Higher education has played a key role in the church’s training of true two-handed warriors since its earliest days. One could argue that the manner in which Jesus trained his apostles was so consistent with first-century rabbinic educational practices that the church was actually established with a ‘school’ at its very heart. And there is little doubt that the church began establishing more formal schools as early as the First Century when Mark the Evangelist and/or his disciples founded the world’s first ‘Christian College’ in the catechetical school connected to the Roman rhetorical university at Alexandria. Soon, this blending of the Spirit-driven early church with the truth-seeking Greco-Roman liberal arts tradition proved a powerful combination.
College Against Culture
It is difficult to imagine what European civilization might have become without the integrative mindset fostered among the faculty and students of the Alexandrian school, including three of the most influential minds of the Patristic era: Clement, Origen, and Athanasius. This single educational community provided clear-headed theological reflection and courageous cultural leadership in some of the most significant turning points in early church history.
This was particularly evident in their fourth century battle against the heresy of Arianism. By this time the Alexandrian school had grown into an academic powerhouse with strong secular connections and studies, so much so that Eusebius reports that even nonChristian noblemen entrusted their sons to instruction there. The school became the training ground from which their most famous alumnus, Athanasius, launched his attack against the official Roman endorsement of Arianism. Each time he was rebuffed and even excommunicated at Rome, Athanasius would return to Alexandria for counsel and prayer with the faculty and students of this robust educational community. The common perception that orthodoxy finally prevailed because of Athanasius contra mundum, “One Athanasius against the world,” is far too individualistic an interpretation. The battle was actually, “One Christian college against their culture.” And the Christian college won.
Over the centuries since, Christian colleges and theological seminaries have often proven significantly more effective than local churches in nurturing faculty and students whose leadership is genuinely transformational. Although God often furthers his kingdom through unschooled saints, a surprising number of the names in the honor-roll of church history are intricately connected to the schools where they studied and/or taught. Martin Luther and the University of Wittenberg; Timothy Dwight and Yale; John Henry Newman and Oxford, Charles G. Finney and Oberlin College; Fr. Michael Scanlon and the Franciscan University of Steubenville; D. L. Moody and A. J. Gordon and the institutions that bear their names to this day, each stand as a monument to the extent and influence of Christian higher education.
The Life of the Mind and the Life of the Spirit
One of the keys to the influence of these learning communities is the surprising degree to which the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit can and often do coexist in these learning communities. Church-related colleges and universities birthed many of the most significant reformation and renewal movements in history, while most reformation and renewal movements have, in turn, spawned colleges themselves. This is particularly event in American higher education where more than half of our first 600 colleges were established by evangelicals. In fact, the broad historic definition of the term evangelical is best applied to movements who hold to both the power of the Holy Spirit to produce new birth and holy lives with the power of the holy scriptures to guide and shape the life and practice of the church.
It is in these renewal schools that the integration of the life of the Spirit and the life of the mind has achieved its greatest synergy. The study of the Word of God, and the World of God, when empowered by the Spirit of God has proven profoundly transformational in the lives of students and in their ability to transform church and society. In other words, they were effective because they were able to train young men and women to become what we have called two-handed warriors. By cultivating both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit they were able to produce students capable of mastering both faith formation and culture making.
The Troubled History of Maintaining a Two-Handed Approach
This potential Spirit/Mind synergy is of particular importance to faith-based colleges at the outset of the twenty-first-century. The dawn of the new millennium finds the evangelical College movement emerging from a century of cultural isolation into a remarkable renaissance. Attendance is booming, endowments are up, intellectual respectability is growing, U.S. News and World Report ratings are climbing. It is quite possible that the twenty-first-century will present the Christian college movement with the opportunity to articulate a distinctively Christian worldview in American society in a manner unparalleled in over one hundred years.
However, the history of American higher education is littered with colleges who have abandoned their lofty ambitions to train two-handed warriors for a decidedly more “one-handed” approach. Burtchaell (1998), Marsden and Longfield (1992), Marsden (1994), Reuben (1996), Benne (2001), Ringenberg (2006), Budde and Wright (2004) have carefully outlined how easily colleges lose their spiritual cutting-edge. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Reformed or Wesleyan, nearly every time a church-founded college or university manages to achieve societal respectability and financial independence they have immediately abandoned their integrative mission. Like prodigal sons, once they “received their inheritance” they have immediately “set off for a distant country where they squandered their wealth” and their ability to train true two-handed warriors. Their graduates go into the world with one hand tied behind their backs to the detriment of their own souls and the culture they create. It turns out that balancing a commitment to the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit even in a Christian college is not so easy as one would suppose.
The Twenty-First Century Challenge
Will the twenty-first-century be any different? Burtchaell’s (1998) chronicling of the demise of nearly every Christian college in American history (including at least two CCCU schools) reads like a modern-day Book of Judges. Knowing that within a few generations of the death of nearly every college’s founding leadership, “the people of God did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and worshipped other Gods” (Judges 3:7) is depressing reading for anyone who has given their life to Christian higher education.
Burtchaell concludes his book with a sobering challenge:
“The failures of the past, so clearly patterned, so foolishly ignored. And so lethally repeated, emerge pretty clearly from these stories. Anyone who requires further imagination to recognize and remedy them is not up to the task of trying again, and better” (p. 851).
Will the leaders of 21st century Christian colleges rise to his challenge? The future of two-handed higher education may very well depend upon it.
In future posts I will explore key movements history of higher education and how their educational philosophy and practices could help 21st century Christian colleges nurture two-handed warriors.
It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord. Will we wait in the dangerous silence for who He truly is, or slowly grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf?
When I first heard Andrew Peterson’s song “The Silence of God,” I was stunned. It was so bare. I wondered if it was even heretical…
I’ve since read thoughts by theologians about the growth value of long spans in which God leaves us in silence, but if I remember correctly, the first time I ever encountered someone wrestling with the concept wasn’t in a book, but in Andrew’s song.
He was the first person I heard admit, “I can’t hear God’s voice right now, and that’s terrible and it’s scary.”
It’s enough to drive a man crazy
It’ll break a man’s faith
It’s enough to make him wonder
If he’s been sane
When he’s bleating for comfort
From Thy staff and Thy rod
And the heavens’ only answer
Is the silence of God
And it’ll shake a man’s timbers
When he loses his heart
When he has to remember
What broke him apart
And this yoke may be easy
But this burden is not
And the crying fields are frozen
By the silence of God
If a man has got to listen
To the voices of the mob
Who are reeling in the throes
Of all the happiness they’ve got
When they tell you all their troubles
Have been nailed up to that cross
What about the times when even
Followers get lost
‘Cause we all get lost sometimes
If you know this song, you know these last stanzas don’t finish it off. But even hearing this much, I felt a strange sort of relief wash over me. Until he verbalized it, I hadn’t realized that all those years of religious-speak, all those appeals for God to “show up” had made me feel pressure to find continual signs of His engagement.
I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear someone I trusted say, “When God is silent–and that’s often enough for me to write a song about it–I feel disappointed and lost.”
Martin Scorsese’s, Silence
Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, was another one of those moments for me. Among other things, this is a film about faith attempting to survive long expanses of Divine quiet. The film reveals how we expect God to show up, how He does show up instead, and the human weaknesses that appear in the massive gaps between those two realities.
Unlike Christian movies in which God provides some sort of “I have arrived” moment– God does not show up here with a new pickup truck, a much-desired pregnancy, or a restored marriage. The God of this film lets His children wrestle with years of suffering in relative silence. Because of this, we watch people who are trying to obey Him strain and grieve–desperate for confirmation during impossible times.
There are so many angles to this film, but I’m just going to focus on the one most personal to me in this post: the traumatic impact of an older follower of Christ who abandons his pure faith.
