Sometime in the 1960's the artist Andy Warhol
prophesied that one day everyone would have their fifteen minutes of fame.
Today it seems that his prediction has almost been fulfilled. Our TV screens
are saturated with reality TV shows that give ordinary people instant celebrity
status. Naturally this modern cult of celebrity breeds its own values system. In
particular it promotes a view of life in which appearance is what counts and
making an impression what matters most. The only sin in the world of celebrity
is to appear dull and ordinary or just not to appear at all. The world of
celebrity builds its empire on a wafer-thin foundation of image, image, image.
Celebrity and Jesus
How might Jesus view our culture's obsession with celebrity? Although the media driven celebrity world of today wasn't around in Jesus' day, some of its features certainly were. And my suspicion is that if Jesus were to comment on the phenomenon of celebrity in general he would not condemn it as evil. To some extent celebrity is an inevitable result of any public profile. Jesus himself was at times the talk of the town, the generator of a popular following as well as someone who mixed with the religious celebrities of his day.
Yet I wonder if Jesus would be as indifferent toward the pursuit of celebrity. In the gospels we find that he never courted celebrity. He courted the will of God (John 4:34). He was just as happy to eat dinner with the ‘out crowd’ as he was with those who were hip and ‘in’ (Mark 2:15-17). He refused to put his trust in fame as a route to spiritual power and success (Matthew 4:5-10). At times he openly discouraged personal celebrity, recognising there is a qualitative difference between the type of following that comes in the wake of Jesusmania and that which comes after sober reflection over the hard sayings of the kingdom (John 6:14-15). Our Lord rightly knew that human celebrity is a fickle thing that has a tendency to promise much but deliver little.
So what would Jesus' response be to those who have bought into the modern cult of celebrity? I imagine he would see in this pursuit not just the shallow glamour rush that cynics love to mock, but the underlying yearning of lost souls searching for purpose and peace. As he wept over Jerusalem, so I suspect he would weep over Hollywood and the countless numbers of people who pursue earthly fame as a means of lasting security. I suspect his first communication to them would be one of consolation. He would issue an offer to turn from vainly seeking salvation through glamour, and instead turn to him for true life (John 4:13-14).
Yet I also suspect that Jesus would have strong words reserved for a form of celebrity that was apparent in his day: religious celebrity. The Pharisees were the darlings of this glossy world in which style over substance reigned. Theirs was an image-based spirituality where religion was about being seen in the right places with the right people and having the most prominent place at the table. God for them was essentially a fashion accessory that guaranteed a place in the Who's Who listings of the day. This form of celebrity came in for rich condemnation from Jesus (Matthew 23:27-28). He unmasked it for what it was – godless self-worship that replaced the kingdom of God with the kingdom of man.
Celebrity and the Church
So how is the church to confront the modern obsession with celebrity? It would be easy to dismiss the pursuit of fame and popularity as a world problem, a non-Christian religious problem, but not a church problem. A more careful examination, however, might leave us wondering. The church has an uncanny knack of baptising the aspirations and values of the prevailing culture around it into Christian clothing.
For example, the influence of celebrity values is seen in popular ministry when charisma becomes more important than holiness. Scripture teaches that he who is able to teach must also be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2). Yet for many evangelicals what seems to count most is not the preacher’s holiness but his stage presence, not his godliness but his personality. How many churches have eventually been burnt after a leadership team turned a blind eye to obvious character flaws in an aspiring ministerial candidate because their magnetic stage presence drew the crowds and wowed the people? How many godly and capable candidates have been passed over by churches because they were not clones of the denominations' particular cult hero preacher?
Celebrity values are also seen in popular ministry when what a person says becomes less important than how they say it. Like the church in Paul's day we can so easily be hypnotised by the oratory and theatrics of the Super Apostle. Meanwhile the content of what is said becomes almost irrelevant so long as it is garnished with a few biblical quotations. The mark of an anointed ministry becomes no longer defined by faithfulness to Scripture and lives made more holy as a result. The hand of God is seen in the buzz the speaker generates by the brute force of his or her personality. Consequently the celebrity of the speaker ousts the glory of God and 'is it true?' is overridden by 'does it work?'
Celebrity values are also seen in churches when believers treat people on the basis of their image. Just as there is no room on the Hollywood red carpet for the deformed, weak, or ugly so on the Church's unofficial red carpet it is often the well-educated, well-rounded, and self-assured who are welcomed while the weak and inadequate are either pushed to the back or kept off altogether. By leaving this form of evangelical natural selection unchallenged a false perception is created that the church is the exclusive domain of the healthy and successful: those with a spiritual Hollywood smile. This can foster a church culture that handicaps Christians from reaching the kind of people Jesus himself spent much of his time with – the crippled, the lonely, and the spiritually unsuccessful (Mark 2:17).
A choice to be made
As Christians we have a responsibility to act as salt and light in a society that relentlessly promotes the creed of celebrity. We must challenge the common assumption that fame equals fulfilment and limelight equals life. This will mean occasionally reflecting on the values that drive our own aspirations and judgments. It will also drive us to pray for Christians who are in the public gaze. They occupy a world with unique pressures and temptations that many of us will never encounter. We must pray that the world would not squeeze them into its mould but that they would be mould breakers for Christ.
Surely we must also pray for unbelievers in the public gaze. For better or for worse many of these leaders, entertainers, statesmen and women hold the power to influence a generation. Even pop stars are regarded as authority figures to the young and 1 Timothy 2:1-6 calls us to pray for those in authority. Is it really unbiblical to pray for more conversions in the limelight (John 3:16)? Surely celebrity is not the unpardonable sin. Those who stand in its glow are not beyond the reach of God's grace or our prayers. Of course we must avoid the naive assumption that if only such-and-such a key figure was converted then the whole of popular culture would turn to Christ. Yet Jesus loves celebrity sinners too.
Finally a word to any church tempted to 'celebrify' its message so as to fit what is culturally popular and fashionable. It is sobering to remember that ultimately Christ's power was most clearly displayed not at the centre, but the margins of first century popular culture. His was a ministry founded not on a red carpet or in the midst of a haze of flash photography. It was founded on the cross outside the city, in a place of desolation, shame and rejection. Interestingly the writer of Hebrews has a pertinent challenge to a church seduced by the need for popular acceptance. His readers were in danger of falling into spiritual compromise by adjusting their religious confession so as not to offend popular religious sensibilities. With this in mind Hebrews issues a cry to break free of the idol of popular acclaim and join Christ outside the city – to not be ashamed to be dismissed, despised or denigrated by the beautiful people of the day. It is outside, not inside, the centre of popular culture that true life is to be found as we fall to the feet of the crucified and risen Lord (Hebrews 13:12-14). In doing this we achieve the only celebrity that really matters in the end: celebrity with God.