August 22, 2014

Riffs: 07:28:07: Brant Hansen and Celebrity Sinners

logo2.gifBrant Hansen- the best blogger in the world (Take that so-called best bloggers!)- riffs on Gary Smalley’s revelation that he didn’t have it all together. As Brant says, “Don’t let it happen again.”

Hansen points out that Christians are much better responding to sin in theory and sin in the past than with person’s actual sin now. Actual sin could be a problem.

Hansen makes me think that just about the worst thing evangelicals have come up with is their version of the Christian celebrity. Now we have Christian publishing and music interests pimping- that’s the right word- celebrities to us on a daily basis, and it’s a nasty business.

Remember the girl who befriended the murderer/fugitive and read to him out of her Rick Warren book? She got her own book, but it turned out that she had some problems of her own and didn’t make the cut for Christian celebrity. That’s what we’ve got coming to us from NashVegas these days.

If you go to a Lifeway, you’ll notice that the new book section is regularly populated by books written- amazingly- by the guys and gals in Contemporary Christian Music. The chubby bald guy who sings “I Can Only Imagine” has a book. So do DC Talk, Michael W. Smith and David Crowder. One might suspect that someone is calculating how much we could make uh…..how much the body of Christ could be helped if singers wrote an accompanying book around the time their big musical projects came out. The Casting Crowns Study Bible is probably on the way.

If Pat Robertson were the pastor of a local church, he’d be preaching to crowds of several dozen, but because he’s a celebrity he gets to sit on television and say all kinds of stupid things about who God ought to kill off, how much weight he can lift and how he prays hurricanes out to sea. Just the other night, I heard him say J.K. Rowling was a witch deeply involved in the occult. That’s a lie, and he ought to be sued for saying it. He probably got the story off The Onion’s satirical send up of Christian reaction to the Potter novels, which means he’s also way too ignorant to be telling people what to think, but because he’s a celebrity, he gets a pass.

Some of my favorite celebrities are preachers and teachers adored by their various fan clubs. These are often people worth listening to and reading, but when they rise to celebrity status, their fans get very weird. Oddly, the reformed- who are supposed to believe in that total depravity stuff- are among the most drooling fanboys in all of evangelicalism.

For example, how much do you think I could make selling John Piper t-shirts outside any Reformed Conference or convention? I’ve been hearing from Piper’s fans for years. I love Piper and compliment him frequently, but when I’ve differed with him, I never fail to get several letters that seem to come from people who need to get out more, to say that least. And yes, we can put the shoe on the other foot and sell N.T. Wright t-shirts as well. In fact, I’d buy one.

Two of my close friends are still in shock that one of their favorite TBN superstar pastors has become a gay-promoting universalist liberal. The show at this fellow’s church was so convincing in its announcements that God would make you healthy and wealthy, how could he turn out to be an apostate? Should I tell them that the Christian celebrity circuit thrives on taking people who have almost no spiritual depth and making them into leaders and icons? That’s a recipe for apostasy, and it happens over and over.

Christian celebrities usually garner such loyalty by playing the potent combination of gullibility, manipulation and God-talk. If your local church pastor asked for several million for a jet and a Florida home, you’d think poorly of him, but if Benny Hinn or like celebrity Christians do the same almost NO ONE NOTICES. In fact, implying that following their advice just might make you a celebrity as well is part of the con.

A student was recently telling me about her desire to be a “Christian rock star.” She cited two examples and when mentioning one, squealed with that adolescent girl squeal that the Beatles frequently heard from thousands of fainting fans. This was for a WORSHIP BAND, however, and nothing seemed odd in the least to her about doing this in front of me.

I found it profoundly sad.

Evangelicals have become so passive in the face of their own celebrity culture that the assumption is we all buy into it. We all know Rick Warren and Joel Osteen have the word from God for our time, right? We all know that Beth Moore is the best Bible teacher in the country. Right? We all know that when a country singer sings a song about Jesus or a rapper mentions Jesus in a rap, they are testifying to their deep commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospel, right?