The film opens describing the work of Christovao Ferreira, a legendary Jesuit priest who has spent 15 years attempting to evangelize Japan. Ferreira was iconic to believers at the time. Your denomination’s equivalent might be N.T. Wright, Billy Graham, John Piper, or Francis Chan—but whoever that hero is, Ferreira was this sort of leader. He was so solid, so certain, so strong that every young priest knew that he would not sell out for any reason.
When news hits Portugal that Ferreira has apostasized, Rodrigues and a fellow priest believe the news is a dirty rumor. So, the two leave home to scour Japan in an attempt to dispel the disheartening story. It is a dangerous mission, likely to lead to death, but the two young men are idealistic and devoted, and they know how important it is to to the global church reclaim Ferreira’s reputation.
After arriving in Japan, the two young priests grieve to see believers tortured and slaughtered. As they experience emotional and spiritual torment, they stumble; they fail. But over and again, they rise up again in their faith to try to follow God once more.
When Rodrigues is captured by Japanese officials, his opponents try to break his faith repeatedly. The young priests heart crumbles, and he wavers on insanity, but he continues to hold fast. At last, the Japanese leaders bring his suffering to a climax — a meeting with Ferreira.
In this meeting, Rodrigues finds that Ferreira has truly apostasized. His hero is now a Buddhist, writing a book about the great lie of Christianity. His former hero begins to discourage Rodrigues from his own belief, arguing against the gospel and its ability to saturate Japan.
Ferreira urges Rodrigues to give up his faith, to compromise, to conform. Rodrigues is devastated, but he holds fast.
The Japanese could kill Rodrigues, but for strategic purposes, they want him to abandon his faith instead. So, they place Rodrigues in a holding cell where he can hear the gasps and wails of other believers being tortured. He is told that these Christians will be persecuted until Rodrigues denies his faith.
As he praying for strength and wisdom, he finds words of praise carved into his cell wall. Laudate Eum (Praise Him). He runs his fingers into the grooves and appeals desperately to the Lord for courage and fortitude. At this moment, Ferreira enters the cell and explains to Rodrigues that those praises were carved by himself before his denial of the faith.
It is a hellish scene of betrayal and temptation. Ferreira urges Rodrigues to see how selfish it is to maintain an idealistic belief that causes others to suffer. He urges Rodrigues to see that apostasy is altruistic. He builds a case for joining with the leaders of the world out of love of the masses.
Of all the torment Rodrigues endures, this betrayal of a former hero is the worst. This man who had once led him in steadfast belief is now leading him to abandon it. It is more than Rodrigues can bear.
Abandoned by Our Heroes
As I sat in the theater watching all of this, I was blown away. The timing was more than a little ironic.
Just a few moments before watching this film, I had been talking with a friend about how distraught we have felt this past year. So many people my age feel abandoned by our own older faith heroes. In dire national circumstances, we have watched several of our evangelical heroes abandon the ideals they have taught us–urging us to make alliances with forces hostile to our faith.
They have told us that this is loving. They have told us to do this for the good of the people.
Values they once encouraged us to embrace in the face of all opposition have now been discarded for what they now claim to be a greater cause. They mock us for being too committed to impractical standards. They tell us to wake up, to open our eyes, to give up our old, innocent way of looking at the world.
But before our very eyes, some of these men seem to have changed into different sorts of beings. We recognize their faces, but we no longer recognize their hearts. Their language is different, soured, horrifying. They twist the stories of our Scripture to suit their new causes.
Watching this has taken our knees out from under us.
I’m not going to get more specific than that, nor am I going to dig into what happens in the end of the film here. But I will say that this movie (among other things) helped me to understand why the last few months have broken my heart so deeply. Watching my heroes conform to the ideals of the world has been too much for my heart to bear.
These men ask us to “leave well enough alone” and move on. But we aren’t sulking. We aren’t pouting. We feel like we have watched people we trusted and imitated trample on the gospel. And we feel like they have called out and asked us to do the same.
So many people claim to know exactly what God is doing these days, but I will tell you the truth. I don’t. My perceptions might be all wrong…
Time will tell, I suppose.
I do know that I’m profoundly disappointed in some of my old heroes. I know that I no longer recognize our strange, new evangelical America. And even though scores of people around me believe that I am too sensitive, I think it is right to be disappointed. Watching your heroes distort truth is no small thing. God holds leaders to a higher standard because heroes falling creates aftershocks that can trickle through an entire generation of young believers.
Waiting on a Silent God
A huge lightning bolt of God’s appearance didn’t show up at the end of this film, but I left the theater feeling like I felt when I first heard Andrew Peterson’s lyric. I walked away affirmed that it was not wrong to be sincere, not wrong to be sad, and that it was even okay to sit alone in the quiet and wait for an honest manifestation of God’s presence instead of letting immediate needs force me to rush in to claim what He isn’t and what He hasn’t done.
God’s name is holy, even when He seems silent. In those expanses, I do not want to use it in vain. It is terrifically hard to wait at the foot of the mountain for the Word of the Lord, but I would rather wait in the dangerous quiet for what He truly is than grow desperate enough to worship a golden calf.
There’s a statue of Jesus
On a monestary knoll
In the hills of Kentucky
All quiet and cold
And He’s kneeling in the garden
Silent as a stone
And all His friends are sleeping
And He’s weeping all alone
And the man of all sorrows
He never forgot
What sorrow is carried
By the hearts that He bought
So when the questions dissolve
Into the silence of God
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
The aching may remain
But the the breaking does not
In the holy, lonesome echo
Of the silence of God
I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me Papa, paparazzi
—Lyrics from “Paparazzi” as performed by Lady Gaga
The streets of Boston course with life as a crowd greater than the city’s total population joins in celebration.
Commerce grinds to a standstill.
Grown men weep.
The governor joins the standing-room-only multitude on Boston Common and declares the festivities, “the greatest day in New England history.”
If that sounds to you like a good description of the victory parade for the 2004 Boston Red Sox who vanquished a 68 year-old ‘Curse of the Bambino” with a World Series championship, you’re not far from the truth. The Red Sox parade attracted an incredible sixty-eight percent of greater Boston’s population.
However, these words actually describe something even more historic: the 1740 farewell sermon of British evangelist George Whitefield–an event that drew 135 percent of colonial Boston. No wonder Harry Stout has calls Whitefield “Anglo-America’s first modern celebrity.”
And Whitefield’s celebrity is no accident. It is the result of a carefully orchestrated public relations tour de force. Whitefield and his publicist, William Seward, worked tirelessly to promote the evangelist’s exploits, writing as many as a hundred personal letters, articles, and journal entries a day to a vast network of leaders and publishers throughout the New World. Incredibly, Whitefield personally wrote or inspired thirty-percent of every work published in America in 1740. By the time he reaches Boston, all of New England is in a fever pitch. Six weeks and 175 sermons later, “virtually every New England inhabitant” has heard Whitefield preach face-to-face.
Sinners is the Hands of an Angry God
One hundred miles to the west, fiery preacher Jonathan Edwards waits not with condemnation, but delight. Rather than dangling the “paparazzi” of his day over the pit of hell, Edwards follows media coverage of Whitefield’s every move with growing delight. He even invites the innovative young preacher to fill his famous pulpit in Northampton, Massachusetts.
Edwards helped start this media sensation in the first place. His autobiographical Faithful Narrative  was an international best seller for nearly three years before Whitefield’s preaching tour, making Edwards a towering public figure in his own right. He has helped stoke a deep hunger for spiritual awakening throughout the colonies; a hunger now filled by Whitefield’s flamboyant preaching and growing celebrity.
