Monthly Letter – July 2024

CELEBRITY CULTURE and THE BOILING FROG

Dear Friends,

Celebrities have never been bigger. It’s hardly surprising, I suppose, given that there’s now such instant, internet communication and a massive, global reach.

The figures would have left our forebears bewildered. That there should be roughly 60 million adult ‘Swifties’ in the USA alone, for instance, (quite apart from all the lady’s under-18 fans – and quite apart from all her massive following across the world) is as unparalleled in terms of a ‘following’ as the staggering income likely to be generated by her present Eras Tour (an estimated £4.5 billion).

We live in a celebrity culture, where prominent individuals are ‘celebrated’: the focus of the public’s attention is on them, and the flow of the public’s money is towards them – for it’s an industry as well as a culture, a philosophy as well as a mindset.

And it grates.

Or at least it should surely grate for believers. There is only ever one whose character, gifts and accomplishments we can rightly celebrate, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ. As the Lord Himself explained – “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches:  but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have understanding to know Me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth” (Jer.9.23f).

That’s a polite way of knocking the whole celebrity culture on the head and putting it in its place. You’d have thought.

But the celebrity culture’s a slippery thing, and its toxic fumes seep through the cracks of the ‘bumper-sticker’ faith which too frequently has been the hallmark of the western Church today: and those are the fumes we breathe in day by day, largely and happily oblivious to the harm they may be occasioning in our life as the people of God.

It’s the ‘boiling frog syndrome’ all over again. The contemporary church, like the scientist’s frog, is being slowly boiled to her death in the growing heat of today’s celebrity culture: and most of the time we’re blissfully unaware of what is actually going on.

Let me try and explain what I mean and illustrate some primary ways in which the phenomenon finds expression.

We are made by God to worship. That’s where we have to start. We are made by God for Himself – to delight in Him. To rest in His protective love, to rejoice in His holy presence, to marvel at all His perfections. We were made to adore Him, made with both the propensity and the capacity to worship Him, made with a certain ‘obsessive’ instinct in our hearts. Sin doesn’t delete that instinct: instead, sin distorts and diverts that basic instinct.

We remain worshippers. Only now we will not worship the one for whom we were made. Our worship now is directed by sin elsewhere; and a seminal instinct ensures and insists we must worship something or someone beyond and outside of ourselves. The idolized images of the unseen ‘gods’ which littered the ancient world (because in our sin-tarnished state we need always to see what it is in which we’re investing) were the way this basic instinct found expression in a bygone age. Today we like to think that we’ve now moved beyond such ignorant superstition: but we still have our idolized ‘images’ – the objects of our misdirected worship, whose ‘wisdom,’ ‘strength’ and ‘riches’ (all understood in the widest sense) we now are glad to celebrate.

The celebrity culture feeds on the fuel of that deep-rooted instinct in the human heart, and has come into its own in the wake of our mass media world.

And the culture seeps into the church. Subtly. Silently. Seditiously.

It distorts our view of ministry, for one thing.

We put our ministers on something of a pedestal. Unwittingly, most of the time. And often for the very best of motives. We preface their name with a titular ‘Rev.’ The ‘reverend’. The one to be revered, to be treated with due reverence. And for added measure we put a different and distinctive collar round their neck.

Of course, there are good reasons for both the title and the ‘uniform’. We want to honour God’s call on their lives. We want to honour God’s Word which they teach. But it’s fertile soil into which the floating seeds of celebrity culture can fall and take root.

There’s nothing new about this, certainly. It’s been like that from the earliest days of the church. The “I-follow-Paul” and “I-follow-Apollos” and “I-follow-Cephas” divisions which were rampant in the Corinth church are indicative of precisely this same propensity. The desire to worship a visible ‘god’ – beyond ourselves but nonetheless also ‘beneath’ ourselves (in the sense that we control it) – that desire dies hard within the human heart.

Ours is a generation with a tendency towards the light and superficial; and a light and superficial reading of the Scriptures themselves can foster just that desire, with its focus on what we like to speak of as the ‘heroes’ of the faith – those celebrated spiritual ‘giants’ whose exploits are narrated at some length in Holy Writ. Hebrews 11 is a classic exposition of just that, the stories of these well-known individuals all condensed into a single, stirring chapter of the Book. But they’re never set forth in that chapter as ‘heroines’ or ‘heroes’ – far less as great ‘celebrities.’ No. They’re men and women with ‘feet of clay’ who are nothing more than witnesses, pointing us all to the one who alone is rightly due our homage and our worship: and all of them saying, ‘Look at Him. Fix your eyes on Jesus.’

And you have to look hard, because He’s not where you maybe expect Him to be. He’s on His knees, washing the feet of disciples; He’s on a cross, bearing the sins of His people. Where He’s not is on a platform (of any sort) or a pedestal. He’s servant, not celebrity. He made Himself nothing. Humbled Himself. ‘No beauty or majesty to attract us to Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.’ None of the razzmatazz glitter and gold of celebrity life. Just the graft and the grime of the way of the cross. ‘Despised and rejected .. one from whom people hide their faces’: no one queuing up for ‘selfies’ when ‘we held Him in low esteem.’ He’s servant, as I say, not celebrity. And the Scriptures insist it’s on Him we’re to fix our eyes.