If you don’t believe that, what’s wrong with you?

If you never did believe Gary Smalley or John Maxwell or Max Lucado or Brian Mclaren or John Macarthur or Charles Spurgeon were ever worth the celebrity treatment we give them, what’s wrong with you? If you happen to believe that the Gospel puts us all on equal footing and celebrity categories don’t apply, what’s wrong with you?

If you don’t believe God anointed so and so to sing that song, you must just be unable to discern what the Spirit is doing. That must be your problem.

If you are not impressed by the adulation of preachers or the adoration of singers promoted as spiritual leaders, there must be something wrong with you.

If you believe the entire Christian celebrity culture is a dangerous and polluted waste of mind, heart and money, you must just want to be difficult.

If you believe that those following Jesus closely are quite unlikely to be loved by millions of worldly, culture bound Christians, you must be looking at things in a very distorted way.

What we honor, adore, spend money on and fill our time with largely defines us. It’s the goal of evangelical celebrity culture to make us buy a product or become a consumer, not to see us become like Jesus in character, community and mission. If you seek his kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven, you won’t be popular and you won’t spend time giving undue attention to any person. You’ll be able to receive the ministry of other Christians as the ministry of the Holy Spirit, but you won’t become a lemming in the stream of consumeristic evangelicalism.

Remember when the man was freed from Legion, he wanted to follow Jesus? Jesus said, “No, stay here and tell your family and neighbors what the Lord has done for you.” There’s a lot to learn in that story. If you can’t live it and tell it in the small places of your household and your community, don’t long for a larger stage. God has a different way of looking at the world.

Comments

  1. Holy smokes, you’re on a real roll with two top-notch posts in a row!

    I simply cannot understand how gullible many (too many) Christians are. Has the gift of discernment left the building? It sure seems in short supply, and, as you note, when people do exercise it, they become the problem/issue. In The Gospel According to Starbucks, Len Sweet mentions a new psychiatric disorder CWS–Celebrity Worship Syndrome, which affects one in three people to some degree. (Are they all at a Benny Hinn event or drooling over the latest Beth Moore drivel?).

    We would all do well to get on our faces before God, confessing our sin and seeking a humble heart.

  2. Again, right on and oh-so-timely: The Americanization of Jesus began long ago and has culminated in what we have now. Until we truly see things from God’s perspective and not our own, we will be faced with celebrity, “I’m better than you”, “let’s write a book”, type hype. 2 Chronicles 7:14 is just as fresh today as it was thousands of years ago. Great observations!!

  3. Link?

    The blog you linked to doesn’t have the back story.

    Never heard of this guy.

    I googled, can’t find what you two are talking about. Did find Smalley’s site, selling product.

    Back story link please.

    I did go to Fotf, that is cruel and unusual and really annoying. I cannot find what you two are talking about. Pages and pages of Smalley Jesus junk for sale – cannot find your back story.

  4. hey. i’m reformed.

    i’ve never bought a t-shirt.

    don’t even have the one that says jesus in the shape of a pepsi logo (but i think that one is only for baptists.)

  5. by the way, i thought that was a great post. as soon as someone becomes a celebrity, they must either be crucified or i wonder if they are a fake.

    some aren’t. that’s a comfort.

  6. Excellent post, and I do whole-heartedly agree with about ninety-eight percent of it. I do worry sometimes however that we tend to vilify anyone who is popular and in our opinion, should have chosen “the good part” by staying in their hometown and singing to twenty people.

    As an example I offer this: I met “that chubby bald guy” at a youth gathering, before he was famous, and he was very humble and deflected all adoration towards the Lord. Is he still that way? I have no idea, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt until proven wrong.