While many Christians today decry our shallow media-driven celebrity culture, leaders of the Great Awakening recognized that capture society’s imagination with spiritual realities required media-driven celebrity. And capture it they did. By year’s end, perhaps as much as fifteen-percent of the population of the American colonies professes conversion to Christ in one of the most transformative social movements in American history.
Edwards and Whitefield helped birth not only one of the most transformative cultural movements in America history—the First Great Awakening—they also helped launch America’s celebrity culture. Twenty-first-century culture-makers seeking to birth society-wide transformation on the level of the Great Awakening would be wise to pay careful attention to the lessons Edwards and Whitefield learned in using celebrity for the glory of God.
Celebrity is perhaps the most coveted and least understood concept in contemporary culture. While the billion-dollar celebrity industry seems to grind out a new subject for fifteen-minutes of fame nearly every fifteen minutes, the scholarly community (and the church) has scrambled just to stay current. Recent scholarship has produced many claims to the title of “America’s first celebrity,” ranging from John James Audubon (c. 1826) to Walt Whitman (c. 1850), Buffalo Bill Cody (c. 1885), Douglas Fairbanks (c. 1920), and Ernest Hemingway (c. 1925). Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield certainly precede each of these contenders, but were they true celebrities? The answer is, perhaps, yes and no.
Celebrity as Star
If one takes the perspective that celebrity is a purely modern invention, then obviously Edwards and Whitefield can’t be celebrities. Many scholars find a strong enough connection between celebrity and modern media to assert that “there is no such thing as celebrity prior to the beginning of the twentieth century.” This school of thought is strongly rooted in film studies and the rise of the Hollywood star-making business. Before 1910, the motion picture industry sold story. However, studio executives soon realized that what they were actually selling was stars—men and women who moviegoers liked and personally identified with beyond the quality of their performance.
For instance, producer Brian Grazer chose the little known TV star Tom Hanks over hundreds of famous actors vying for the lead in Splash (1983), not because Hanks was the most talented, but because audience testing proved he was the most likable. Soon Hanks joined the pantheon of Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Harrison Ford, et cetera—actors America loved not for how they played their role, but simply for who they were.
Hollywood intuited what academic research later demonstrated: people personally identify not merely with the hero of the story, but also with the actor playing the hero in the story. Media-generated personal identification evoked a public hunger for access to the private lives of stars. In small-town America, everyone wanted to know the gossip, slander, triumphs, tragedies of the in crowd. But in the emerging global village, the most popular kids are found on the big screen.
Aided by the media-driven celebrity industry, stars quickly became what Richard Schickel calls “intimate strangers.” People wanted to know these stars and be connected to them personally. Graeme Turner asserts that we can actually “map the precise moment a public figure becomes a celebrity”: when their “private lives attract greater public interest than their professional lives.”
It wasn’t long before stars began to realize that they had become a commodity to be marketed and traded, not only by studio heads, but also by their own publicity people. Within a few short years, the public relations and celebrity gossip industries were born. Soon Paparazzi was a household word.
Since Edwards and Whitefield were dead for over a hundred years before the first Hollywood stars were born, it is hard to see how they are celebrities in this limited sense of the word.
Celebrity as Hero
However, other scholars adopt a broader understanding of celebrity, one that seems to better fit Edwards and Whitefield. These scholars root their understanding of celebrity in the Latin words for “fame” (celebritas) and “being famous” (celebrer) and in Western society’s desire to “celebrate” greatness.  Human beings need heroes to emulate.
Both the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian traditions developed strong “hero-making” story cultures. We tell the stories of heroes such as Hercules, Achilles, Odysseus, Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, David, Elijah, Esther, Mary, Paul, and Peter because they embody the virtues valued in our culture.
Yet for cultural heroes to serve as public role models, they need to be both virtuous and known. A virtuous man or woman whose story goes untold simply can’t be emulated. Therefore, the desire to be great and the desire to be famous are not necessarily mutually exclusive. As Paul boldly declares, “Follow me as I follow Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1).
Perhaps it is more helpful to follow Daniel Boorstin’s distinction between a genuine celebrity and what he calls a “pseudo-celebrity.” Pseudo celebrities, as the Hollywood school of thought asserts, are differentiated mainly by the “trivia of personality,” whereas true celebrities are heroes who are distinguished by their achievements, virtues, and character. Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit this second type. Although there is no universal consensus, celebrity studies seem to point to four distinct stages in the creation of a genuine celebrity: (1) A defining incident or accomplishment makes someone a “hero”; (2) some kind of identification with the hero’s character sparks admiration and a desire to connect with the hero; (3) intentionality by the hero (or someone acting on behalf of the hero) meets public desire for a greater connection by providing access to their “story” and their life; and, (4) the public’s identification with the hero exerts influence in other people’s lives that shapes their behavior.
Edwards’s celebrity clearly fits this pattern.
(1) Edwards’s public story begins with a clear defining incident—a powerful revival among the youth in his church results in the conversion of 300 people, a quarter of the town’s population, transforming youth culture in Northampton. Soon there is “scarcely any in the town, old or young, left unconcerned about the great things of the eternal world [. . . .] The work of conversion was carried on in a most astonishing man¬ner [. . .] and the number of true saints multiplied [. . . until] the town seemed to be full of the presence of God.”
(2) These events spark a profound identification, not only in America, but across the English-speaking world. Edwards’s church became “the talk of New England” and famous British cleric Isaac Watts declared, “We have not heard of anything like it since the Reformation, nor since the first days of the apostles.” What minister (or Christian) would not want this to happen in their church? People wanted to know more.
(3) Edwards responds to this interest with acute intentionality. He publishes A Faithful Narrative of the Surprising work of God in the Conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and Neighbouring Towns and Villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. It becomes an international best seller reprinted at least ten times in three languages before Edwards’s death and over fifty times since.
(4) Faithful Narrative provides Edwards with the influence and “international audience for which he longed.” More than any other published statement, Faithful Narrative would “define the standard expectations for evangelical conversion” and firmly establish Edwards as the “revival expert” with broad readership for his future publications on the Awakening. For over a century, it serves as a nearly canonical corpus for New England revivalism. More dramatically, it opens the door for interest in Edwards’s more scholarly works so that Edwards eventually comes to be known as “America’s greatest theologian.”
Notice the key role that intentionality plays in Edwards’s celebrity. Without his providing the story, there is no story, and therefore, no celebrity. Without Edwards’s providing a personal account of the revival—an incident he did not “cause,” but which spread to his church from the surrounding villages—this “towering intellectual figure” could very well have remained unknown and unread.
Whitefield as Heroic Celebrity
Whitefield’s celebrity also appears to fit this four-stage cycle as well.
(1) Whitefield’s first trip to America (mostly in Georgia from 1737–1738), followed by his tremendously successful campaign in London, creates an international incident that introduces him into popular imagination. Whitefield’s adoption of John Wesley’s practice of “field preaching” (versus preaching inside churches) coupled with his profound dramatic gifts and unusual anointing create a sensation. His sermons are some of the most compelling theater of his generation, recasting “biblical history in a theatrical key.”
(2) Whitefield’s preaching generates tremendous public identification. Theater is all but unknown in America, and Whitefield’s dramatic performances (in comparison to the logical treatises offered by most New England pastors) connect in an unprecedented way. People love Whitefield. They flock to hear him preach. They relish his willingness to take on the (ancestral hierarchical) establishment. They can’t get enough of him. Newspapers normally committed to business and political news are filled with accounts of his success.
(3) In preparation for his second American preaching tour (1740-1741), Whitefield demonstrates unusual intentionality in managing his celebrity. He fashions a clearly defined and “audacious” plan to build on his momentum and transform his revival movement into “an international event with himself at the center.” He and his publicists unleash a barrage of publicity employing careful use of social networking and mass media. People are able to “personally” connect with him through him publishing his personal journals and maintaining a grueling schedule of personal appearances.
