect the only kind of change that matters.
Finally, it’s probably worth mentioning that my concerns about and thoughts on fame and money are not divorced from real life. Through various circumstances, I’ve spent a fair amount of time around some folks who are now very well known in the Christian subculture. I won’t call out anyone in particular, but my conviction about these matters is affected and supported by personal observation and experience. I sincerely believe some of the most esteemed famous preachers, worship leaders, writers, and other “personalities,” in the Big Ubiquitous Thing (There it is! There it is! He finally used it in a post!), while still using all the right language, are straying from the path of Christ-following. It’s important that “we” (whoever that includes in a broad context of modern Christianity) talk about that.