But often we don’t. In an age more visual than ever, our eyes are often averted: in a culture more narcissist than ever, our perspective is often distorted. We prefer our ‘gods’ to have the trappings of fame and success: an age-old desire which is amplified now by the power of social media – which in turn then creates the present celebrity culture.

And the culture seeps into the life of the church. Slowly, subtly, almost imperceptibly (a well-tried, classic strategy of hell, the boiling frog syndrome approach) our view of ministers and ministry has significantly changed. The minister is viewed now not as servant but as ‘star’ – his image now paraded on ecclesiastical versions of the silver screen, his preaching now projected via livestream to who knows how many punters: and the bigger the ‘name’ then the bigger the reach as well. And all in the cause of the gospel, of course. As one writer discerningly says – “In a mass media culture driven by visual appeal, slick marketing, and personal branding, celebrity is just one more tool Christians have used to reach people for Christ.”

The Covid pandemic gave a turbo-charged momentum to this tendency, sucking the church of the one ‘from whom people hide their faces’ into the brave new celebrity world of XYZ (X ([formerly Twitter], YouTube, and Zoom). Our message reduced to soundbite size, the medium transformed to an on-screen persona, and the meeting exchanged for impersonal, digital distance.

‘Celebrity’ seems such a powerful tool; it all seems to make such sense. But it comes at a cost. And a part of that cost is the subtle, but hugely significant, change that there’s been (not least in the evangelical church) in the role that a minister plays. It is in some ways (and for reasons not hard to unearth) a temptation to which the evangelical church is peculiarly prone: the prominence given to Scripture as the Word of God, and to preaching as the primary means by which the kingdom is grown, does mean that the preacher himself becomes very much a focal point for all that the church seeks both to be and to do. You need think no further than the phenomenon, now so common, of the ready and regular tuning in by Christians to the so-called ‘big name’ preachers of our day and generation. That’s nothing other than the ‘creep’ of celebrity culture dressed up in its ‘Sunday best.’

But in this sort of way, unwittingly, the preachers and pastors become now less the servant and, instead, more the ‘celebrity’: no longer just a shepherd of the flock of Jesus Christ, but more and more the CEO of some sizeable, growing church. And it’s here, in our understanding of the Christian church (what’s termed our ‘ecclesiology’) – it’s here that there is a further bit of fall-out from the whole celebrity culture. The growth of a ‘mega church’ mindset. Where numbers will always trump nurture.

It all seems so right and reasonable, of course – on the surface at least. So thoroughly biblical, too. Isn’t the gospel all about growth? Well, ‘yes’, in a sense it is. And isn’t the Lord the ‘God who makes things grow’? And, yes, He is undoubtedly. But… growth isn’t all about numbers. And that’s the subtle deception which celebrity culture feeds us day by day: for the only currency in which this culture deals is invariably numbers. And big-time numbers at that!

Growth not depth becomes, perhaps unconsciously, the underlying metric of the mega-church philosophy. All for the glory of God, for sure. Isn’t this, after all, what the Lord calls His people to do – discipling the peoples of all nations? Isn’t this how the paraphrased Scriptures exhort us to think as we sing of ‘the mountain of the Lord’ and declare in faith, ‘to this the joyful nations round, all tribes and tongues shall flow’? Isn’t this where the whole great gospel enterprise will one day end, with ‘a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language’ all gathered before the throne and the Lamb? And what’s all that if not numbers? And big-time numbers at that.

Thus numbers become the great metric and pursuit of such growth the goal. Which in turn will so often entail the building being significantly expanded, the staff being sizeably enlarged, and a programme of ‘plants’ being established. But in amongst the hubbub and excitement of such growth, with eyes and minds and energies preoccupied thereby, little by little, unnoticed ‘til it’s far too late, the Kingdom becomes instead the ‘empire’, the servant becomes the CEO, and slowly, too, the church becomes a ‘brand’: it’s the boiling frog syndrome again, the strategy of hell. For in time the ‘brand’ morphs into a beast – a beast which devours all the time and the strength of its plentiful members simply to feed itself.

Which takes us back to the culture of celebrity. Remember that sentence I quoted earlier on? “In a mass media culture driven by visual appeal, slick marketing, and personal branding, celebrity is just one more tool Christians have used to reach people for Christ.” Too late, though, the church will find that far from being a fruitful tool, celebrity is actually a fearful beast, “a wild animal,” as that same writer puts it – “cunning, slippery, and insidious. And that wild animal is now tearing up the house of God from inside out.”

What need we always have to be wide awake to what is going on, and alert to the wiles of the devil. He doesn’t ever advertise his strategies or telegraph his punches: and he’s far more patient than we often are and will readily play the ‘long-game’. May God grant us grace to discern what is best, to expose Satan’s lies, and to celebrate only our Lord.

Yours in the glad service of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Jeremy Middleton