(4) Whitefield’s growing celebrity soon grants him unparalleled influence. He is able to network with the rich and powerful, target key social causes (especially orphans and African American education), and take controversial anti-institutional stands on the issues of his day (unconverted ministers). Whitefield becomes “the first in a long line of public figures whose claims to influence would rest on celebrity [. . .] rather than birth, breeding, or institutional fiat.”
Like with Edwards, it is difficult to miss the critical role intentionality plays in Whitefield’s celebrity. His use of William Seward’s immense talent as a public relations officer is critical to his success. He certainly would have connected with people without it, but he could never have attracted such remarkable crowds without the tireless efforts of Seward and his network of advance men. As Stout asserts:
“Where other influential preachers. . . wrote learned treatises and preached in meetinghouses. . . to audiences totaling in the thousands. . . Whitefield wrote best-selling journals and drew audiences that must be totaled in the millions. . . For comparison one must look to an electronic age and. . . movie stars.”
Both Edwards and Whitefield appear to fit the criteria of heroic celebrities. Without the celebrity account provided by Edwards’s Faithful Narrative, it is entirely possible that America would not have been primed for Whitefield’s publicity and preaching. From a human perspective, it is not unreasonable to claim that Edwards and Whitefield’s efforts helped initiate America’s first celebrity culture, and that celebrity culture in turn helped birth the First Great Awakening. Mark A. Noll, arguably the most influential historian in our contemporary understanding of the First Great Awakening, notes that although revival can be viewed as the result of a movement of the Holy Spirit, it can also be interpreted as an effect of human agency and leadership:
“By taking note of the agents who, whether perceived as servants of God or merely adept shapers of culture, historical explanation adds the sphere of human responsibility to realms of theological principle.”
The leaders of the First Great Awakening were young men of great natural gifts who preached, wrote, promoted, and built institutions with unusual force. Their actions mattered, regardless of their motivations or by what power they were energized. This in no way minimizes the Holy Spirit’s role in the First Great Awakening. Something truly remarkable occurred in this movement that no amount of human effort has ever been able to recreate (although not for lack of trying). However, it does emphasize that the Holy Spirit worked though human leaders who made wise use of the means at their proposal, including their celebrity.
Edwards himself came to embrace the importance of human leadership in the Awakening. One of his central contributions to religious self-understanding was his refusal to accept an either/or dichotomy between divine and human impulses. His first work in the midst of the Great Awakening, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion (1741), was an urgent appeal for human leaders to promote the work of God by wise and strenuous efforts.
His first major publication in the aftermath of the Great Awakening, A treatise regarding religious affections (1746), was in many ways his “second thoughts about the first great awakening.” Edwards claimed that Satan won a great victory in the Awakening because human leaders failed to embrace their God-appointed role in directing such a powerful “pouring out of the Spirit of God.”
Edwards and Whitefield were not leaders who shirked their human responsibility. Their model points toward a possible future for leaders seeking to become “adept shapers of culture” in the twenty-first century. However, before we can directly apply the principles they employed in the eighteenth century to our contemporary setting, we must first account for a factor with which Edwards and Whitefield never had to contend: contemporary pseudo celebrity culture.
The Rise of Pseudo Celebrity
The problem with the celebrity cycle is that it is essentially value neutral. The process that makes someone a heroic celebrity is essentially the same as the process that makes someone a pseudo celebrity. As the Hollywood school of thought contends, something went seriously awry with celebrity in the early twentieth century. It is as if somewhere we decided that if you can’t be a true hero without also achieving fame, why bother with virtue at all? Contemporary media makes it all too easy to skip heroism and jump straight to the stardom of a pseudo celebrity who is “well-known only for being well-known.”
In pseudo celebrity, the inciting incident moves from important to trivial (and/or contrived); intentionality moves from important to critical; and identification moves from character to personality. The pseudo celebrity “develops their capacity for fame, not by achieving great things, but by differentiating their own personality from those of their competitors in the public arena.”
Dry Erase Girl
A good example of this phenomena is found in the “dry erase girl” resignation hoax. This meme serves as a great example of how the four-stage cycle can be applied to the creation of pseudo celebrities.
(1) On the morning of August 10, The Chive, a relatively unknown Web site, creates an incident by posting a series of pictures under the banner: “Girl quits her job on dry erase board, emails entire office.” The hilarious photos, received from “a person who works with [. . .] Jenny,” chronicle a young worker’s struggle with her boss’s sexual harassment, her subsequent resignation, and the outing of her boss’s odd Internet viewing habits.
(2) By the afternoon of August 10, the public’s identification with Jenny’s plight makes the story is an instant Internet sensation. The photos “soared to the top of Google and Twitter trends, and a group of Facebook pages popped up to honor” the brave underling. Who wouldn’t root for this perky persecuted worker and her “heroic” actions? People were dying to connect with Jenny and know more of her life and future.
(3) The role of intentionality becomes obvious on August 11, when the Web site TechCrunch reveals that it was all a publicity stunt. “Jenny-the-Dry-Erase-Girl” is really Elyse Porterfield, a struggling young actress hired by The Chive to perpetrate the hoax.
(4) By the evening of August 11, Porterfield and The Chive editor have garnished sufficient influence to be interviewed by CBS News Entertainment to discuss their successful creation of the hoax. Thirty-six hours after the first posting, The Chive and Porterfield are hot properties. Could an acting role be far behind? (And of course, I’m pulling for Porterfield. She is so darn likable.)
In less than two twenty-four-hour news cycles a hoax is: (1) perpetrated, (2) debunked, and (3) milked for enough publicity to become national news and achieve celebrity status. Porterfield is the paramount pseudo celebrity created via what Boorstin calls a “pseudo-event fabricated by the media and evaluated in terms of the scale and effectiveness of their media visibility.”
Pseudo Celebrity and Cultural Currency
Notice, however, how the final stage of influence is still very much intact. In fact, the defining characteristic of the contemporary pseudo celebrity culture is the shallow but powerful nature of the identification it engenders. Pseudo celebrity endorsements are both effective and pervasive, because these superstars are integral parts of our lives and intimately tied to our greatest hopes and fears.
In a culture devoid of meaning and relationship, the pseudo celebrity system offers powerful images to direct our lives. Media outlets create an “illusion of accessibility and relationship.” In a society hungering for close personal relationships, the pseudo celebrity system delivers pseudo-relationships with people we feel connected to but have never met. When Lady Gaga sings, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me,” she is eerily describing the zeitgeist of paparazzi culture. Through pseudo celebrity culture, we perpetrate a new American mythology: not the maxim that strong character, hard work, and perseverance will eventually lead to success and happiness, but rather be in the right place at the right time, with the right YouTube video and you too can be famous. The underlying story behind pseudo celebrity becomes: it could happen to me.
Not everyone can be a hero, but anyone can be famous. Accomplishments might put someone in a position to be noticed by the media, but only the intentional courting of the public eye can produce an ongoing celebrity. This is the underlying secret of our pseudo celebrity culture: it’s all about the Benjamins. Celebrities are needed to drive the economy, sell the products, and fill the airtime so as to generate advertising dollars to sell even more products. Pseudo celebrities are the ultimate wedding of consumer culture and democratic aspirations. In a society cynical about truth, and without a clear sense of common good informing our ethical decisions, the pseudo celebrity system guarantees that even if I don’t know how to live a meaningful life, at least I’ll know how to dress.
