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Calling Out Celebrity Christianity & Counterfeit Justice

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A major reality TV producer and a record-breaking Bible miniseries involving famous evangelical leaders.

A live televised highwire stunt starring an evangelical daredevil with a famous pastor cameo.

A charismatic Seattle pastor posting random hangz with Bieber.

And (brace yourself) THIS:

Ugh.

These are just a few recent blips on the Celebrity Christianity radar. But the love affair between American Christianity and celebrity culture is not new. Ever since the first well-known actor or musician or athlete "accepted Jesus" and went on Christian TV or released a Christian album or movie or praised Jesus in a press conference after a game or became a pastor of some kind, the American church has been obsessed with endorsing and imitating God-talking celebs.

Yet, it does seem that things have ramped up a bit recently, doesn't it? I mean, Survivor creator Mark Burnett's The Bible miniseries was the most-watched show on cable in 2013 and garnered a total of 95 million viewers. 95. MILLION. 13 million tuned in for thank-you-Jesus-ing wire walker Nik Wallenda and his big-time Texas prayer partner. And the Biebs? The BIEBS?

This is getting real.

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Celebrity Christianity is at an all-time high, boasting surprising popularity and numbers in the midst of a North American Church in decline.

So what gives? Why does this thing need to be called out if it's on the rise? And what exactly is "Celebrity Christianity" anyway?

I think Bishop Ron Gibson answers that last question pretty well in the video above:

"P. Diddy. Jay-Z. They're not the only ones who should be driving Ferrari's and living in large houses."

Celebrity Christianity is, specifically, the idea that the marks of celebrity culture -- fame, fashion, wealth, and ease -- ought to be adopted and adapted, in some "sanctified" way, among Christian people and especially Christian leaders.

In fact, Celebrity Christianity says that these marks are also the marks of a successful, prosperous, favored, victorious Christian life and Christian church.

To be clear, Celebrity Christianity is not merely notoriety or prominence, because it is possible for people who are sincerely and deeply following Jesus or leading in the church to attain a level of notoriety. Churches may grow. Book deals, record deals, speaking engagements, and interviews may come. A platform may develop. A platform, in and of itself, is not Celebrity Christianity. But a platform becomes Celebrity Christianity as soon as it begins to deny the substance of the subversive gospel of the kingdom by an adherence to the systemic, superficial, self-indulgent values of celebrity culture.

As soon as it becomes TMZ Christianity.

As soon as it becomes Kardashian Christianity.

As soon as it becomes Real Pastors of Orange County Christianity.

As soon as it becomes Bieber fever or NBA courtside seats Christianity.

The trend that I'm seeing, and that I hereby CALL OUT, is toward a prosperity gospel upgraded to a radical-looking concern for justice and evangelism, and repackaged in a kind of ultra-hipness that doesn't overtly shout "wealth." Nonetheless, it is egregiously wealthy, enthusiastically superficial, materially excessive, and theologically bankrupt. Moreover, though it uses some different language than its prosperity gospel forebears, it is fundamentally the same perversion of the gospel, equating indulgent material success with God's favor on a faithful life. And, its apparent fervor for justice among the poor is flawed at the root as it perpetuates a system which only serves to widen the systemic social gap between the have's and the have not's, thereby continuing to oppress, enslave, and ignore the realities of those without privilege.

In short, the leaders continue to live unbelievably privileged lives, jetsetting to exotic events and hobnobbing with the famous, while the people who pay them in droves (via megachurch offerings), never see anything remotely resembling that life, though they may "believe" for it and feel charmed by it as they experience it vicariously through their leaders.

It's the age-old prosperity gospel bait and switch.

And really, it's "We wanna be the 1 percent!" Christianity, with the cheering crowd ironically widening the economic gap between themselves and their leaders even as they strive to obtain their celebrity status.

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I'll never forget the time my family attended a charismatic Christian conference when I was a teen, to see a visiting speaker we admired for his prophetic holiness preaching. One of the themes of this guy's core message, present in all of his books and tapes ('cause it was the 90's, people), was repentance from excess and ease in the charismatic church. As an underprivileged kid with a serious love for Jesus, I was totally thrilled by this because I hated that happy-slappy, good-time, word-of-faith gospel that said God was just gonna bless ya'll exceedingly, abundantly, (materially) more than you could ever ask or imagine, with increase in your finances and your friends and your ministry! -- because, you know, he didn't usually bless people that way. He definitely didn't bless me that way. And the gospel that Jesus preached seemed to point to a different kind of blessing entirely. I was starved for a prophet in the midst of that madness.

The conference was great. Good, challenging, prophetic words were spoken. I felt encouraged and energized.

Until I walked out the wrong door.

There was an exit that you were supposed to take -- in the front, through the mall, past the bookstore, to the huge parking lot with golf-cart taxi service -- but I wanted to look at the other side of the building. There was a coffee shop for the youth group, and a huge gym. Offices and stairs to more offices surrounded the space. And then, a single glass door to the outside. Disoriented from exploring, I walked through it.

As it turned out, it was the staff exit. A private carport hugged the building kitty-corner to the right. In it, a shining vintage red Corvette and a black Cadillac. Straight ahead, the pastor, his wife, and the guest preacher and his wife piled into a brand new Mercedes SUV. There was a glistening Porsche next to that car, a giant Suburban next to that (when Suburbans were all the rage), and additional leaders were getting in. Other luxury cars dotted the small, hidden lot.

