The Dark Side of Christian Celebrity
We have a love-hate relationship with celebrity culture. We who consider ourselves part of this New Calvinism hate the idea of celebrity, but have no clear idea how to avoid the reality. We say we hate a celebrity culture, yet stories about our celebrities dominate blogs and periodicals; a sure way to draw in massive amounts of traffic is to write about each new scandal connected to each of our celebrities. We see the dangers posed by a culture of celebrity, but also see that to some degree it is unavoidable. After all, there are men and women we honour and respect and look up to, who are worthy of our regard and worthy of the leadership we give them.
We expend all kinds of effort in celebrating these people we love, and commending them to others, and spreading their fame. We serve as evangelists for their books and their churches and their conferences. We build them up in our own minds and in the wider church culture. We do this naturally and almost without thinking about it. “You’ve just got to read Don’t Waste Your Life!” “Have you seen Paul Washer’s Shocking Youth Sermon?” “Don’t you read that blog? Don’t you follow that Twitter account?”
We can’t stop this celebrity culture. Not all the way. Carl Trueman has become a celebrity in his own right at least in part because of all he has written to oppose celebrityism. Ironically, his anti-celebrity earned him a place on the front stage at one of the biggest conferences going. And this is what happens to the men and women we raise up—they are given bigger platforms and a louder voice. This is the way we want it. We usually don’t regard celebrityism as a problem so long as our celebrities are the ones on top. It’s the other person’s celebrity we have problems with. If we need to have celebrities, I’m glad that Trueman is one of mine.
This is the front side of celebrity culture—elevating people to high positions. We all see this and all know it. But there is another side as well. There is a flip side and it is even uglier. It is the destruction of those people we once honored. Sometimes I wonder what we love more, raising up our celebrities or tearing them back down.
Let me pause for one moment to assure you that I began writing this article long before the most recent scandal, and even the one before that (which takes us back all of about ten days, I suppose). But if you think I am taking the passive-aggressive approach to writing about that guy or those guys or that situation, you’re wrong.
Back to where I left off. We love the rise and we love the fall. Both make for fantastic entertainment. I wonder sometimes if the reason we end up tearing down our celebrities is that we have elevated them to such a degree in the first place. Once we have done that, once we have put them on the biggest platforms and once we have given them publishing deals with the wealthiest publishers, there is really only one way for them to go, and it’s not up.
There is something perverse within us that rejoices just as much at their downfall as it did at their elevation. The satisfaction we feel in seeing them gain authority is matched only by the satisfaction we feel in seeing them lose that authority. Just as we have web sites dedicated to their ascension, we have web sites dedicated to their destruction. There is a celebrity machine, to be sure, but there is also a celebrity landfill, a celebrity dump, a place we relegate people once we are through with them, once they no longer please us.
What is amazing is how quickly we can make the switch, how quickly we can turn honor into dishonor and love into hate. From the heights to the depths may be only a matter of weeks or months. Then the book deals are gone, the platforms are removed, the Twitter feed vacant. The higher the climb, the farther the fall. The farther the fall, the longer we have to sit back and watch it all unfold. When it comes to our celebrities, we can be every bit as petty and every bit as cutthroat as the culture around us.
Let’s be clear: Some of our celebrities forfeit their right to be admired. Some of them take advantage of our goodwill and commit gross sin. But many others we demolish on the basis of rumor or hearsay or angry former friends and colleagues. Somehow we want to believe what we read about them, we do not give them the benefit of the doubt, we do not believe all things and hope all things about them. We read the rumors, we spread the rumors, we stand back and watch them fall. The effort we once put into raising them, we now put into destroying them.
My thoughts on Christian celebrity are still unclear, still forming, still in their infancy. I need to think and write more about it. But in the meantime, let’s consider that flip side, that dark side, to this culture of celebrity. There’s the up and there’s the down, and we seem to love them both. Do you?
(For more thoughts on Christian celebrity consider reading The Christian Celebrity where I posit that we are often unfair in raising celebrities who are poorly equipped for what we demand of them. If we load them with expectation and opportunity that exceeds their ability, we shouldn’t be shocked when they do not succeed in the way we had hoped.)
Originally published December 10, 2013.