Monday, November 7, 2016
No Heroes, but One God
She was asking me out of sheer exasperation. A liberal-ish friend of mine wanted to know why this year's Republican presidential nominee has garnered so much support from America's evangelicals.
After all, some of the biggest celebrities in our evangelical orbit have gone out on some surprisingly rotten limbs to self-flagellate their reputations for his sake. People like Jerry Falwell Jr, Franklin Graham, and James Dobson, just to name a few.
Dobson even had to recant his bombshell pronouncement of his candidate's conversion experience when he was forced to reveal the dubious facts behind it.
My friend is a long-time professing Christian, but she doesn't consider herself an evangelical. She attends a large mainline church in the South, and is the heterosexually-married mother of two. She's been reading my blog this election cycle while also listening to her other evangelical friends, and noticing that even though I claim to be an evangelical, there are significant differences between the way I view this election, and the way her other evangelical friends view it.
"I remember when Republicans were courting the evangelicals years ago," she recently reminisced, "and it was all about having Christian leaders and character. What has happened?"
Well, isn't it obvious? Within evangelicalism, and outside of it, "character" has become a relative concept these days, at least when it comes to leadership. Results matter more than ethics, and it's become quite popular within Christendom to "not judge" someone's morality because, after all, we're all sinners. Contrary to Biblical theology, the ends actually do justify the means, at least when it comes to economics and politics. And Christians - particularly evangelicals - have cultivated an entire worldview and lifestyle based not on the Bible, but on economics and politics, with success and celebrity being key measurements of validity.
Which led my friend to wonder if there are any evangelical leaders I respect these days. After all, the "legacy" evangelicals, most of whom rose to prominence either during or as a result of the defunct Moral Majority movement from the 1980's, have proven ineffective at modeling the type of righteous citizenship they themselves claimed could save America.
Fortunately, there are a few preachers who have managed to remain above the fray these days, at least as far as their status within our evangelical industrial complex is concerned. Prominent professional Christians like Tim Keller, John Piper, and John MacArthur spring to mind. Yet I don't follow any of these guys on Facebook. I only own one book from among their plethora of titles, and that one was given to me as a gift. And I've written essays for this blog in which I've sternly opined on Keller's ministry to New York City's gentrifiers. But indeed, Keller has provoked stronger criticisms than mine particularly among Reformed evangelicals who are wary of his tendency to court urbanist ideologies among trend-loving Millennials.
Nevertheless, I can't question his personal integrity, or His prioritization of Christ in his life.
Still, I have no heroes, or people I particularly admire... at least as something of a celebrity status. I've never had heroes. As a kid, I'd watch those grainy Superman! re-runs on TV, but it was merely entertainment for me, not an introduction to superheroes as personalities worthy of emulation.
I've never been infatuated with celebrities of any genre, whether movie stars, musicians, military heroes, or preachers. Politicians? Please - don't make me laugh! I've never been interested in sports, so I've never worshipped any athletes. For a while, I idolized rich people in general, and really wanted to become one myself. But when I learned how most of our world's truly fantastic fortunes usually get made, I realized there was often little that was honorable about the personal temperaments of the folks who made them.
Indeed, it's not money that's the root of all sorts of evil, but the love of money!
Chalk it up to my cynical nature, but eventually, I also learned that many Christian celebrities love things in place of God. Many pastors have a love of authority, or power, or prominence. Many singers, musicians, and other artists within our evangelical industrial complex have a love more of entertainment and affirmation than of service in the worship of almighty God. And wealthy evangelicals who promote their pet ministry projects around the world never seem to be emptying any of their own barns, kinda like Christ's account of the wealthy man who kept building bigger barns for himself.
It's not that the world's definitions of success - accomplishment, wealth, admiration - are wrong for evangelicals. It's that most of us evangelicals - whether we're "successful" or not - really seem to enjoy them more than we probably should.
However, all this isn't to say that I don't know of several evangelicals in particular who I deeply respect. Indeed, these are folks who have obvious flaws but who don't try to cover them up, as much as they humbly let the Holy Spirit use their overall lives for God's glory anyway. They aren't self-aggrandizing, even though they may occupy positions of significant authority and visibility within their respective spheres of influence.
They're people like the senior pastor at my church, who's my age, and a friend of mine. He's not the world's best preacher - and I've respectfully told him so! - but he's an excellent pastor, not only to me, but to our entire congregation. He's not into self-promotion, he's not on Facebook, and he has no blog, website, or para-church ministry. He hasn't written any books, and as far as I know, he's no regular on the evangelical conference speaker's circuit. And even though the congregation he shepherds is by far the wealthiest in the PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) denomination, he's no "respecter of persons." He can't be, if he befriends the likes of me!
Yet he's grounded, sincere, honest, caring, and devoted to the Gospel of Christ.
I have a friend in California who is not a professional Christian, but who models Biblical grace and affection, as well as devotion to Christ, in ways that would catch right-wing Republican church-goers off guard! I have a missionary friend whose cross-cultural ministry - not to mention his family - have been utterly upended due to problems beyond their control in the country to which they believed God had called them; yet they remain patient and steadfast.
These are just three examples of the types of people we evangelicals should be choosing to celebritize, if indeed, these three people would even be willing to consider themselves in such a way. (Actually, my California friend might, and she's got just enough spunky charisma to pull it off, at least for a while...)
But again, I'm not really into the whole celebrity thing. Not because there aren't some really noble, nice people out there. But because hero worship of any kind inevitably leads to some really big questions about whose gospel you're acknowledging.
In the New Testament, we have an account of divisions in the church as people chose their favorite preachers to follow. So in that regard, celebrity Christianity is nothing new. Some preferred Paul, others preferred Apollos, some preferred Peter, and some more sanctimonious folks said they preferred Christ:
I [Paul] appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought.
My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul?
...Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.
It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.” - from 1 Corinthians 1
Tomorrow, this year's atrocious election season will come to an end, but in many ways, the tumult within our electorate here in America will only continue. And part of the reason for our country's deep fractiousness lies within our evangelical industrial complex, and our individual penchant for selective appreciation of what we like to believe, and what we don't like to believe.
This condition has, to various degrees, been both created and exacerbated by the willingness of many Christians to follow personalities who align with our personal preferences, but not necessarily the broader scope of Christ's Gospel. And we've become quite sophisticated in rationalizing our preferences based on what we stand to lose - financially, politically, socially - if we don't vote a certain way.
Instead, if this gospel we believe is God's, and not John Piper's, or Billy Graham's, or Hillary Clinton's, or Rush Limbaugh's, or my own pastor's, or your pastor's, then how can we have so many interpretations of the Gospel championed by so many personalities?
It's not necessarily that individualism and diversity are bad things.
But if something seems more true to you if a celebrity is telling it to you, I hope the fact that God's Kingdom is no democracy doesn't disappoint you.