Saturday, October 15, 2011

Carl Trueman on how defining a celebrity pastor is like defining pornograph (is there a SLAPS test for both?)

Over at the Gospel Coalition, the Rev. Thabiti Anyabwile has a post on definitions. His argument is a thoughtful one and he calls for the abandonment of talk of `celebrity' and 'rock star' pastors because, as he rightly points out, defining these terms is hard. He also sees me as one of the main culprits. So it seems apposite to thank him for his provocative and gently expressed thoughts and to offer a few in return.

I am tempted to say `I don't know how to define art, but I know it when I see it.' Except, other than understanding that Thomas Kinkade is not art, that statement would not be true. I am told Jackson Pollock is art but that, as they say, is clearly above my paygrade.

But let's bring it closer to home: most pastors I know would acknowledge that internet pornography is the number one pastoral problem among men in their congregation. Yet no pastor I have ever spoken to has been able to provide a fully adequate, stable, universally agreed definition of pornography which covers all cases any time any where. By the above logic, we should therefore stop all talk of pornography as a problem. We do not know how to define the term; we should not use it.

The problem is: semantics notwithstanding, pornography is a huge problem; and pastors who cannot define the p word know its a problem, recognise it, and take action to help those struggling with it. Frankly, pastoral time spent debating exactly what it is is pastoral time completely wasted -- time which might otherwise be spent tackling the issue.

Thus, the issue with the celebrity culture surrounding certain pastors and organisations is not ultimately one of linguistic definition or of those who use the term with a certain amount of elasticity or even incompetence. The issue is that there is a real problem -- in fact, many real problems -- to which some are trying to draw attention. There is a problem with the yob aesthetic, the arrogant stage swagger, the stand-up routines, the obsession with talking about sex in sermons which puts some of these conference headlining pastoral role models about as far from Paul's vision of leadership as possible; there is a problem with pastors who tell their people they will only visit them in hospital once they have been placed in a body bag; there is a problem with pastors who make videos which ape the aesthetics of the mainstream media and focus on the pastor, not the pastor's God; there is a problem with churches of thousands of people, few of whom ever get to meet an elder, let alone the pastor; there is a problem with church planting strategy that is so wedded to the cult of the one man that he has to be skyped in to the community; there is a problem when a man has to phone the librarian at Westminster Seminary with a pastoral issue because nobody at his home church of thousands has the time to speak to an ordinary church member about his crisis of faith.

Call it what you like. I call it the culture which grows up around celebrities. Maybe I am hopelessly wrong in my choice of terms. You may certainly choose others which fit better. But like internet pornography, I would rather spend time exposing the problems for what they are than debating semantic qualifications.

In the blog post Anyabwile wrote to which Trueman responds, Anyabwile explains that his training is in social science and education by background.  Trueman does not mention his credentials outside being a pastor but his is the far more compelling case.  Why?  Well, I was a journalism student (which some would say makes me biased).  Trueman attempts to address the celebrity pastor in terms that matter more than the domain of social science or education because celebrities and private citizens can end up having to meet different criteria to establish the grounds for a defamation suit!

Trueman's case is more pertinent because he brings up the inherent problem of objecting to a lack of definition in "celebrity pastor", special pleading.  A pastor wouldn't say that one has to define pornography specifically before addressing the subject (unless that person is defending, say "Peasant Princess" as being erotic and not pornography, perhaps).  I've got a counter-example closer to where I live, just because the Bible does not seem to define "poverty" or "the poor" as generously or strictly as some Christians would like does not mean there is no Christian obligation to help the poor.  Trueman's right, just because we can't define "celebrity pastor" on the basis of a scientific method or procedure hardly precludes our being able to speak to the problems of the celebrity pastor. 

Coming as I do from an academic background in journalism I don't think Anyabwile can make a viable case that terms can be so steadily or strictly applied for a celebrity pastor.  Even his own attempt at defining celebrity pastor fails to come off as a meaningful deviation from the criteria Trueman came up with.  It is, in any event, absurd to attempt to impose a scientific procedural definition on Trueman's criteria for celebrity pastor when Trueman's criteria mesh better with laws surrounding the basis for a defmation suit.  Even a non "rock star" pastor can still have responsibilities as a public figure.  A celebrity pastor is one for whom the grounds for a defamation suit would be even more stringent than that of some pastor no one has heard of.  If you're a pastor whose soundbites and public remarks can get blogged about by people in other countries than the one in which you preach and get your paycheck you "might" be a celebrity pastor.  If you're a pastor who is known about across the United States by millions of people you "might" be a celebrity pastor.  What constitutes a "celebrity blogger" and why do "celebrity pastors" seem to think that there's more wiggle room for them than for the "celebrity blogger" to say stuff off the cuff? 

... or do we want to make some potential exemptions for the celebrity pastors who are not modalists?

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