On Being a Twenty-first Century Heroic Celebrity (and Not a Pseudo Celebrity)
Does this trivialization of celebrity mean that twenty-first-century culture-makers should eschew all celebrity and start dangling our own paparazzi over the pit of hell? Perhaps. But if the realm of celebrity is stripped of every true hero, all that remains will be pseudo celebrities. And a world without public heroism is a profoundly unbiblical idea. Without contemporary additions to the Hebrews 11 hall of fame, how can we expect a new generation to “Remember your leaders [. . . .] Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith”? (Heb. 13:7). If we don’t have heroic celebrities who are broadly famous in our culture, then haven’t we lost our culture already? To put a twist on Edmund Burke’s oft-quoted aphorism: “All that is necessary for pseudo celebrity to triumph is for heroic celebrities to do nothing.”
Still, some might argue: yes, we need heroes, but shouldn’t we leave hero-making to God? You would certainly think so if you read evangelical devotional literature. Even thoughtful historians often help perpetrate the myth that the Holy Spirit alone drew the giant crowds that followed the saintly Whitefield, as if he wanted only to be left alone with his Bible. Consider Stephen Mansfield’s hagiographic account:
“What could explain the crowds, always the crowds? It must be simply the grace of God and his decision to use a slight, squint-eyed boy to change lives.”
My point is not that the supernatural impact of Whitefield’s ministry is difficult to account for except by the grace of God (more on this later), only that Whitefield carefully cultivated and judiciously utilized his celebrity for the glory of God. Why should twenty-first-century leaders be any different? Moses was “more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth” yet he wrote books that celebrated his own heroism (Numbers 12:3). Nehemiah certainly wasn’t shy in trumpeting his own accomplishments. And David commissioned the telling of the heroic story of Ruth in order to clear up a public relations problem in his (Gentile) heritage. Yet Moses, David, Ruth, Nehemiah, Whitefield, and Edwards possessed at least three further traits that define their heroic celebrity and which might help mitigate against contemporary pseudo celebrity.
The Compelling Authenticity of a Life Well Lived
Edwards and Whitefield were men of remarkable integrity. Edwards was no pseudo celebrity scholar. He was the real thing. He was devoted to the calling of his craft, often spending thirteen hours a day in his study. Nor was he a public figure who wilted in private. He developed a profound contemplative prayer life, forged a beautiful marriage, and stayed deeply involved in the lives of his eleven children.
Although Whitefield never achieved Edwards’s “depth in his thinking about culture,” he began each day reading his Greek New Testament and returned to finish his master’s degree at Oxford after already achieving much of his fame. He worked tirelessly to improve as an orator (and actor). More importantly, he was a man of profound personal and financial integrity. He raised staggering amounts of money while maintaining a Spartan lifestyle that bordered on asceticism. Both leaders escaped moral scandal despite determined enemies and years in the public eye.
This is not to say that these men were perfect; they both freely admitted their mistakes and misjudgments in their own writings. Whitefield wrote, “Alas! Alas! In how many things have I judged acted wrong. I have been too rash and hasty in [judging the] character, both of places and persons. . . I have used a style too apostolical . . . been too bitter in my zeal . . . and published to soon and too explicitly. . . By these things I have hurt the blessed cause I would defend.” But rather than repelling followers, such authenticity drew men and women to his celebrity. In short, they were actually men who could be admired; they were heroic celebrities who might be emulated.
Twenty-first-century culture-makers must strive for the same excellence in craft and character. Pseudo celebrity culture has bred cynicism regarding all celebrities. Americans crave authenticity but expect duplicity. We are looking for our heroes to fall, and the celebrity media industry is only too happy to pounce when they do. Those who would aspire to heroic celebrity must be absolutely certain that they are up to the task. Although pseudo celebrities sometimes become heroes over the course of time, heroic celebrities can become pseudo celebrities overnight. Ted Haggard became a national celebrity, not through his accomplishment of building one of the most influential churches in America, nor by his position as President of the National Council of Evangelicals; he became a household name by reason of his infidelity.
This calls for a ruthless commitment to the compelling authenticity of a life well lived. Scholars, ministers, businesspeople, musicians, politicians, filmmakers, artists, actors, and publishers had best count the cost before they dare enter the world of heroic celebrity. They need a radical commitment to master both their craft at a world-class level and the spiritual disciplines, marriage, family, and relational habits required to shape their character toward the fruit of the Spirit.
Great artists, scholars, businesspeople, and ministers are not formed in a day. Great marriages, families, and friendships are forged with great intentionality. Heroic character cannot be instantly formed by sheer force of will, but the ongoing practice of key spiritual disciplines put us in a position to receive the transforming grace of God and be “incrementally changed toward inward Christlikeness.”
This also calls for a countercultural commitment on the part of thoughtful media leaders and public relations specialists to work against the forces of pseudo celebrity. In addition to Edwards and Whitefield, leaders of the First Great Awakening included not only one of the pioneers of publicity and public relations (William Seward), but also three of the key forerunners in modern mass communication: John Lewis, Thomas Prince, and William McCulloch. They were determined to use the power of the media to promote spiritual awakening through Edwards and Whitefield’s celebrity. Twenty-first-century media leaders must seek for the true heroes in our society and make certain their stories are told. They must also do everything within their power to insure that those they promote as celebrities are in fact heroes.
The Courageous Ambition of Genuine Humility
Edwards and Whitefield were also men of tremendous ambition to glorify God in the world. Early in his life, Edwards determined, “I will do whatsoever I think to be most to God’s glory [. . . ]” However, Edwards’s humility didn’t prevent him from developing a ruthless ambition to serve the coming of God’s kingdom throughout the world. He continued: “[. . .] and my own good, profit and pleasure to do whatever I think to be my duty [. . .] for the good and advantage of mankind.”
Edwards saw no conflict in these two aspirations, having also resolved to throw off anything smacking of “gratification of pride, or vanity,” and he lived his life to maximally steward the gifts God had entrusted to him by establishing himself as a renowned intellectual force for good.
Whitefield too was a man possessed of a deep passion for the glory of God with a corresponding repudiation of self-glory. Yet, he also held to a keen sense of the importance of his impact upon the world. Certainly, the hierarchical worldview of Edwards and Whitefield’s day helped them seize those opportunities in ways that our current pseudo celebrity, democratic, level-playing-field worldview does not. They were encouraged to aspire to become “great men” from their youth, and their respective Yale and Oxford educations only reinforced the idea that they were God’s elite. They did not need to be asked to step forward as celebrities. They knew it was a responsibility entrusted to them by God and correspondingly seized the day.
Not so today. The cynicism of pseudo celebrity when combined with tireless assaults upon anyone who dares stick their heads above the democratic crowd has had a devastating impact on moral leadership. True heroes step back from the public limelight while pseudo celebrities push themselves forward. Those who do not possess true character and accomplishment manipulate the media for their own celebrity, whereas those who possess some modicum of humility shrink back. True heroes fear not only their own ego, but also the potential humiliation involved in having a target painted on their back. For instance, it is now a right of passage for nearly all intellectual, cultural, and spiritual leaders to have multiple Web sites devoted to their demise.
Overcoming our contemporary aversion to principled heroism will call for the courageous ambition of genuine humility on the part of twenty-first-century cultural leaders. Like Saul’s army before Goliath, unbelief sometimes looks a lot like humility. Genuine humility, on the other hand, sometimes appears arrogant. While lifelong soldiers cowered in fear, David was willing to push past his brother’s stinging accusation, “I know how conceited you are” in order to seize the heroic challenge (1 Sam. 17:28ff). Twenty-first-century culture-makers who wish to wisely use celebrity for the glory of God will also need to regularly weather the pseudo celebrity culture’s challenge of “Who do you think you are?” in order to stand as heroic celebrities.
