Icons of Heroic Celebrity: Thoughts on Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God, by TV Writer Chris Easterly

Television writer Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, Past LifeThe Shunning) guest posts on the relationship between heroic celebrity and sainthood.  (See, Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Birth of American Celebrity Culture.)

Holding out for a hero for the rest of the night,

Gary

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Chris’ teleplay is based on the 1997 novel by New York Times best-selling author Beverly Lewis

Hey Gary,

Sorry it took so long to reply.  I was in North Carolina this past week on the set of a movie I wrote for the Hallmark Channel. It’s a very thought-provoking article and it was a pleasure to read.  Thanks for asking me to weigh in!  My thoughts are below:

To me, one of the most interesting ideas your article raises is the concept of intentionality. Edwards and Whitefield actively promoted their own celebrity.  As you note about Edwards, “Without him providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity.”  These men were intentional about creating and using their celebrity for the glory of God, and their actions mattered.

This seems counterintuitive to a traditional understanding of the Christian call to deny one’s self. But your examination of Edwards and Whitefield’s public relations efforts suggests an intriguing idea: Perhaps a Christian utilizing media to promote his own celebrity is not a contradiction, especially in the media-driven 21st century. It’s arguably an example of Jesus’ command to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves.” A Christian who acquires celebrity is not necessarily a bad thing.

A rough analogy might be the historical use of icons in prayer.  The Christian doesn’t worship the image itself, but rather they prayerfully use the icon as a means to help them focus on God.  For instance, a person may have a picture of Mother Theresa hanging on the wall, but they don’t worship Mother Theresa.  Rather, her image inspires them to be more Christ-like.  When viewed from that perspective, a “Christian celebrity” can be an important means to draw the attention of both others toward God.

That said, of course, a Christian’s foray into celebrity is fraught with certain perils.

Kim Kardashian’s picture might serve as a Worship Icon for some, but only as a pseudo-celebrity

One obvious danger (especially in our media age) is the temptation to achieve fame quickly, without sacrifice or virtue. That’s why your distinction between true heroic celebrity and pseudo-celebrity is so important.

Another challenge for the Christian celebrity is that some consumers simply hunger for “junk food” media and don’t want to be challenged by heroic celebrity. It’s easier (and more pleasant) to absorb the latest tabloid headline about Kim Kardashian’s sex life than it is to consider a story about Saddleback pastor Rick Warren’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa.  The Kardashian story doesn’t force a person to examine his fellow human’s suffering and, by inference, his own responsibility to help alleviate that suffering.

Rick and Kay Warren’s efforts to fight AIDS in Africa makes them Icons of heroic celebrity

A third challenge has to do with a Christian’s true motivation for acquiring celebrity. Your article mentions Christians “who would aspire to public celebrity.”  For a Christian, this aspiration cannot be for its own sake.  It comes down to the question: Does a Christian truly want to use their celebrity for the glory of God or do they simply crave the affirmation and attention that they imagine celebrity will bring them?  To answer this question honestly requires maturity and a well-developed understanding of one’s self and faith, which Edwards and Whitefield seemed to possess.  As you point out, both Edwards and Whitefield were more prepared to responsibly handle their celebrity than others may have been, and perhaps that’s why God bestowed it upon them.

But this raises another interesting question: the distinction between intentionally generating celebrity in an effort to glorify God, or simply recognizing and utilizing it if it happens to be bestowed upon you. It’s kind of like the old chicken-egg question.  Which came first?  The celebrity itself, which gives the Christian a platform to promote his worldview?  Or the intentional effort to generate the celebrity in hopes that it will provide that platform?

Your article does a great job of raising these kinds of questions, which is an invaluable step toward creating a dialogue among Christian culture-makers.  This dialogue is crucial in helping Christians negotiate the tension between being faithful and being a celebrity.

Chris Easterly

Writer, UNNATURAL HISTORY (CN, 2010) and THE SHUNNING (Hallmark, 2011).

Related links:

Influence Versus Popularity on Twitter: Kim Kardashian Case Study

Twitter stunned KimKardashian earns $10k per tweet

RickWarren Among Forbes’20 Most Influential Twitter Celebrities

Rick and Kay Warren Host World AIDS Day

Hollywood Responds to “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God”

The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture.

Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the Hollywood community in hope it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in educational community.)

They begin with the most congratulatory and move on to the most critical, which is of course where all conversations get interesting.

They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.

Read Paparazzi and the thoughts below and then jump into the conversation,

Gary

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I am no historian, theologian, philosopher, or qualified cultural critic, but your article hit a cord with me.  The whole idea of celebrity, pseudo or otherwise, is a fundamental dilemma for our culture in general and certainly for Christians in particular.  Well done!

