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How Can the Church Handle Celebrity?

I’m hesitant to even mention the name Kanye West. That’s not because I question the veracity of his profession of faith (I actually like his new album and find the content to be quite good). It’s because I have my own personal misgivings about the church’s capacity to handle celebrity.

On the one hand, God gives people platforms…He places them in positions of influence and responsibility. Yet, whatever pedestal God puts someone on, there are some who want to elevate them higher, to give them more influence than is fitting, and to mistake the workings of God for the skill, savvy, and charisma of an individual.

On the other…some within the Christian community tend to wait for “more visible” members of the community to fall. Some, it seems, do so to advance their own influence with little regard for the ways in which the manner they seek “to hold others accountable” or “to call out injustice” misrepresent God. True, there are some leaders and prominent Christians who have failed to wield the influence and power granted to them well and need to be held accountable. Equally true, however, is that it is possible to wrongly wield influence, misrepresent God, and offer a false testimony when we hold people accountable in the wrong ways.

Living in the Chicagoland area, I’ve seen and, to some degree experienced, the “scorn” of certain segments of the Christian community as those who made mistakes or engaged in overtly sinful behavior willingly became the subject of scrutiny in social media. So, as I watch the celebration over Kanye’s conversion and believe in the power of the gospel, I can’t help but be concerned that if this man stumbles, he will become a lightning rod for public controversy (look at the many unfortunate instances of backlash against Lauren Daigle). If he says the wrong thing, takes the wrong position, or otherwise offends (or just does something that will yield fodder for a scandal that can drive page views and likes), my concern is that he will not find the sort of public support and celebration he finds now.

In the end, my concerns are colored by a bit of cynicism…I recognize that. Having been on the other side of a social media “storm,” I have far less faith in certain members of the “Christian Fourth Estate” than I used to. At the same time, it does seem that my concerns have some basis in reality. It is difficult to deny that some segments within the Christian community find it acceptable to skewer celebrities, leaders, and organizations (whether they’ve done anything wrong or not) in the name of justice, accountability, or journalistic integrity.

In a world that increasingly feels like a technologically enhanced version of Benthem’s Panopticon (a prison where guards can see others without being seen themselves). This modern-day panopticon differs from that conceptualized by Benthem and Foucault in at least two ways: (1) it isn’t just that the guards get to watch the inmates…they also report on inmate behavior to the public and (2) you never know when you will become an inmate rather than a member of the public audience. Any one, at virtually any time, can be placed under the microscope and “disciplined” by the guards in a public display (we would do well to reflect a bit on the implications of public discipline as Foucault did in Discipline and Punish).

Because we can’t all watch everything, we outsource the monitoring to “trusted” individuals who sift and sort the information for us. One problem is that in their “sifting and sorting” they often create sizzle where there is no steak. Even where there is some substance behind a story, some of those reporting frame matters in a more negative, sensational manner than seems necessary. As Stephens notes, “News reporters yawn when dogs bite men, but let a man show his teeth to a dog, and the notebooks all come out. That’s why the world according to traditional journalists is overpopulated with the unlikely and unrepresentative.”

A second problem is that the “trusted guards” get to report selectively on anyone or anything they see. Sure, they report of those who have exhibited patterns of wrongdoing or done something that would require them to take a step away from leadership to rethink and reconcile with God and others. But, there is always the potential for them to misinterpret situations, to misjudge an action or outcome, or to “create” a story that will keep people interested.

So, as we consider how best to handle the issue of celebrity within the church, we would do well to keep the following in mind:

  1. Remember that the church does not rise and fall on whether celebrities or people of prominence say or do the right things publicly– How shocking is it that there are prominent Christians who make mistakes, take advantage of their positions, or otherwise misrepresent God in public? Call me crazy, but I’m never that surprised. It isn’t that I’m jaded. Instead, I think it is virtually implied that we will struggle with sin as we work out what it means to be “in Christ” while continuing to deal with the complexities of a fallen world. 1 John 1:9 seems to suggest that we are to be a community of confession. Far from authorizing bad behavior, it is a reminder that our confession (our acknowledgment that we have somehow contributed to the world not being as it should be) is a means of demonstrating our standing before God as justified and redeemed. Confessing our sin is a sign of our belonging to a community called from darkness to light that understands its need for God’s continued grace, forgiveness, and care.
  2. Keep in mind that celebrities are often put in positions to answer questions they may not be prepared to answer- Teaching is not the same as being a celebrity, but it is quite common to be asked questions to which you don’t know the answer. In a teaching situation you are generally not being filmed and broadcast, which allows you to admit you don’t know and give a provisional answer…to think out loud. Celebrities don’t always have that same luxury and I’m assuming that not everything can be a “no comment” sort of answer. There is nothing magical about becoming Christian that gives you the right answers about everything, so we need to give more prominent Christians some sort of space to make mistakes in public.
  3. Don’t believe everything you read (especially if you already agree with it)– Over the course of the past year or so I’ve been doing research in areas like media, framing, mental models, and cognitive bias. It is pretty sobering to realize just how much is against us when we try to make sense of the world. One of the particularly interesting dynamics is related to our tendency to gravitate to perspectives that will reinforce our pre-existing views on the world. Because our brains like to keep things simple and clear, they don’t like to have their stories challenged. We are prone to dismiss information that doesn’t fit the stories we tell ourselves even when the information we’ve used to construct our story isn’t that great. Many of us have had rough experiences in the church or in other organizations. It becomes really easy to map those rough experiences onto new situations of which we are not a part. I would say that I have certainly done that. I’m grateful, however, that (a) I’ve made it a practice to name as few names as possible and to avoid commenting on scandals when I write and (b) people have taken the time to remind me that my past experience doesn’t always carry over to new situations.
  4. We are usually in the worst possible position to come to any sort of a firm conclusion– Sure…there are times when we may have better perspective on certain matters, but most of the time…we just don’t have enough information to make a determination about what is happening. If we are only going to base our opinions on the information we get off some random news or blog site or whatever is trending on Twitter, we might want to consider that we are probably not getting the fullest picture of a situation. Even something that seems clear on its face may not be (Coady’s work entitled Testimony has some excellent things to say in this regard). Worse than basing our opinions on weak information is expressing our opinions without more information. It was just today that I saw Facebook comments that reminded me why I don’t engage substantive issues on Facebook. Just remember that the information you have available may not be sufficient to understand a given situation.

End of the day, I hope the church can handle celebrity. I hope that there are enough of us in the church who are willing to keep our uninformed opinions to ourselves, to pray for those with public influence, and to unsubscribe, unfriend, or otherwise disconnect from those who capitalize on the mistakes of others. Those who influence us…who comment on the happenings of Christianity…need to be those who also desire to see the body of Christ built up. While it is certainly possible that so-called Christian journalists will change, it seems more likely that individual believers will take a step back, consider their media choices, and decide to delve into the scriptures, to read Augustine’s Confessions, or pick up Moody’s Prevailing Prayer, rather than listening to the online noise. I will say that if folks got more serious about reading the scriptures or the great works of the faith and stopped reading my posts, I’d consider it a win for the church.

I discuss some similar issues in this post entitled “Coordination, Contribution, and Limitation in the Multi-Gifted Body of Christ”

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