    I guess all that to say this, I don’t want to be pushed into that box where only “we” are the ones who are ever right. I myself preach to “a couple of dozen” folks every Sunday, not because I am crazy, but because that is where God has placed me.

    Hope that makes at least some sense.

    John

  7. I think I get your drift, if you know what I’m saying.

    I definitely agree with this article and I wonder if you you think this distinction is a valid one. The distinction being one between famous people we can legitimately learn from and a celebrity worshipping culture that have infiltrated (become?) the church.

    It seems to me that becoming “famous” has been of great service to the church in the past. I have in mind great preachers/thinkers like Origen, Augustine, Chrysostom, Francis, Luther, Hubmaier, Wesley, Whitefield, Baxter, Watson, Edwards, Kierkegaard, and so on. These guys are on equal footing as far as the gospel goes, but most of them are celebrated, or have become celebrities because of the example they’ve set as far as Christlikeness. And I think that is okay so long as they remain icons (Eikons) that lead us into deeper communion with Christ. That is perhaps the sense in which we learn from all other Christians, but in the case the degree is greater because their character/literature has stood the test of time as great and has taught many others to be great witnesses to our magnificent God.

    I bring this up because I like you, hate by and large evangelical culture, but I don’t want to be the same way, just with dead guys. And even with living authors I can’t help but thing that everybody who reads at a reasonable pace should read Willard, Wright, Piper, Clairborne, Pearcey, and a couple of others. As far as I can tell, these are the best popular writers we have. But I don’t want to be cowed into buying into empire in an unnessecary and harmful fashion either. So how do we promote good books[authors], music[bands], art[artists], or ideas[thinkers] that really could lead to the spread of the gospel and Christlikeness without accidentally creating a similar culture?

  8. William Geoffrey Smith asks: So how do we promote good books[authors], music[bands], art[artists], or ideas[thinkers] that really could lead to the spread of the gospel and Christlikeness without accidentally creating a similar culture?

    I’d wager that removing money — or at least profit-making corporations — from the equation would have a part to play.

  9. “Christian celebrities usually garner such loyalty by playing the potent combination of gullibility, manipulation and God-talk.”

    Don’t forget attractiveness. I’ll own up to buying at least one artist’s albums because I thought the lead singer was hot, not because their music was faithful to the gospel. You don’t see too many who look like Steve Buscemi. Instead, there are a bunch of Christian Britney Spears clones (wearing slightly more clothing, of course) and a slew of Matchbox 20/Rascall Flatts light rock boy bands. Crowder gets a pass, but maybe he’s attractive in that alternative way, or is just the exception to the rule.

  10. Thank you, Michael, for the encouragement! I’m shocked, to be honest.

    As a longtime reader here, I’m honored you would even take the time to read my hodge-podge-of-whatever-it-is I’m doing.

    It is no small irony that I will now be parlaying the Internet Monk “BBitW” designation into a line of books, DVDs, appearances at Women of Faith conferences and rubber-y bracelet things.

    Bene D — I think the lack of back story is part of the issue, here.

  11. Another good post. I’ve linked to it along with Brant’s original post, and then ranted some thoughts on the topic on my own blog. Hope you’ll stop by and check it out.

    Jim

  12. Gosh that was great ..makes me glad I’m a non cleb nobody in a nothing little town..Just doing what I got to do and praising Jesus

  13. caplight says:

    Michael
    Could you and others weigh in on why we seem to need these celebrities. And beyond that why do we seem to need to clone ourselves from them. It seems to me that heroes of earlier Christian generations inspired without inviting cloning. I used to read Tozer when I was younger. He deeply influenced my life but I don’t think I ever asked myself if I could have a church like his. In fact, heroes of earlier generations, it seems to me, were more admired for their ability to inspire Christ-like living and for their theological thinking than how they did ministry. Why the change into Piperites, Hybelites, Warrenites etc.

  14. Maybe what your saying is correct in some senses… however, for us to judge why somebody puts out a book (for fame or for the Father) is not right. And I know some who aren’t in it for the fame who use that fame for greater reach… Billy Graham.

