On Christian Celebrity

October 12th, 2012

In college, there was a group I thought of as “the elite Christian crew.” They were the cool kids active in the bigger campus ministries at our formerly-Baptist liberal arts college. The guys wore Birkenstocks or flip-flops and some had longish hair and maybe a goatee. They were trying to look like Jesus, I hypothesized, with their sandals and suburban-hippie vibe.

They were great people, as far as I was aware, serious about their faith, and genuine in their desire to bring others into the fold. But they were still kind of a clique, and I wondered to myself at the irony of “popular Christians.” Among the general strata of "big men" and "big women" on campus, some were very religious and others weren’t; it wasn’t really the concept of Christians being well-known or holding campus leadership positions that seemed odd, but the idea that among the community of faith there would be a cream-of-the-crop that others couldn’t seem to touch seemed out of place for followers of someone as humble and egalitarian as Jesus.

Fast forward ten years and I work in “the biz.” Not Hollywood, not country music, but the religion biz. Christian media. And there is another elite Christian crew. There are celebrity pastors and mega-bloggers, and all those worship leaders and other cool kids still recovering from last week’s Catalyst conference. These days, it can feel as if “success” in ministry depends not just on love of God, love of people, and the ability to help those people connect to that God—but on coolness. On celebrity.

It can feel like the people who are really making a difference must be those with the overflowing auditoriums for all three Sunday morning services, or those whose books are hitting bestseller lists and being discussed in small groups nationwide, those with thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook fans.

Comparing ourselves to these “celebrity Christians” can spark feelings of inadequacy, defensiveness, resentment, cynicism, and misplaced ambition. They rear their ugly (green, monster-ish?) heads when we compare blog readership, worship attendance numbers, relative hipness of our worship style or personal fashion, compliments after the service, or even something as simple as “likes” on a Facebook status.

The Folly of Collecting Followers

I was struck by the following confession I recently read in a book:

“I had taken pride in getting responses to witty things I’d post or compliments from long-lost acquaintances about my beautiful family or my relative 'success' in life.”

Reminds me of that tree falling in the woods. If something interesting happens to us and we don’t announce it on Facebook, did it really happen? Or worse, if we announce that interesting thing but no one else seems to find it interesting, was it really interesting? It’s no longer just my mother giving feedback on every element of my life and influencing my self-esteem—it’s 400 virtual acquaintances.

It’s easier than ever for our self-worth to be determined externally, and we find ourselves craving and chasing after the affirmation of people we don’t really even know, and who certainly don’t really know us. And yet we all seem to want more of these people in our lives, if for no other reason than to report a large number when asked about our “platform.”

As the aforementioned penitent said, “I had let triple-digit ‘friends’ become a status.”

If the trend of de-friending all but real-life friends is any indicator, maybe some people are realizing the folly of collecting connections like lucky pennies. But I’m intrigued by how these realizations strike not just those chasing after such vain things, but also those who have seemingly caught them—the well-known, widely-read, “successful” people the rest of us watch from afar. You occasionally hear about a Christian celebrity who has gotten fed up with the machine and decides to drop out of the game. Anne Jackson and Francis Chan come to mind as prime examples (though Chan hopped right back into the fray when the Rob Bell/Hell hubbub presented a prime publishing opportunity).

The author I cited above, who realized his or her Facebook folly, appears to be another Christian celebrity dropping out of the game. I don’t know his or her name because the book, Embracing Obscurity: Becoming Nothing in Light of God’s Everything is written anonymously.

That’s right—the cover says “Anonymous,” and only a few people at publisher Broadman-Holman know who he or she is. The author won’t be doing any book tours or signings, promoting the book on his or her blog, or even getting royalties, I suspect, since it would be hard to cover that legal and financial trail of copyrights and royalty payments. (I do hope the marketing firm promoting it recognizes the irony in publicizing a book advocating obscurity, though obviously books must be publicized or they will have little impact.)

Becoming Nothing

Though as a publishing nerd I am forming hypotheses about the mysterious author as I read, I am nonetheless taking the book’s message to heart as well. I don’t expect to ever be famous, and the author points out that, really, even so-called famous people are fairly obscure in the great scheme of things. (Try to name all 43 U.S. Presidents or the last ten Best Actor winners if you doubt that fact.) But it’s about more than accepting that we will likely “live and die unnoticed,” as “just another of the roughly one hundred billion people to have ever graced this planet.”

“Even when an overarching, global obscurity has been assigned to us, we still have a choice of whether to embrace personal obscurity—an obscurity of heart as much as a position.”

All of us, the author suggests, are prone to acting like we’re on the verge of celebrity. We give ourselves “subtitles” to stake out our identity, and we cling to them. Strip them away, and we risk becoming “nobody.”

If you were no longer Senior Pastor, no longer the smartest person in the room, no longer “the funny one”—could you handle it? If you cleaned toilets for a living, if you took a job way below your educational level, if you lost everything you had—could you be content? Would you still know your worth as a child of God?

Feeling inferior is not the same as being humble. Whether you are in an invisible, little-respected position or an ambitious leader craving more recognition, thinking lowly of yourself is still focusing on yourself, not on God or other people. It is when you can get over that that you are free to serve. In becoming nothing, you can become somebody for God.

So Is Christian Celebrity Wrong?

Seeking fame for fame’s sake is generally considered vain and obnoxious no matter who you are, but as Christians, we claim to follow the example of one who “Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a slave . . .” (Phil. 2:6-7).

If Christ, our master, himself took the form of a slave, and "no slave is greater than his master," it seems we shouldn't really be striving to be on top of the heap. Christ calls us to be servants, to take the lowest place and care about the lowliest people in society.

But then again, while Jesus embodied selfless servanthood, he also gained quite a bit of notoriety. That’s inevitable when you’re performing miracles and healing people. Anonymous addresses this in the final chapter, "Embracing the Spotlight."

"Jesus certainly didn't go chasing after [fame]. it came to Him, and He embraced it as God's will for His life. He subsequently used His Christian-famous status to bring God's kingdom to the lost, the desperate, and the marginalized. . ."

"What if—like Moses, Joseph, Ruth, and David—God gives us a position of influence or authority. . . . Will we use it for God's glory or our own? Will we allow the spotlight to illuminate the way, or will we be blinded by it?"

There are plenty of celebrity Christians using their platform for good things. The danger, it seems, is chasing celebrity to feed your own ego, perhaps with the excuse of all the good things you'll do with your fame once you have it. Or stumbling innocently into celebrity and then using it to abuse others or to glorify yourself.

I think of people, however, who have gone faithfully about their business and gradually grown more visible, using their platform to rally support for poverty relief or to share a message that changes lives. I think of people who are thrust into the spotlight in ways they never wanted (survivors of tragedies, for example) who use that undesirable opportunity to touch other lives.

It’s not the notoriety—the popularity, the celebrity—itself, but how you get it and what you do with it once you’ve got it.

Like obscurity, celebrity is a matter of the heart.

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