The Christian Celebrity & Our Bloated Selfhood

In a culture where everyone feels entitled to their 15MB of fame, is it any wonder that Christian leaders define success by their celebrity influence? 

Leaders look at culture and deduce that if they can formulate a powerful platform then they will be able to wield influence. And that’s what they want, to influence the world for Christ, right?

This is why defining influence as leadership is dangerous in a culture where influence is perceived as celebrity capital.

But what if we began to defer the so-called opportunities to increase our own influence, platforms, and celebrity status? What might we find? Would we find a freedom to be the person God intended us to be?

"We are not responsible for success," writes theologian Klaus Bockmuehl, "but we remain responsible for obedience." [1] What God creates with our obedience is his concern, not ours.

The Christian leader often struggles to understand this. They think that because a person can create a celebrity persona that they should, and once they obtain influence in the form of power or visibility or even wealth then they will leverage it all for the good of Christendom.

The Christian leader, it seems, has fallen prey to the lie that says in order to win the world we must speak its language forgetting that Christian leadership is not about "power and control, but a leadership of powerlessness and humility."

But not all of us struggle with the temptations that come from leading people. The veneer of cool, the veneer of celebrity manifests itself in other ways. For many of us, our temptations emerge in the subtleties of popularity or the cool factor in how we dress, what we drive, how popular our blogs are, how successful we can make everyone think we are.

One way or the another, the "Look at me, I'm someone" complex surfaces. Somewhere in our heart of hearts, however, we hear the still small voice that whispers, "It's a sham."

In some way we all face the temptations of fame and power just as Jesus did in the wilderness. But we must remain obedient, just as Jesus was, recognizing the temptations as cheap versions of the truth. As James the apostle reminds us, true religion “guards against the corruption of the world.” (1:27) We either obey, and conform to the will of the Father or, we conform to the world.

In C.S. Lewis's classic book, The Screwtape Letters, we see uncommon insight into the lies of the tempter. The book is a fictional exchange of letters between a newly recruited demon, Wormwood, and his Uncle Screwtape, an old pro. The elder Screwtape gives expert advice to his nephew, instructing him on how to trip up a new Christian convert. The advice centers on sidetracking the convert from the joy and blessed life found in God, and, as a result, rendering his faith impotent.

In one letter Screwtape warns Wormwood of the obedience that God demands of his followers. "But the obedience which the Enemy [God] demands of men is quite a different thing," says Uncle Screwtape, "One must face the fact that all the talk of perfect freedom, is not (as one would gladly believe) mere propaganda, but an appalling truth. He really does want to fill the universe with a lot of loathsome little replicas of Himself—creatures whose life, on its miniature scale, will be qualitatively like His own, not because He has absorbed them but because their wills freely conform to His." [2]

In the veneer of celebrity we find ourselves striving after the world's idea of success, which elevates the self rather than conforming to the will of God.

When we buy into it we begin living a life that zooms squarely on the individual. In the elevation of such things, we see an unhealthy emphasis on the self take shape. We feel unsatisfied unless we have influence over others. We feel irritated unless others approve of us. We feel discontented unless we receive recognition in our work. Influence, approval, achievement; in the celebrity world, these are our idols

Theologian John Calvin is often quoted as saying that our hearts are perpetual idol factories.[3] This seems especially true in our celebrity culture where the pursuit of self moves us further from God and closer to loneliness; he fades as the star of self shines bright.

Jewish philosopher Martin Buber comments, “Something has stepped between our existence and God to shut off the light of heaven … [and] that something is in fact ourselves, our own bloated selfhood.”[4]

But no matter how hard we try, an idol cannot fulfill man’s need for God—a real, living, intimate God. We need our God to be accessible, not with the on-off button of a remote control but through relationship.

“An idol leads a man, by necessity, into loneliness,” writes Bockmuehl. “An idol leads man into loneliness, when what man needs is a god with whom he can have dialogue.”[5]

The God of Abraham does not lead anyone into loneliness. He leads us into himself. He calls each by name toward himself, the essence of all that is good and holy, full of fear and wonder. This is where he calls you. It's a place where the self decreases and God increases.

Many of my friends argue with me about whether or not should publicly skewer our Christian leaders when they mess up and fail in their leadership. I don't think we should--I think Christians should lead by how we deal with our own whether that is in celebration or in correction. 

Everyone is quick to cast Mark Driscoll down from his perch. But if I'm honest, the veneer of celebrity does not only surface in leaders like Driscoll. It surfaces in me. The idol of success casts its shadow over all of us. If I want to rise from these shadows then I must remain in dialogue with the One who can deliver me from them. 

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[1] Klaus Bockmuehl, The Christian Way of Living, 35.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (Ohio: Barbour Books, 1990), 45-46.

[3] Contending For The Faith: The Church's Engagement With Culture (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2003), 169. 

[4] Craig Gay, The Way of the Modern World: Or, Why It’s Tempting to Live as if God Doesn’t Exist (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1998), 196.

[5] Klaus Bockmuehl, The Christian Way of Living (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 1998), 57. 

Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.