THE BLOG

When Celebrity Christianity Backfires

12/22/2013 08:27 pm ET | Updated Feb 21, 2014
Ida Mae Astute via Getty Images

Let's be real, you guys.

The Internet does not need another post about what is certainly now the most significant bearded Christian duck-hunting reality show controversy OF ALL TIME.

And honestly, I wouldn't add one if I didn't think this might be a slightly different angle than the majority of what I've been seeing in my feeds, which amounts to either conservative or progressive Christian outrage at A&E or Phil Robertson. But is this outrage, on either side, the best response to the obviously intolerant and racist words of the Duck Patriarch? Certainly, the conservative "free speech" or "religious freedom" stuff is just ridiculous, revealing the empty politic of legislative power under the surface of modern evangelicalism yet again. But the progressive Christian attempt to counter the conservative perspective, while needed, may also be missing the root issue involved. Which for me comes down to the systemic, cultural appropriation of celebrity that plagues the American church.

I've talked about this before as Celebrity Christianity, the cultural trend wherein Christians adopt the values of celebrity culture as ideals for the Christian life. Thus, excessive wealth, ease, fame, and power amount to a "calling" which reveals God's "favor" and "blessing" on one's life. Culturally, these become the overt or covert goals that every Christian desires to achieve, not because they are basically greedy (well, maybe some folks are) but more because they have bought into the mantra that celebrity equals a more meaningful and influential Christian life (with pleasures to boot).

The Duck Dynasty folks, Phil Robertson chief among them, are convinced that they are on a mission from God and have a unique calling from God. Their celebrity -- money, fame, ease, and power -- equates to a platform from which to witness for Jesus. And, in the current culture-war climate, that also means to witness for Fox News, the GOP, and Southern white culture, and against gay relationships and gay marriage. With the hope being that the popularity of their show and their brand will mean a tipping of the scales in the fight to take America back for God.

I have said before that my critique of Celebrity Christianity is not aimed at Christians who simply gain notoriety or a platform. Notoriety is fine, and it can be a very good thing if folks have gained that platform for good reasons and are doing actual good in the world. But the problem enters in when the values of celebrity culture are appropriated as Christian values -- when they are theologized as the favor of God and a calling from God. This leads to blindness about the way in which the system of celebrity itself -- with its excessive wealth, ease, fame, and power -- circumvents the justice of God in the world by widening the already impossible gap between the have's and the have not's, and further oppressing marginalized peoples instead of empowering them. The ultra-cool megachurch that gives lots of blankets to the homeless while maintaining multi-million dollar programs and properties and enriching pastors and staff members, may think it is doing "justice" while it is actually only serving to widen the systemic gap between the privileged and the oppressed. The blankets are a band-aid at best; at worst they are a show. It's the kind of thing that made the prophet Amos so angsty.

Even more so when the aims of attaining and maintaining celebrity are highly political, as they are with the bearded Robertson's. The calling becomes especially deceptive, homing in on supposed issues of immorality (gay sex) while committing the true immorality of intolerant and oppressive lobbying and language. Again, this is what made the prophets angry. Not least of them Jesus, who chided the Pharisees for straining moral gnats while swallowing oppressive camels.

And that's where the root issue is revealed. In this episode of Duck Dynasty, the Robertson's have experienced the backfiring of Celebrity Christianity itself. The system is not built to last, and we will continue to see eruptions like this, where the harmful ideation and action of an essentially oppressive posture is called to task even by the world's sense of justice (in this case, A&E's sense of justice). Christian dynasties -- empires -- have fallen before. That shouldn't shock us, nor necessarily engender rage (on either side). It should "seem good to the Holy Spirit and to us" for this kind of discipline to take place, that true kingdom witness might emerge in its wake.

So while I appreciate (and have joined) the progressive calls for sanity among our more conservative brothers and sisters, and love and legal equality for all our neighbors, we must not forget what drives -- and will continue to drive -- the machinations of religious oppression. Celebrity Christianity is alive and well in the Duck Dynasty, and the root issue is a posture of arrogance and power instead of kingdom humility and healing. And this can occur in other places too, not just among "conservatives." Wherever we are not heeding the call, despite any notoriety we may achieve, to love mercy and walk humbly with our God, and let God's justice flow like a river through all these valleys of oppression, we too may fall prey to the allure of the empire's oppressive celebrity values. 

And the gospel of Jesus the Liberating King may be lost by us, only to emerge somewhere else, nearer to the margins.