I don't even want to think about the size of the houses they were all going to.

Years later, I went to see a renowned worship band play at a church in Arizona. The Sunday morning before the concert, the pastor connected to the band preached a message based on his newly released book. The title of the book and the message? You Need More Money.

The title was a little bit tongue-in-cheek, since the thrust of the message was that you need more money so that you can give more freely and help more people, amirite! But, in the middle of the sermon, the pastor broke off into an anecdote to flesh out his philosophy. He enthusiastically expressed how, after his time in Phoenix was done, he would be meeting his wife in L.A. and they would be spending at least a day shopping on Rodeo Drive. He quipped that religious people probably would have an issue with that, but that God had blessed he and his wife abundantly, that they gave to the church and to people in need freely, and therefore God was pleased to spoil them with lots of high-end fashion, amirite!

It was kind of amazing to watch so many people, who clearly would never be able to afford shopping sprees on Rodeo, amen-ing this rich man -- rich because of their money -- with gusto.

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Growing up in the charismatic church, I came face to face with the sheer hypocrisy of Celebrity Christianity. It is that which postures in all kinds of amazingly spiritual ways from the stage, but then piles into $100,000 cars and buys $7,000 tickets and dons designers downtown. It comes with prophetic words of repentance and transformation and deliverance, followed by a huge payday. It comes with news of mind-boggling donations to missions or clean water or ministries that got tens of thousands saved in ONE NIGHT, followed by a half-hour drive to mansions on the edge of town or penthouses in the best buildings uptown.

For those leading the Celebrity Christianity charge, evangelical faith really becomes an empty external signifier to shield them from taking responsibility for their enormous power and privilege. That's not to say these folks aren't sincere, or that they don't believe what they are saying -- they mostly do -- but the substance of their lives actually becomes the opposite of the gospel they claim to believe. Thus, the logic becomes, "I am a Christian! I love Jesus! I am on the right side, and I am favored by God! Plus, I love people -- and I help others! Therefore, it's ok for me to possess this exorbitant  amount of wealth and power, to horde and store up treasures on earth, and to use it lavishly on myself and indulge in that which fundamentally, systemically harms and oppresses others." In the end, there's no substantially different way of life that they are promoting than what is coming from your average Kardashian, except for a couple externally "sanctifying" elements.

God then becomes something like a mascot to justify and validate the ways that Celebrity Christianity is completely at odds with the gospel itself. 

There will doubtless be a couple of quick objections to my argument here. The first is, simply, Isn't it ok for some Christians to be rich? But if the gospel of the kingdom is subversive and upside-down, then this the wrong question to be asking. The question is not, Can a Christian be rich? but rather, How can a rich Christian divest her/himself of the identity of "rich" and empty themselves to stand in solidarity with those who are on the margins, as Jesus did? I'm not suggesting that there is a mold for how this is to be done legalistically, but it certainly must be the direction of a Christian's heart if they find themselves in a position of power and privilege. (Also note: Celebrity Christianity is precisely a paradigm that promotes material wealth as the normative goal for Christians who are blessed, favored, and victorious.)

Another objection might be: Don't celebrities need Jesus, too? And the answer is, Of course.

But what they don't need is a Celebrity Jesus.

What they don't need is a gospel that is as superficial as the world they already inhabit.

Instead, what they need is a demonstration of the kingdom of God that subverts the whole system of celebrity under the Lordship of Christ.

They need a countersign -- a prophetic witness -- that confronts their participation in hideous inequity with glorious kingdom humility that breeds equality.

Really, they need to see a Jesus just as underprivileged as the kid in the pew that day, and then some, not a Jesus who climbs into a Porsche in the secret parking lot out back.

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Modesty is a smokin' hot topic in blog conversation these days, and when reduced to harebrained debates about the exact cut of nylon in which women choose to swim, it becomes a rather icky one. But check out the emphasis in the Bible's hottest modesty prooftext:

"I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God... "

"Expensive" clothes? Not...I don't know..."bikini" clothes?

Huh.

The same Greek word for modesty is used right in the next chapter, in reference to dudes:

"Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach... "

The modest life to which followers of Jesus are called is precisely that which undercuts the counterfeit justice of Celebrity Christianity. The modest life militates against the values of celebrity culture -- fame, fashion, wealth, and ease -- with a posture of solidarity with those on the margins. And that solidarity is personal; it has to do with local, rooted, everyday life, relationships, and decisions more than big missions initiatives and from the stage evangelistic ministries.

Really, it has to do with a quietly powerful kind of life, not an arrogant on-blast kind of life.

We need leaders like this -- culture leaders, thought leaders, arts leaders, faith leaders -- whose platform does not afford them the right to deny the substance of the gospel by caving in to the superficiality of celebrity. We need modest leaders who, though they may attain notoriety, do so with the conscious commitment to maintaining a modest level of living that connects them to those on the margins (which is, economically, the majority). We need modest leaders who, though they may find themselves graced with a degree of privilege or power, divest themselves of that every chance they get in order to stand with those who have none.

And we need these kinds of leaders to call out Celebrity Christianity, prophetically speaking the truth in love to those participating in a superficial counterfeit of God's deep kingdom justice.

Because no matter how popular or successful it may seem, Celebrity Christianity is not the gospel.

It is a cult of rich young rulers who never even got the chance to walk away sad.

And that, of course, is the saddest thing of all.