David McFadzean
Writer, producer, and partner in Wind Dancer Films; Executive producer, Home Improvement (ABC), What Women Want (2000)

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Great article! Well done.  I wish this were still the case today: “Yet for a cultural hero to be a public role model, they need to be both virtuous and famous.”

John David Ware
Founder and President
168 Film Project
Burbank, CA

Great article. You cannot help but be humbled by the life of Edwards and Whitefield.

We are indeed…”called to be missionaries in a media‐driven culture. Wishing it weren’t so won’t make that fact go away. To impact our image‐driven generation for the kingdom of God will require entering the fray prayerfully, thoughtfully, and with great excellence.”

My great fear is that we may not now have men who have the humility and virtue needed to be used by God in the way He used Edwards and Whitefield.

I hope you consider composing a shorter version of this call for use in more popular Christian publications (for the less scholarly of us readers).

Michael Warren
Executive producer: Family Matters, Step by Step; Associate producer: Happy Days, The Partridge Family.

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I very much enjoyed your paper about Edwards and Whitefield and the notoriety they experienced.

I was just looking for a bit more differentiation between God-given celebrity and human-driven celebrity.  I just know of too many young Christian actors and writers out here who dream of being famous so they can be used of God, when it’s actually the opposite – letting themselves be used of God might lead to recognition.

I think the threads are all there, but I was looking for a paragraph or so on the last page that made those clear.  Your example of C.S. Lewis was well-chosen.  This was a man who would have very much preferred his solitude and small circle of friends, but responded humbly when the attention came.  Edwards and Whitefield had to have been similar in their approach to obeying God, wherever He led.

Jack Gilbert
Writing Program Resident Faculty
Act One: Hollywood Above the Line

Read more responses and join the discussion at: Paparazzi n the Hands of an Angry God

Higher Education Responses to “Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God”

The goal of Two Handed Warriors is to foster an ongoing conversation seeking to redefine, re-envision, and then reconstruct the relationship between faith and culture. Toward that end, I am posting a few responses to Paparazzi in the Hands of an Angry God from leaders in the educational community in hopes that it might spur others to join the conversation. (Tomorrow, I will post responses from leaders in the Hollywood community.)

They raise some important questions both those who build faith and those who create culture, and more importantly, for those who do both.

Please read Paparazzi and jump into the conversation,

Gary

This is an interesting and colorful piece that nicely fits the Mars Hill venue. Scholars such as Frank Lambert and Susan O’Brien have pointed to 18th-century evangelicals’ ability to use media and communications productively, though their opponents became pretty expert as well–and there’s the rub.

Your overarching moral–that Christian leaders today should not be quick to dismiss the media, provided a proper perspective is maintained–is well taken. But of course the ability to maintain a balance between being as wise as the serpent and innocent as the dove is, I fear, a razor’s edge that few can walk on without being seriously cut eventually.

Kenneth P. Minkema
Yale Divinity School
Editor, The Works of Jonathan Edwards
Director, The Jonathan Edwards Center

Great article! I’ve struggled with this in my own career, and sometimes wonder if being overly concerned about self-promotion has limited my influence for the sake of the gospel.  (Have you seen the latest Leadership Journal?  It’s theme is ambition in pastoral ministry.) Thanks for fueling that inner conversation.

David A. Ridder
Dean and University Vice-President

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Wow! I thought your article was excellent (no, I’m not just saying that to be polite.)   Rarely do I read articles that have such an immediate and significant shift in my thinking. I am the kind of person who would not even do very much to promote my own book because I have been uncomfortable with the idea of Christian self-promotion. Nor have I advertized the church I pastor very aggressively for the same reason.

In “one fell swoop” so to speak, your article made me see that as long as I am honestly seeking the glory of God and not just prideful self-promotion, I really should be more engaged in promoting and marketing.

Dennis Ingolfsand
Department of Biblical and Theological Studies
Director of Library Services
Crown College

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An excellent intersection of Truth with popular culture, without being minimalist: although the Message hasn’t changed, delivery and methodology must change in light of evolving cultural activity.

Richard L. Gathro
Dean, Nyack College, Washington D.C. Campus and The Institute for Public Service & Policy Development

.

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.WOW. Once again on this journey of faith I find myself confronting my own presuppositions. “Celebrity”, to me, conjures up images of red carpets, impeccable looks, and throngs of fans. Words like power, fame, and influence follow such people. “Celebrity” is therefore something to be avoided among those who follow Jesus as it is indicative of hubris and conceit.

However, you have redefined the word for me and I find my presuppositions changing. Understood differently, Jesus is the ultimate celebrity as he has been “exalted to the highest place.” His influence, fame and power are far beyond that of the most gregarious Hollywood figures. However, his fame and power came from the virtues of surrender and humility as well as the great paradox that ‘death begets life.’ We need not be ashamed, therefore, should “our name be known” for the right reasons.

