Last week, on an evening unlike any I have ever experienced, I found myself sitting in a caravan of chauffeured Bentleys. We were racing through downtown Berlin in high style, headed from the actors' lounge at the prestigious Berlinale film festival, on our way to one of the week's many events. Suffice it to say, I do not find myself in this position very often, and if I hadn't had a friend who worked for a couple of actors with an extra VIP pass, I wouldn't have made it this time either.
When we arrived at the event, the friend and I sidestepped the red carpet while his employers talked to the paparazzi. After the show, we headed back, in said caravan of Bentleys, to one of Berlin's finest restaurants and dined at a special table set for thirty 'til well past two in the morning.
I think about how to explain Christianity to "elite people" all the time. It very seldom happens, though, that I find myself in a group of them. So I couldn't resist the temptation to play pastor-to-the-stars for the night. One just needs access, I have always told myself. If only we Christians could get access to such people, then we could explain Christianity to them, and then they -- like the socially-aristocratic Christians of old -- could use their newfound Christian convictions and longtime powerful connections to turn the world on its head for Jesus.
Well, all those ambitions notwithstanding, it was a comparatively short evening, and I regret that neither the resurrection nor the cosmological argument came up. But because of the relative anonymity in which I was forced to spend the evening, I had time to consider just how complicated things would get for such people if any of them were to convert. At every corner, I noted problems they would immediately face, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized these problems would face virtually any subset of celebrities or elites.
Actors, as I learned that night, must first and foremost concern themselves with their image. I saw a lot of that. This means that, in the name of career preservation, they must obsess about what people think about their physical appearance and work hard to cultivate relationships which enhance their brand. After a night of observing it, I can assure you that this is work. But not only does it make frequent dealings with Christians -- who, at least on paper, should forgo this kind of thing -- less likely. It also means they might have a hard time reconciling themselves to that practice later, and thus have a hard time staying at the top of their field.
Academics, by the same token, often build their careers on a set of ideas. If that set of ideas doesn't reconcile well with the basic tenets of the gospel, then both conversion and/or the pursuit of their former career post-conversion could present major problems. Consider the amazing story of Rosaria Butterfield, a tenured research professor of Queer Studies and long-time lesbian activist, who converted in recent years.
Athletes, on the other hand, seem easier to "reach," at least sociologically speaking, and they also seem to have a better track record of remaining in their careers as Christians. Just stop to consider how many more outspokenly Christian athletes there are than Christian actors. At the same time, the inconveniences athletes face, if and when they convert, stem from the nature of their work as well: Athletics are not driven primarily by ideas. So the public finds it disingenuous when athletes use interviews about their physical accomplishments as an opportunity to discuss worldview issues. Obviously, I applaud their bravery and savor those evangelistic attempts, but I think we have to concede that such attempts do have limitations.
Politicians seem quite free to convert to Christianity, and also to pursue their work as Christians. The dilemma they face is not so much in conversion, but in the inescapable obligation to face moral dilemmas once in office while somehow responding "like a Christian." Politics, especially at the national and international level, requires you to address situations in which you can only pick the lesser of two evils. And many a truly devoted Christian politician has ended up looking rather evil themselves due to their responsibility to choose certain evils over other ones.
Billionaire celebrities also bring unique challenges to the table. Because of his professional responsibilities, a friend of mine has dined one-on-one several times with one of the richest individuals in America. The philanthropist in question exercises complete control over which people are ever allowed to enter his presence, making interaction with people of divergent world views less likely. And were he to convert, he would probably be faced with the dilemma of keeping up his lifestyle (which would open huge doors for evangelism) or surrendering a lot of that lifestyle (which is extravagant, to say the least).
Maybe these aforementioned dilemmas are what make musicians such a rare breed. Their work deals directly with ideas; there is a good precedent for Christians in the field; and, as Andrew Fletcher famously said, "Let me write the songs of a nation and I don't care who writes its laws." Conversion does bring many of the same problems, as people like Bob Dylan found upon dabbling seriously in Christianity. But the ability of musicians today to break through independently, provided their work is good enough, ought to encourage us all.
My Own Elitism:
As I climbed in a cab at 3 a.m., two thoughts crossed my mind. The first, which I understood in a new way that night, was that every conversion is a miracle. Every conversion -- whether of the famous actor inside, or the anonymous cab driver outside -- follows a dramatic, heart-altering act of God. This is what gives us peace as we do the instrumental work of "reaching them."
And secondly, I realized that I was thinking about these peoples' conversion from the standpoint of their career preservation, which is a perspective which none of them would have were they truly converted. It was the perspective not of a lover of God and men, which I'm called to be, but of an elite-person-converter, a kind of career-focused person in my own right. And it struck me that no person, elite or otherwise, would ever be moved to seek God by seeing in me what he could just as easily have found in himself.