  15. Ketch:

    If I could write and publish a book, I would.

    If I could avoid becoming a celebrity, I would, unless the world decided that people following Christ were celebrities.

    I’m not talking about why a person does their art, etc. I’m talking about evangelical enamorment with celebrities. Our culture of near-worship. It would be stupid of me to say that anyone publishing a book is a bad person.

    I am assuming that it’s the PUBLISHERS who tell CCM stars to write a “book.”

  16. RahabToo says:

    Timely seems to be one of your strengths. My dad came to visit and went to my brother’s and sister’s local megachurch. The only thing he could remember about the service was that 2 ex pro football players were there. The pastor comes into the auditorium like a rock star after the choir has spent 30 minutes pumping up the crowd and the “people love to have it so.”Jeremiah 5:31

  17. I don’t know if this quote is appropriate to this posting or not . . . but I do think the overall issue seems to be idolization to success (and for others, idolization of “failure”). All notion of “success” must be examined in light of the cross of Christ. Bonhoeffer addresses this problem in his Ethics, from which the following extended quote is taken.

    He writes: . . . The figure of the judged and crucified one remains alien, and at best pitiable, to a world where success is the measure and justification of all things. The world wants to be, and must be, overcome by success. Deeds, not ideas or intentions are decisive. Success alone justifies injustice done. Guilt is scarred over, or cicatrized, by success. It is pointless to reproach the successful for their methods. This only holds us in the past, while the successful stride on from deed to deed, win the future, and make the past unchangeable. The successful create facts that cannot be reversed. What they destroy cannot be restored. What they construct has, at least in the following generation, the right of existence. No condemnation can make good the wrong that the successful commit. The condemnation is silenced by the course of time; the success remains and determines history. The judges of history play a sad role alongside those who make history; history rolls over them. No earthly power can risk appropriating the saying that the end justifies the means in the way that history so freely and naturally does.

    . . . Where the figure of a successful person becomes especially prominent, the majority fall into idolizing success. They become blind to right and wrong, truth and lie, decency and malice. They see only the deed, the success. Ethical and intellectual capacity for judgment grow dull before the sheen of success and before the desire somehow to share in it. People even fail to perceive that guilt is scarred over in success, because guilt no longer recognized as such. Success per se is the good. This attitude is only genuine and excusable while one is intoxicated by events. After sobriety returns it can be maintained only at the cost of deep inner hypocrisy, with conscious self-deception. this lead to an inner depravity, from which recovery is difficult.

    The statement that success is the good is challenged by an opposing one that looks at the conditions of lasting success, namely, that only the good is successful. Here the capacity for judgment is retained in the face of success. Here right remains right and wrong remains wrong. Here one does not close one’s eyes at the decisive moment, only to open them again after the deed has been done. And here, consciously or unconsciously a law of the world is acknowledged according to which justice, truth, and order are, in the long view, more stable than violence, lies, and arbitrariness. Still, this optimistic thesis leads one astray. Either historical facts must be falsified in order to demonstrate the unsuccessfulness of evil, which will lead quickly again to the reverse proposition that success is the good, or optimism collapses in the face of the facts and ends by denouncing all historical success.

    The eternal lament of those who accuse history is that all success is evil. By unfruitful pharisaical criticism of what has happened, they never come to the present, to action, or to success, and take this to be confirmation that the successful are bad. Without intending it, one makes success-albeit negatively-the measure of everything, even here. It makes no essential difference whether success is the positive or the negative measure of all things.

