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Volume 13, Issue 5: Cultura

Celebrity Saints

Roy Atwood

Two centuries ago when a great man appeared, people looked for God's purpose in him; today we look for his press agent.
Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961)
Fame isn't what it used to be. Nowadays popular culture no longer distinguishes the famous and the infamous, the virtuous and the vain. Madonna and Mother Theresa, Dennis Rodman and Billy Graham, Howard Stern and Tim LaHaye—all have become celebrities of sorts, famous for being famous (at least for fifteen minutes or more), and their names appear regularly in today's chronicles of the rich and famous. If they're not on tour or on TV or radio, others produce movies about their lives or work. If they are really hot celebs (dead or alive), they make it into People magazine or on Entertainment Tonight; if their star power has faded, they appear on Hollywood Squares. Today fame is about exposure, not character.
Until the last century, fame came one of only three ways, as Shakespeare once observed: some were born great, some achieved greatness, and some had greatness thrust upon them. No matter how it came, though, fame was synonymous with greatness; great men and famous men walked in the same shoes. Those who were born to greatness or had greatness thrust upon them usually understood true humility (at least deep in their bones), because their greatness was a gift from a smiling Providence. Fame and greatness most often came slowly, through repeated demonstrations of extraordinary wisdom, integrity, or valor in the public arena. Fame rarely arrived overnight. And it too was no less a manifestation of the secret counsels of God who crowns kings and dethrones them for His own purposes.1
Stories of men grasping after instant greatness or fame by deceit or brute force are legion, of course. The check on ill-sought fame historically was community familiarity. Those who wanted a shortcut to fame usually ran smack into friends and neighbors who made sure they received the reputation they deserved. The Church lost this community check on counterfeit greatness when Chuck Finney and the Second Great Awakening succeeded in separating the gospel from its covenant context. Finney convinced American evangelicals that they could fast-track conversions and take shortcuts into the kingdom of God without the discipline of the Church, sound biblical doctrine, or an educated ministry. As a result, the evangelical church came to crave low-cal spiritual fast-food served up by the latest celebrity Christian author or self-anointed evangelist more than the meat of Word faithfully taught and preached under the authority and oversight of the Church.
Since the advent of the commercial mass media and their ability to sell mass audiences to advertisers by luring them with sex, scandal, and crime, we have also discovered and refined the processes by which fame can be manufactured by publicity that transcends the local community. Mere repetition of a man's name through major media channels can make him a national (even international) celebrity overnight. We have been willingly misled by advertising and public relations campaigns into believing that the attribute of being well known is a sufficient indicator of greatness.
On this side of the last century's doctrinal implosion and media explosion, the Church no longer honors the truly great or understands the shallowness of contemporary celebrity. Evangelicals blinded by the hype of our pop culture mistake spiritually anemic celebrities with giants of the faith or degrade truly great Christian mentors by marketing them like one more mass-produced trinket. Tim LaHaye and Bruce Wilkinson have become Christian superstars not because of the greatness of their work or character, but because their publishers know how to sucker unthinking evangelicals. At the same time, the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose fame within and without the Christian community is well deserved for their fine art and godly example, are now hawked like any other blockbuster or bestseller. Shadowlands and Lord of the Rings—the movies—are not testaments to the genius of these Christian literary scholars and authors, but to Hollywood's skill at squeezing six or seven bucks from evangelicals who can no longer distinguish hype from worship.
Our addiction to cheap celebrity is so powerful that it compels us to cover-up true greatness lest it expose our own emptiness. Lewis understood this principal defect in the contemporary nature of fame. Celebrities get big heads, but the appearance is deceptive because "their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so."2

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