Given this, I find myself captivated by your brief reference to the celebrities of Hebrews 11 as well. My wife and I recently discussed how we should initiate our children. We’ve decided we are not initiating them as Kapsners, Minnesotans, Bethelites, or Americans – as important as those stories might be. Instead, we want them initiated into the “great stream of eternity” that includes the stories of those who have gone before. Without the celebrities of Hebrews 11, we would know far less of the Eternal Narrative to which we belong.  But they are there. They stand.  They ask us to enter the story with them. And they beckon us to follow.

Thank you for pointing out the importance of the celebrities of our faith.

Peter B. Kapsner
Biblical and Theological Studies
Bethel University

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I think you’ve done a great job of balancing scholarly and popular appeal. Your research on Whitefield and Edwards appears thorough and reliable, and your writing style is totally engaging and accessible. I think your article was quite refreshing as you asked us to reconceptualize these historic figures as fitting the four-step framework for celebrity. You certainly had me reassessing my perceptions of these characters:)

I’m laughing as I write this, but my self-deprecating, anti-celebrity-seeking Norwegian heritage just won’t let me buy the 2nd half of the article. From the limited perspective I have on Edwards, I thought he delivered the “Sinners/Angry God” sermon in a feeble voice, hunched over the podium, reading the text with little eye contact or enthusiasm. And yet his pathetic performance led to an unprecedented (at least in that place) outpouring of the Spirit with people wailing in the aisles. If celebrity resulted, it was not because of Edwards’ performance, although his written text was certainly persuasive. I guess I’ve read history the same way as those who believe that celebrity is not to be sought. I’ve also watched and written about televangelism enough to think that the godly pursuit of celebrity or, frankly, even the pursuit of leadership, is so often thwarted by Satan preying on our sinful natures that I question whether readers will be able to pursue the preparation for celebrity in noble ways. Could your thesis unwittingly give some readers a license for self-centeredness?

In my Media, Faith & Culture class, I have students read Malcolm Muggeridge’s classic radio address about whether Jesus would have used the mass media. My classes typically conclude that Jesus, who became a celebrity, did not seek celebrity. Rather he often sought time alone with the Father to refocus on his Father’s will, not retool his public relations strategy. They often point out how celebrity earned him many enemies and ultimately death. Will those readers preparing for their time in the spotlight be willing to suffer or die if necessary? Your apparent optimism about celebrity-as-good-thing may be too Hollywood or maybe just too American for readers from the third world church.

Interestingly, when you ask me to reconceptualize modern celebrity and even call ordinary people like me to it, my conscience says no. It could be my own sin nature saying, see…there’s your justification for greatness. I can’t figure out how to embrace the idea with humility because I know myself too well. Thanks for this very revealing reading!

If you want to spark some lively debate, I think this is just the ticket. Curmudgeons (like me?!) could have a field day. I hope all of them think as highly of you as I do.

Kathy Bruner
Assistant professor of Media Communication
Media Communication program Co-chair
Taylor University

Using Worldview to Create Academy Award-winning Films (Series Introduction)

Striving to attain mastery as a Two Handed Warrior occasionally results in some very enjoyable if unintended consequences. Learning to “reverse engineer” Academy Award-winning films in order to teach worldview (see Teaching Worldview Through Film) somehow led to my inadvertently developing a unique skill-set for analyzing how filmmakers create Academy Award-winning films.

A true script consultant, such as Linda Seger or Key F. Payton, has read thousands of screenplays and can instantly recognize a myriad of factors that might improve an unfinished script.  I, on the other hand, hate reading screenplays, and often can’t tell the difference between snappy dialogue and good scenery.

However, in the kingdom of the blind the one eyed man is king. Since few (if any) script consultants are trained in worldview thinking, I can sometimes help screenwriters and creative executives in story development in a way that others can’t.  The highly intuitive use of worldview often employed by Academy Award-winning filmmakers in their character-transformation arcs is often clearer to me (the amateur) than it is to more broadly trained experts.

Guiding my students’ understanding of worldview in the classroom and serving as story consultant in Hollywood have become some of the most enjoyable aspects of my journey toward becoming a two handed warrior. Helping screenwriters, producers, directors, and creative executives “see” and clarify the worldview journey in their film is a very gratifying experience.

So while I would never claim to be an expert, I hope that this ongoing discussion of the relationship between worldview and story will be as helpful to filmmakers as it is to educators.

Who knows, it might even help a two-handed filmmaker win an Academy Award someday.

Now, that would be a very intended consequence,

Gary

Next Post in Series: Worldview and the Power of Story