    The form of the crucified disarms all thinking aimed at success, for it is a denial of judgment. Neither the triumph of the successful, nor bitter hatred of the successful by those who fail, can finally cope with the world. Jesus is certainly no advocate for the successful in history, but neither does he lead the revolt of the failures against the successful. His concern is neither success nor failure but willing acceptance of the judgment of God. Only in judgment is there reconciliation with God and among human beings. Christ sets the human person judged by God, the successful and the unsuccessful, over against all thinking that revolves around success or failure. God judges people because, out of sheer love, God wants them to be able to stand before God. It is a judgment of grace that God in Christ brings on human beings. Over against the successful, God sanctifies pain, lowliness, failure, poverty, loneliness, and despair in the cross of Christ. Not that all this has value in itself; it is made holy by the love of God, who takes it all and bears it as judgment. The Yes of God to the cross is judgment on the successful. But the unsuccessful must realize that it is not their lack of success, not their place as pariahs as such, that lets them stand before God, but only their acceptance of the judgment of divine love. It is a mystery of God’s reign over the world that this very cross, the sign of Christ’s failure in the world, can in turn lead to historical success; this cannot be made into a rule, though in the suffering of God’s church-community it repeats itself here and there.
    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Ethics as Formation” in Ethics (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 6, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), p.88-91

  18. Back in my college days (mid-seventies) most of the Christian groups on campus (Big-Ten) seemed more concerned with proving that they were just as cool and fun as any secular groups than with providing spiritual nouishment. The problem seems to have grown from there. American churches work harder to prove that they are different from the church down the block than that they can offer something different than the secular world, something pure and true. “Look!” they seem to say. “We act, dress, sing, dance, and have fun just like you, only we do it better! You have celebrities, well, so do we, but ours are better people! You like to whoop it up at a rock concert or ball game? Ha! So do we but at a Christian event where we can prove that God is FUN with a capital F!” My college-age kids want nothing to do with that mentality, but it is very difficult for teen-agers or young adults to connect with Christians their own age if they don’t want to wear a “Jesus is my Home-boy” tee shirt and don’t know the top ten CCM hits of the week.

  19. So my friend Brant tells me “Dude you won’t believe this. Michael Spencer said I was the best blogger in the world,” I responded with something like, “Michael who?”

    He was shocked and appalled I didn’t know who you were. I am not real big on celebrities to be honest, I don’t keep up with them, although when I call Brant at work I say “May I speak to Brant Hansen radio superstar.” The receptionist laughs because she knows it’s me.

    I am so disgusted with the mouth pieces mainstream media chooses to use as “representatives of the Christian community.” Obviously they do not do there sourcing well.

    I really enjoy your blog by the way, now that I have had a chance to read it.

  20. Bob Sacamento says:

    Michael,

    The only problem I have with your blog is that too often you say all the profound things there are to be said and don’t leave anything for us lowly commenters with which to show our own profundity. –sigh– I don’t have time to start my own blog, and you aren’t giving me much help in displying my own genius so I can start my own climb up the celebrity ladder. What to do, what to do?

    Just in case I need to make it clear, I am trying to say that this was a great post.

    My two cents anyway:

    I was shocked at how quickly that gal who got the fugitive to turn himself in was shut out of the celebrity machine. I tuned into Pat Robertson’s show that evening and he had a few lukewarmly positive words about Rick Warren and pretty much nothing about that flawed but heroic lady. And no one else had anything to say about her ever. That was a lightning quick circling of the wagons.

    Jeff’s comment was right on too: “Don’t forget attractiveness… You don’t see too many who look like Steve Buscemi. Instead, there are a bunch of Christian Britney Spears clones…” this struck me a few years back when I bought a Christmas album where one of these record companies was showcasing a bunch of their acts, and had all their pix on the cover. They were all beautiful, even — bleh — the guys. And i don’t mean “in the beauty of holiness” sense.

  21. Oh and I think all pedistools should be bannished from the lands. That too would solve the problem…metaphorically.

  22. I am assuming that it’s the PUBLISHERS who tell CCM stars to write a “book.”

    You assume correctly…sort of.

    I’m a “CCM star” I suppose. Not my motivation, but it’s happened. If it helps you like me any more, I’m not a very shiny star and I’m fading out quickly.

