Television writer Chris Easterly (Unnatural History, Past Life, The 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,
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.
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.
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.