SANTA!!!!!! I know him! I know him!
…were the words of Buddy the Elf played by Will Ferrell in the popular Christmas movie I enjoy called Elf. Will Ferrell’s character actually did know the Santa Claus who lived at the North Pole, and was excited about the opportunity to see him in a New York City store where he unknowingly would not see the actual Santa, but a mall Santa who was there to take pictures with kids who smelled like “beef and cheese.”
What’s interesting about that scene where Buddy the Elf yells “Santa!” is that he not only was excited to see someone famous, but wanted to declare loudly to the world that he knew this famous person even if most didn’t believe that particular famous person existed. Santa is, after all, a celebrity. Who wouldn’t want to know him? It’s interesting that in our culture, many people react the same way as Will Ferrell’s character, perhaps to the likes of Will Ferrell himself or some other celebrity/well-known figure who is valued by our culture. We aren’t content with simply seeing someone famous, we want others to know that we have seen them.
That is why we take pictures of them and put them on Facebook or Instagram, we have to prove that we actually did see them or that we really KNOW them. To what end is this behavior though? Why is it that we can’t simply see someone famous and simply go about our day, or see someone famous and not seek to tell the world about it?
I believe it is because we have a desire within us for praise and glory. We want others to not only see the picture of us and someone famous, but to praise us for it and give us some of the fame and reverence that would be given to that famous someone.
Whether it’s Big Papi, President Obama, Derek Jeter (now retired), Lebron James, Lionel Messi, Denzel Washington, Benedict Cumberbatch, Oprah, or some other celebrity figure, we aren’t simply drawn to celebrity figures because of their fame and fortune and power and prestige, deep down, if we’re honest, we desire those very things ourselves and we feel that some of it will rub off on us if we just get close enough. It’s in part why Twitter even exists. It’s an opportunity for people to be just a little bit closer to their celebrity that they revere and gives them the chance to peer into their life just a bit more as if they are a part of it, which they aren’t.
So, what’s the big deal with this celebrity-ism? Who cares that people have a ‘Buddy the Elf-Santa Syndrome’ (if such a thing exists) when it comes to famous people? What’s wrong with that and how does that relate to a blog that examines how faith interacts with culture?
Well, the trouble is that this celebrity-ism is no stranger to Christianity and is very much at home among Christians. It’s not a new problem that Christians have had either, but has been around since the first advent of Jesus. You’ll remember many of the people who followed Jesus simply wanted to be around Him because He was famous and they wanted to see a miracle. Then, in 1 Corinthians we learn that the church in Corinth had this problem or else the Apostle Paul would not have written…
What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? (1 Corinthians 1:12-13, ESV).
Today, you wouldn’t be hard-pressed to hear someone boast of their following many famous church leaders on Twitter or Facebook, or going some place just to see or be close to them. Instead of Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Jesus (no, that passage isn’t referring to the following Jesus that we should all strive for); many are prone to follow John Piper, Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, Matt Chandler, N.T. Wright, and the list goes on. I recently attended The Gospel Coalition New England at which several well-known scholars spoke. I’ve attended a conference before at which both John Piper and Tim Keller were present, and the conference was large and had no issues with people registering. There were some issues with lower registration with this one largely because the big names like Tim Keller and John Piper was not on the list of those speaking. Some may ask, “Well, what is the purpose of these conferences?” The purpose is to gather with other Christians locally and worship God together, make connections, receive resources, and be refreshed by Gospel-centered preaching/teaching. However, instead of viewing it this way, many Christians seem to view these conferences as a chance to see their favorite celebrity pastor/preacher, and don’t see the reasons I listed as important enough for them to attend.
Now, it’s a conference. I know, but this is a small example of a broader problem in American Christianity. Christians are caring more about “big names” than they are about fellowship, worship, Gospel-centered preaching/teaching, and resources to help them grow in their relationship with God and aid in local ministries. There is a danger for the mission of God to be lost amidst the hype of American Christian subculture. I say subculture because major “Christian Celebrities” are not acknowledged in the broader culture or let alone on a global scale as such, but typically, merely in the subset that is American Christianity and within that, a theologically conservative variety of that. What happens when Christians become generally more excited about the hype of Christian pop-culture than Christianity itself?
Well, it means it becomes exciting to see or be around famous people in the American Christian world, but less exciting to be in church at a local level.