This will also require careful partnerships with thoughtful public relations professionals and new media experts. As media expert Phil Cook, exclaims, “If you don’t control your perception” and “the story that surrounds you [. . .] you’ll live the rest of your life at the mercy of those who will.”
One need only look at James Monaco refers to persons who come to the public eye but fail to control their public image as “Quasars.” They are at the mercy of the media’s construction of their image, and that construction is nearly always bad.the “Tina Fey effect” in the last presidential election for a warning against the dangers of losing control of your own image. Unlike the leaders of the Great Awakening, today’s leaders have allowed our culture’s perception of spirituality to drift at the mercy of the mass media’s construction. Oprah and Richard Dawkins have done more to shape mass media’s conception of faith (or lack thereof) than countless pastors and other spiritual leaders. Only by drawing upon the savvy leadership of the best public relations experts, journalists, filmmakers, television creators, and new-media mavens is there any real chance of reversing this trend.
The Unmistakable Stamp of Divine Exaltation
In the end, Edwards and Whitefield’s lives bore the unmistakable stamp of divine exaltation. Their personal lives and vocational success simply defied all human explanation. Although self-exaltation may lead to pseudo celebrity, there is a type of exaltation only God can bestow. As the psalmist declares, “It is God who judges: He brings one down, he exalts another” (Ps. 75:7).
Celebrity did not bring David in from the shepherd field, release Joseph from prison, nor fill Mary’s womb with divine offspring. They were men and women who followed the biblical injunction: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Pet. 5:6).
Each hero waited in relative obscurity—growing in character while mastering the disciplines of their craft—waiting for the moment chosen by the God whose eyes “range throughout the earth seeking to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him” (2 Chron. 16:9).
For some, like Daniel and Esther, this call came at a relatively young age. For many others, like Moses and Anna, the call came much later. In either case, these biblical figures were ready when their moment arrived.
Whether short or long, God used their time in secret preparation to forge in them the strength of character to support the weight of their calling. Edwards and Whitefield were men of similar character. When the divine moment came—in the 1734-1734 revival in Edwards’s church and the 1739 revival under Whitefield’s itinerant preaching—these two principal leaders of the First Great Awakening knew what to do. Once exalted by God to a place of celebrity, they were ready to bear the responsibilities it demanded and steward their celebrity for the glory of God. In doing so, they helped spark one of the most socially transformative movements in American history. W
ill the twenty-first-century be any different? We may never know how many potentially dynamic cultural leaders will be lured by the siren song of pseudo celebrity, impatiently squandering their youth seeking fame instead of steadily building the craft and character required for their divine moment. Still, we must do everything within our power to help foster spiritual depth as well as professional excellence. In an age hungering for the depth of genuine authenticity to counteract the shallowness of pseudo celebrity, waiting for God’s timing could make all the difference.
The Greatest Day in World History?
Will we see again the equivalent of the crowds that thronged Boston Common for Whitefield’s farewell sermon? Perhaps not. But if we do, that crowd will more likely gather in movie houses worldwide and/or at a massive Web cast than a single venue. A twenty-first-century equivalent of Whitefield is more likely a cutting-edge filmmaker, actor, or television producer than a traditional evangelist.
A twenty-first-century equivalent of Edwards might take the form of a C. S. Lewis, the Oxford scholar who built upon his prestigious position through popular writings and radio broadcasts that gave him a celebrity—the cover of Time magazine for The Screwtape Letters—that made his complex moral and theological arguments beloved reading for a generation of children and adults. Either manifestation would certainly be a great day for the world as we know it.
In a media-saturated age marked by both an unhealthy appetite for pseudo celebrity and a deep cynicism toward heroism, it would be hard to find a better tonic than the courage and authenticity of Edwards and Whitefield, heroic celebrities unafraid to utilize their fame for the glory of God.
The thought that we can sit on the sidelines and call down judgment upon today’s celebrity culture may be as dangerous as it is naive. We are 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. And if all else fails, we can always dangle a few paparazzi over the fires of hell. Or, better yet, we can follow Whitefield’s example and hire them.
 The 2004 Red Sox victory parade attracted an estimated 3 million out of 4.4 million in greater Boston (68 percent), whereas Whitefield’s farewell sermon drew 23,000 from of the city population of 17,000 (135 percent). Whitefield’s more modest estimate was 20,000 (118 percent). Mark A. Noll, The Rise of Evangelicalism: The Age of Edwards, Whitefield, and the Wesleys (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Academic, 2003), 79.
 Harry S. Stout, The Divine Dramatist: George Whitefield and the Rise of Modern Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), x.
 Stout, Divine Dramatist, 90; Frank Lambert, Pedlar in Divinity: George Whitefield and the Transatlantic Revivals, 1737-1770 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 128; Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield: The Life and Times of the Great Evangelist of the Eighteenth-century Revival (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1979), 527; and Harry S. Stout, “Whitefield, George,” Dictionary of Christianity in America, ed. Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 1252.
 George M. Marsden, Jonathan Edwards: A Life (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003), 202.
 Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, A faithful narrative of the surprising work of God in the conversion of many Souls in Northampton, and neighbouring towns and villages of the County of Hampshire, in the Province of the Massachusetts-Bay in New England. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).
 Richard Rhodes, John James Audubon: The Making of an American (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf. Blake, 2004); David Haven, Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006); Joy S. Kasson, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West: Celebrity, Memory, and Popular History (New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 2000); Richard Schickel, Douglas Fairbanks: The First Celebrity (London, UK: Elm Tree Books, 1976); Leonard J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators: Hollywood, Scribners, and the Making of American Celebrity Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997). Other proposed contenders include: Adah Isaacs Menken (c. 1855), see Renée M. Sentilles, Performing Menken: Adah Isaacs Menken and the Birth of American Celebrity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Gertrude Stein (c. 1900), see Karen Leick, Gertrude Stein and the Making of an American Celebrity (New York, NY: Routledge, 2009); and Charles Lindbergh (c. 1940), see Randy Roberts and David Welky, Charles A. Lindbergh: The Power and Peril of Celebrity, 1927-1941 (Maplecrest, NY: Brandywine Press, 2003).
 Richard Schickel, Intimate Strangers: The Culture of Celebrity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985), 21.
 Richard DeCordova, Picture Personalities: The Emergence of the Star System in America (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
 Malcolm Gladwell, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co, 2005), 45.
 There are some who believe that Hollywood’s star-making days are over and are now being replaced by the experience-making of stadium theaters, 3-D glasses, concept movies, and CGI. Given the blockbuster opening weekend ($35 million) of the low-tech but star-studded The Expendables (2010), I suspect this argument will grow even more heated.
 See Schickel, Intimate Strangers; and Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2004), 3, 8.
 Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & its History (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986).
 See also 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9. All references are from the New International Version.
 Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image, or, What Happened to the American Dream (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1861), 58; and Daniel J. Boorstin, “From Hero to Celebrity: The Human Pseudo-event,” in David Marshall, The Celebrity Culture Reader (New York, NY: Routledge, 2006), 72-90.
 Robert W. Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1988), x. See also, Joseph A. Conforti, Jonathan Edwards: Religious Tradition & American Culture (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1995); Douglas A. Sweeney and Allen C. Guelzo, The New England Theology: From Jonathan Edwards to Edwards Amasa Park (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006).
 Michael J. Crawford chronicles that between 1712-1732 the Connecticut River Valley alone experienced as many as fifteen revivals before the first of two “outpourings” in Edwards’s Northampton, Massachusetts, church (1734-1736, 1740-1742). See, Seasons of Grace: Colonial New England’s Revival Tradition in Its British Context (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1991), 108. To his credit, Edwards’s own account mentioned “nearly every church in Western Massachusetts and twenty in Connecticut.” See Marsden, Jonathan Edwards, 162.