    BUT, when I was shinier and and rising publishers met with me to get me to write a book – any book – about anything. They didn’t care. They ran the numbers and realized that if a tenth of my music audience bought my book they’d sell more than their average release does. Pure math.

    Most of them wanted to put me with a ghost writer. “Just tell them what you want to say and they’ll write it out for you.” This was proposed without reading my writing samples or getting to know me. It was assumed I couldn’t write.

    But I can, well enough to sign a book deal recently, not on the basis of my musical sales (I don’t sell jack anymore) but on the strength of the ideas. It’s a book that paints a broader portrait of salvation than the one I grew up with in evangelical America – what we’re saved FOR, not just what we’re saved FROM.

    So, yes, you’re right. Managers, labels, and artists want exposure and so often, but not always, “write” books to throw gas on the fire of their musical careers. And, yes, publishers provide that gas by asking singers to “write” books about anything. And yes, “fans” buy these books just because of the name on the cover.

    BUT, guys like Michael Card and ladies like Margaret Becker are singers who have stories and ideas to share too large for two verses and a chorus. These people don’t look at books as gasoline but as one more way to communicate with the church. And they use celebrity if it happens but their motives are not to become celebrities. I suppose this because they continue to do what they do even when their celebrity wanes.

    Would you blog if twelve people read, Michael? I suspect you would. You’re a communicator. But because you communicate so well you’re marketable, you draw a crowd – dare I say you’re a celebrity? I’m glad you clarified that your post is about motivation and that celebrity is not inherently evil – though dangerous. I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for articulating what I think better than I can. I suppose that’s something you and celebrity authors/singers/preachers have in common huh?

  23. So are you saying you don’t have any iMonk t-shirts for sale???

  24. There are BHT shirts, but they are sold at cost.

    The first time I knew anyone was reading me was when James White spent three longs posts taking me apart as a human being.

  25. I suppose if I knew who James White was I may get more of the gist of what you said about him picking you apart.

    I can say though I do enjoy what I have read on your blog and the number of people who read/visit your blog is impressive that is for sure.

    So tell me how it feels to be a blogger superstar. This is being a celebrity in it’s own right and even more so you are a celebrity to the celebrities.

  26. If I’ve never heard of some of the people you’ve mentioned should I feel proud or uninformed?

  27. I didn’t think I was asking an impossible question.

    Thanks Brant, appreciate you responding.

  28. Black Angus says:

    I was in a lecture by a well-known reformed Old Testament scholar. After making sure the taping was off, he told us what happened after he wrote his first commentary. He was approached by a publisher asking him if he would like to write another book, on another topic. He replied that he had no expertise in that area and couldn’t write it. ‘No problem’ the publisher said: ‘we’ll get a ghost writer to put it together and we’ll publish it under your name.’ When the scholar expressed his shock, the publisher said it happens all the time with the big names. Sadly that made me cynical of all our current ‘celebrities’, good and bad. But it made me realise I have to buy a book for its content, not for the name on the front.

  29. Michael,
    Thanks for turning me on to Brant’s blog! I clicked through to get the back story on Smalley and found myself reading old posts. I nearly pissed myself a couple of times & co-workers are looking at me funny.

  30. At the risk of offending fanboys throughout your readership, do the ten or so feeds I received today that link to Piper’s post on the bridge collapse count here? Well, except Kinnon’s, of course.

  31. Whipsnard says:

    Stepped into this mess by chasing Kamp Krusty through RevJeff. Shaungroves is so right about the Christian media market today. It’s all about the dollar. “Who’se name can we use today? Who is hot right now?!?” We all want our cake, don’t we? When the final horn sounds, we will be looking around saying, “Really…him?!?!?” Can’t remember the last time I heard a Margaret or Michael tune… oh yea, off my WD Notebook. P.S. Bookmarked your site for the future too.