It becomes exciting to be a part of a radical movement with a bestseller book to promote the movement more, but less exciting to share the burdens and hardships, the joys and the sorrows of brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need in a local church.
It becomes exciting to follow famous blogs and figures on Facebook or Twitter, and to read books by those figures, but it becomes less exciting and perhaps seemingly dull to pick up a Bible (or Bible App even) and memorize and read Scripture.
It becomes easy to get excited about things the world gets excited about, but difficult to get excited about the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The danger of Christian celebrity-ism is that we can become like those who followed Jesus at the beginning of John 6, but then, after Jesus said He was the Bread of Life, many abandoned Him and no longer followed Him. We can be just like those followers who were following because they were excited about the opportunity of seeing something great, seeing a miracle or a sign, but when the reality of who Jesus was and the commitment to truly follow Him comes to the fore, we leave and chase after something we deem more exciting and entertaining. In short, we could get more excited about a human celebrity Christian figure than we do about Jesus, and once we’ve done that, once we’ve gone there, we’ve placed someone in the place of praise and adoration where God ought to be in our lives, well, we’ve committed idolatry and abandoned following Christ for some other thing/person.
I’ve found it interesting that in this Christian subculture where Christian celebrity-ism is very much alive and commonplace, that I’ve heard people share how they feel privileged and honored to be in the very proximity of such a famous Christian celebrity. Undoubtedly, they may perhaps even be tempted to remove their shoes in their presence if the thought came to their mind. This is a two-sided problem and danger though because it is not only a danger that can affect Christians who are not celebrity Christians, but it can affect the very people that so many praise as well. All it takes is for Christians to routinely treat celebrity Christians as if they aren’t sinners saved by grace through faith, but something more and greater, until there is the temptation from a celebrity Christian standpoint to perhaps not entirely, but at least in part start believing it and half-expecting special treatment.
Inflated egos and self-boasting are not what God has called His followers to, but to empty themselves as Christ Jesus has emptied Himself to the point of death on the cross, though equal to God He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but… what did He do? He emptied Himself becoming like a servant, stooping to our level, that of a sinner though sinless, taking on human flesh, the incorruptible taking on, assuming (properly), the corruptible while remaining incorruptible, unchanging. Christ poured out His right to glory as He poured out His life in self-giving love at the cross to be raised for our justification and in order to bring all the more glory to God in His victory over death and the power of sin.
If God whom we profess to believe and follow with our whole lives gave His right to glory out of love for others, humbling Himself willingly and intentionally, to save others, how can we not being God preserve the praise and glory of man for ourselves when we in fact do not deserve it?
There is a difference between respect and awe-induced worship. It is my prayer that Christians would take seriously the truth that it is not loving to praise and worship famous Christian figures. Are we as Protestants to denounce the Roman Catholic practice of veneration but venerate the “saints” we choose as an acceptable alternative?
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? (Matthew 7:3, ESV).
We so easily give ourselves to praise and reverence of man, but why is it that we don’t share the same excitement and awe and reverence that we give to famous Christians to God? Indeed, as candy is to a sweet-tooth are our human hearts to idols. We love it and enjoy the sensation of the taste, but unless we abstain and/or neglect the cleaning, we will not even notice the decay taking hold.
The praise and worship that we long for is not fulfilled in exciting celebrity figures, like fast food that satisfies and then is finished, it leaves us wanting for more. It is a failed effort which seeks in the things that do not last the things that do last. We need to guard our hearts by God’s Word, and take care, lest we prostitute our affections to man and things as opposed to the living God. Our heart is bound by covenant to the Lord over all creation who promised us His presence, everlasting joy and life, forgiveness, yet, we would sell our soul for a candy bar if given the chance. How foolish we are, that we, as C.S. Lewis has written, would find contentment making mud-pies in slums paying no attention to the holiday at sea offered us.
If you love God and love those celebrity Christians, stop giving them the praise of your heart, and give that praise to God in Christ. If you love God and love non-celebrity Christians (O Celebrity Christian), do not expect praise and glory that rightly belongs to God. Let us not follow a Paul nor an Apollos nor a Peter nor a Tim Keller nor a John Piper nor a Matt Chandler, but let us follow Jesus Christ and may our boasting be in Christ alone as we are saved by grace alone through faith alone. Lastly, may we all be content to remember Paul’s writing to the church at Ephesus in Ephesians 2:4-9 about just exactly who we are and just why exactly God is worthy of praise and honor…
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:4-9 ESV).