 Harry S. Stout, The New England Soul: Preaching and Religious Culture in Colonial New England (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1986), 228.
 For more insight into the use of media, publicity, et cetera in the First Great Awakening see Frank Lambert, Inventing the “Great Awakening” (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999); Harry S. Stout, “Religion, Communications, and the Ideological Origins of the American Revolution” The William and Mary Quarterly: A Magazine of Early American History 34 (1977): 519-541; and Michael J. Crawford, Seasons of Grace, 13ff.
 Jonathan Edwards and C. C. Goen, Some thoughts concerning the present revival of religion in New England and the way in which it ought to be acknowledged and promoted. The works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 4: The Great Awakening (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972).
 Gary David Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ (1703-1758) Theology of Spiritual Awakening and Spiritual Formation Leadership in Higher Education” (PhD diss., Talbot School of Theology, 2009), 59. See also Gary D. Stratton, “Jonathan Edwards’ Treatise Concerning Religious Affections and Gerald McDermott’s Seeing God,” Christian Education Journal 3 (2006) and Samuel S. Storms, Signs of the Spirit: An Interpretation of Jonathan Edwards’ Religious Affections (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007).
 Jonathan Edwards, John Edwin Smith, and Perry Miller, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, in three parts. The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 2 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959), 5-7.
 Richard Dyer and Paul McDonald, Stars (London, UK: BFI, 2007), 17.
 Chris Rojek, Celebrity: Critical Concepts in Sociology (London, UK: Routledge, 2010), 16, 52.
 Marshall, Celebrity and Power, 10. See also Leo Lowenthal, Communication in Society. Studies on Authoritarianism 3, False Prophets (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1997).
 Burke probably never used the precise phrase, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” but rather, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one [. . .]” Daniel E. Ritchie, Edmund Burke: Appraisals and Applications (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1990), xiii.
 Stephen Mansfield, Forgotten Founding Father: The Heroic Legacy of George Whitefield (Nashville, TN: Highland Books/Cumberland House, 2001), 64.
At the Republican National Convention, Senator Lindsey Graham noted the shifting national demographics and commented, “We’re not generating enough angry white guys to stay in business for the long term.”1
Graham said this at the 2012 convention.
Hundreds of pieces will be published as a postmortem on those Americans, particularly evangelicals, who supported Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Robert P. Jones has recently referred to them as “nostalgia voters . . . culturally and economically disaffected voters that are anxious to hold on to a white conservative Christian culture that’s passing from the scene.”
Rod Dreher says this bloc holds the paradoxical view that the future is rightfully theirs and that the space for them in the United States is shrinking. This “dispossession,” as Dreher calls it, is “psychologically traumatic to certain whites who expected the world to work in a different way—a way that favored them.”2 Trump and his ilk offer a temporary balm to the damaged psyche of the dispossessed by making them feel good about who they are (i.e., real Americans) and what they could be (i.e., great again), all of which is tied directly to who they are not (i.e., immigrants, Muslims, etc.).
Marquez Ball further complicates things by suggesting that the term evangelical evokes racist undertones, saying, “Very few African American Christians would consider themselves to be evangelical, because for many the term often implies a white racist. . . . The 2016 presidential campaign of Donald Trump is challenging white evangelicals to prove that evangelical is not a code word for ‘white racist.’” As Michael Horton says, “many who call themselves evangelicals today find their ultimate loyalty in preserving or regaining a lost socio-political and cultural, perhaps even racial, hegemony.”3 Both Ball and Horton identify the significant baggage of the term evangelical, now reinforced by those who support Trump’s candidacy, which is simply an undercurrent of what evangelicalism has always been in America. If white evangelicals wish to be reconciled with people of color, then they should confess precisely how they have been possessed by something other than the faith they proclaim, irrespective of the repercussions that will befall the penitent and their structures of power.
Evangelicalism is a word religion. I’m a big fan of words, but even talking pictures aren’t fundamentally about words. Evangelical films over-explain, over-talk. They don’t trust the images to do the work.
I went to a screening of Woodlawn last Saturday. Directed by Birmingham brothers Jon and Andrew Erwin, the film tells the true story of revival among the players on the football team at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham during a racially tense period of the 1970s.
The film focuses on Tony Nathan, the tailback who takes the position from a white teammate and becomes a star. The real-life Tony Nathan went on to play at Alabama and for the Miami Dolphins.
It’s a moving story, with some high-pitched emotional scenes. The acting is good, especially Jon Voight as Bear Bryant, Nic Bishop as Woodlawn’s coach, Tandy Gerelds, and Caleb Castille who plays Nathan in his first film. Technically, Evangelical films have come a long way.
The large crowd at the screening cheered when Woodlawn scored a winning touchdown, shouted when Tony Nathan dodged a tackle, laughed at the punch lines. It was a very into-it crowd.
Yet I came away from the film dissatisfied, as I do from many films by Evangelicals. I think there are a number of reasons for that dissatisfaction, but at base the problem is theological (ain’t it always)…
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Despite his cheerful demeanor, Poland isn’t a Pollyanna about the gap separating media culture from evangelicals. There’s a reason he titled his recent book on the topic “Chasm: Crossing the Divide Between Hollywood and People of Faith.”
Hollywood and evangelical Christians don’t exactly have a harmonious history. So it’s always something of a jolt to be reminded that a group of the latter schedules regular prayers for specific showbiz leaders and media influencers — including, in what’s left of June, Warner Bros.’ Sue Kroll, FX CEO John Landgraf, actress Anna Kendrick, and the ubiquitous Kardashians.
The “prayer calendar” (and yes, it’s organized alphabetically) is just one of the innovations arising from Mastermedia Intl., which seeks to engage the entertainment industry and effect change through what amounts to constructive engagement. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, the group is led by Larry Poland, who has spent the past 35 years conducting this sort of missionary work, although the mysterious tribe he oversees drives around in expensive cars and tosses around words like “synergistic.”
Having “flunked retirement two or three times,” Poland is again seeking to engineer a transition in day-to-day management, one that will position Mastermedia, he says, for the next 30 years. Yet whatever the organization’s future, its past and present under Poland has generally operated in stark contrast with Christian groups that pursue a more confrontational approach — using “anger strategies,” as Poland calls them, like boycotts and protests, which he considers counterproductive.
“I knew instinctively that was not the right way to go about it,” Poland says. “The best way to change content is not to scream and yell at the people who produce it.”
In such a polarized political environment, Poland’s attitude feels particularly refreshing, and it has helped keep doors open that might otherwise have been shut. Part of Mastermedia’s outreach has involved conducting corporate seminars, seeking to educate decision-makers about the spending power of the evangelical market and ways to address the faithful without casually or inadvertently insulting them.
A five-year project I headed as president of the Barna Group explores the opportunities and challenges of faith development among teens and young adults within a rapidly shifting culture. The findings of the research are included in my book You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church and Rethinking Church.The research project was comprised of eight national studies, including interviews with teenagers, young adults, parents, youth pastors, and senior pastors.
The study of young adults focused on those who were regular churchgoers Christian church during their teen years and explored their reasons for disconnection from church life after age 15. No single reason dominated the break-up between church and young adults. Instead, a variety of reasons emerged. Overall, the research uncovered six significant themes why nearly three out of every five young Christians (59%) disconnect either permanently or for an extended period of time from church life after age 15.
Reason #1 – Churches seem overprotective.
A few of the defining characteristics of today’s teens and young adults are their unprecedented access to ideas and worldviews as well as their prodigious consumption of popular culture. As Christians, they express the desire for their faith in Christ to connect to the world they live in. However, much of their experience of Christianity feels stifling, fear-based and risk-averse. One-quarter of 18- to 29-year-olds said “Christians demonize everything outside of the church” (23% indicated this “completely” or “mostly” describes their experience). Other perceptions in this category include “church ignoring the problems of the real world” (22%) and “my church is too concerned that movies, music, and video games are harmful” (18%).
Reason #2 – Teens’ and twentysomethings’ experience of Christianity is shallow.
A second reason that young people depart church as young adults is that something is lacking in their experience of church. One-third said “church is boring” (31%). One-quarter of these young adults said that “faith is not relevant to my career or interests” (24%) or that “the Bible is not taught clearly or often enough” (23%). Sadly, one-fifth of these young adults who attended a church as a teenager said that “God seems missing from my experience of church” (20%).
Reason #3 – Churches come across as antagonistic to science.
One of the reasons young adults feel disconnected from church or from faith is the tension they feel between Christianity and science. The most common of the perceptions in this arena is “Christians are too confident they know all the answers” (35%). Three out of ten young adults with a Christian background feel that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%). Another one-quarter embrace the perception that “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). And nearly the same proportion (23%) said they have “been turned off by the creation-versus-evolution debate.” Furthermore, the research shows that many science-minded young Christians are struggling to find ways of staying faithful to their beliefs and to their professional calling in science-related industries.
Reason #4 – Young Christians’ church experiences related to sexuality are often simplistic, judgmental.
With unfettered access to digital pornography and immersed in a culture that values hyper-sexuality over wholeness, teen and twentysometing Christians are struggling with how to live meaningful lives in terms of sex and sexuality. One of the significant tensions for many young believers is how to live up to the church’s expectations of chastity and sexual purity in this culture, especially as the age of first marriage is now commonly delayed to the late twenties.
Research indicates that most young Christians are as sexually active as their non-Christian peers, even though they are more conservative in their attitudes about sexuality. One-sixth of young Christians (17%) said they “have made mistakes and feel judged in church because of them.” The issue of sexuality is particularly salient among 18- to 29-year-old Catholics, among whom two out of five (40%) said the church’s “teachings on sexuality and birth control are out of date.”
Reason #5 – They wrestle with the exclusive nature of Christianity.
Younger Americans have been shaped by a culture that esteems open-mindedness, tolerance and acceptance. Today’s youth and young adults also are the most eclectic generation in American history in terms of race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, technological tools and sources of authority. Most young adults want to find areas of common ground with each other, sometimes even if that means glossing over real differences. Three out of ten young Christians (29%) said “churches are afraid of the beliefs of other faiths” and an identical proportion felt they are “forced to choose between my faith and my friends.” One-fifth of young adults with a Christian background said “church is like a country club, only for insiders” (22%).
Reason #6 – The church feels unfriendly to those who doubt.
Young adults with Christian experience say the church is not a place that allows them to express doubts. They do not feel safe admitting that sometimes Christianity does not make sense. In addition, many feel that the church’s response to doubt is trivial. Some of the perceptions in this regard include not being able “to ask my most pressing life questions in church” (36%) and having “significant intellectual doubts about my faith” (23%). In a related theme of how churches struggle to help young adults who feel marginalized, about one out of every six young adults with a Christian background said their faith “does not help with depression or other emotional problems” they experience (18%).
Todd was an up-and-coming scientist, an oncology fellow at Stanford with multiple research grants and a dozen scientific publications on his curriculum vitae, when he heeded a different call.
Witness Todd’s pitch for the end-poverty campaign and you’ll be taken on an energetic tour of some surprising numbers.
Did you know that 52% of the world’s population suffered from extreme poverty just 30 years ago, but that number has been halved to 26% in one generation?
Perhaps even more revealing is the figure that Todd waves to rally the church to get extreme poverty the rest of the way to zero. That number is 58 — as in Isaiah 58, the Old Testament chapter that compels the righteous to loosen the chains of injustice, free the oppressed, give shelter to the wanderer and food to the hungry.
As the generational tides nudge this demographic closer to the front and center of American evangelicalism, it’s time for a refiguring of the equations by the many non-evangelicals nursing grudges about those pushy Jesus nuts — especially the progressive secularists who share these new evangelicals’ social justice commitments.
Divided by religious belief, these groups are easily stereotyped as culture war enemies. They needn’t be. If anything, they’re common-good allies simply in need of an introduction…
I highly recommend it for anyone wishing to delve deeper into the culture-making power of spiritual awakening.
Brandon O’Brien’s review below.
Book Review: A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir
By Brandon O’Brien editor at large for Leadership.
For me, the word “revival” usually brings to mind sweating, red-faced evangelists berating sweet old church ladies for letting their spiritual fires fizzle. …With A God-sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir(Zondervan), Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge restored my image of revival… (W)hat I found most interesting were stories of spiritual awakening worldwide, in places like East Africa, China, India, Wales, and Korea.
One of the authors’ great accomplishments, then, is correcting what may be a common stereotype of “revivalism” for many Americans. If they’re right, revival looks different in different places. For businessmen in North America in the mid-nineteenth century, revival began not with tents and sawdust trails, but with lunch-hour prayer meetings. In Korea, the movement of the Spirit ignited with the confession of sins—big ones, like adultery and murder—and brought missionaries of different denominations together for the gospel. In India, it began when Hindu convert PanditaRamabai provided room, board, and education for helpless Indian women and orphans and encouraged them to pray for a mighty work of God.
I don’t hear many people talking about revival these days. You might think, then, that the topic is interesting but ultimately irrelevant. Not so. Although the authors don’t make the connections explicit, A God-sized Vision intersects with and informs several important contemporary issues.
First, at a time when we Western Christians are increasingly aware that we should pay more attention to Christian traditions in other places on the planet, Hansen and Woodbridge introduce us to some important players and events in global Christian history in the last 100 years…
Second, there has been a division between the “head” and “heart” in American Christianity for almost as long as there have been Christians in America. A God-sized Vision challenges this easy distinction…
Third, in light of the renewed interest in social justice among American evangelicals, the authors do a great job pointing out the social benefits of revival, especially in other countries…
Richard Flory, one of my very bright former colleagues at a stalwart CCCU school, is currently associate research professor of sociology and senior research associate at the University of Southern California’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
In the aftermath of the Rob Bell universalism controversy Richard is asking some very tough questions confronting leaders of the Christian College movement about the future of Christian Higher Education in the midst of dramatic worldview shift among younger evangelicals.
I’m interested in everyone’s take on this, but especially CCCU and ABHE leaders in particular. What are your thoughts?
The End of the (Evangelical) World As We Know It
Several recent reports suggest that the evangelical Christian world, as we have come to know it over the last 30 years, may be changing forever…
While it is not exactly clear the extent to which these beliefs are really a part of the worldview of younger evangelicals, or how they may translate into different forms of social action, they do suggest that important changes are unfolding within a important sector of American society…
There are several angles that reporters might pursue, starting with whether the theological reorientation of charismatic leaders like Rob Bell really represents a broad trend within evangelicalism (or are they getting attention because they’re savvy about self-promotion and the usefulness of pushing their opponents’ buttons).
Further, reporters need to ask not only how many younger evangelicals there are who support a more progressive interpretation of the Gospel, but what influence they might actually have on politics and culture.
For example, what might these changes mean for key evangelical institutions such as churches, colleges and seminaries? John Thune and Mike Huckabee, two potential Republican presidential candidates, are products of evangelical schools. Will these institutions support changes in scriptural interpretation and social ethics, or will they maintain their traditional role of working to keep young evangelicals within the range of acceptable beliefs and practices?
…Ultimately, only time will tell. But in the meantime, there are many lines of inquiry that reporters can pursue to help us understand whether and how younger evangelicals represent new wine in old wineskins. Or whether they are just the same vintage in a shiny new bottle.