Thursday, December 08, 2011

Mike Cosper's defense of celebrity pastors traffics a teensy bit in false dichotomies and double standards

Let me start off by saying that this is bound to come across as a snarky and satirical response, which it kind of is.  With a title like, "Celebrities, Heroes, and Slanderous Jealousy" Cosper's basically asking for at least one response with a little snark. I start with snark, yes, but I will end with a question, and in light of the way new Calvinists love to blog, you'll understand if I happen to end with a rhetorical question worthy of such blogging. 

But first, in the inviolate protocols of theo-blogging among Calvinists, let me start off with a strategic quote with which I will then interact.  There are rules for these kinds of things, and you just. can't. break. them.

... That said, I would like to pose a different question: Is it ever appropriate for a Christian leader to pursue a larger platform or broader audience? Is it possible for someone to be motivated to pursue this goal with humility and conviction, believing that God has gifted him with skills, experience, and insights that can be a blessing to the broader church?

If this pursuit is successful, it will almost inevitably lead to celebrity status. Merriam-Webster defines a celebrity as a "famous or celebrated person." Excellent work in any field will lead to celebration, both of the work and also the person. The shape of that response is (to some degree) out of the celebrity's control. Not even retreating to a hermit's life can prevent it altogether. Some celebration could be described as showing proper honor for preachers and teachers of the word (1 Tim. 5:17), and some could be called hero worship. The latter is a misplaced longing that marks the worst examples we see. But the former refers to influential leaders who have shaped much of the history of the church and continue to shape the life of the church in our day. ...

This is a classic Chrisian blog post trope.  Ask an essentially rhetorical question on something that could be a point for controversy.  Follow up this question with a dictionary citation, preferably Merriam-Webster because Christians in America are supposed to do that.  Then proceed to a closing argument which includes a prooftext verse backing up a conclusion you've arrived at in a way that would never require the proof text if you were up front about the actual nature of your argument.

Cosper's dealing with some false dichotomies that need to be highlighted.  For instance, as celebrities go there's no reason to work with such simplistic categories as "top of the heap" or "overexposed".  A person may genuinely be at the top of some heap but become overexposed by attempting to reach out to a broader audience.  By this I don't mean some case of reaching out to a broader audience before one is ready, but that the very nature of seeking a broader audience leads that celebrity to be overexposed.  The whole polarity of heap-topping and overexposure is a rote dichotomy used by neo-Calvinist bloggers that ends up being a self-justifying enterprise.  The dichotomy lets you put yourself on the right side of the dichotomy (and your friends and associates) while picking convenient celebrities to put on the other side. 

In Cosper's case he can cite Josh Dallas (whoever that is) as a celebrity who's earned top-of-the-heap status (I actually saw Thor and I can't say I recognized Josh Dallas in the film, knew who the actor was, or remembered what role Dallas played) and can cite Kim Kardashian as overexposed.  Yet as celebrity goes, even someone who is famous merely for being famous is more famous than the man Cosper invites us to consider top of the heap.  When I think top of the heap in the realm of film acting I think of Cate Blanchett a whole lot faster than I think of Josh Dallas (and Dallas, for all I know, probably does, too).  In fact a lot of people will think of B-movie actor Bruce Campbell before they'll think of Josh Dallas.  Does this make Bruce Campbell a celebrity?  Of course it does, and yet Campbell has a niche celebrity. 

That there are levels of public recognition was established by an experiment in which Joshua Bell decided to busk in a subway station to see if anyone recognized him. They didn't. Some people cited this as proof that real artistic greatness goes unappreciated in America. It was more a case of establishing that celebrity has context, in my estimation of things.   Joshua Bell is a celebrity violinist but a celebrity violinist is still going to be unknown to most people.  I would "probably" recognize Hilary Hahn if she showed up somewhere in Seattle (I have at least six of her albums, after all) but, you know what?  I might actually not recognize her in a crowd and not just because I recently had eye surgery.  I actually did not recognize that one of my favorite local classical guitarists was at the same event I was.  I was embarrassed about that.  Does this make him less a celebrity within his circle?  No, and I have four of his albums.  Actually, I think I might have ALL of his albums. :)  But odds are pretty good you've never heard of him.

The reality is that Christians who are celebritys exist in different strata of celebrity if they should attain celebrity status at all. There are realms of America, even among Christians, where you can go and nobody has even heard of John Piper. I thank God such groups of Christians exist, no, really, I do.  I agree with those who say that a Christian should not even seek celebrity status, let alone act as though their celebrity status, at whatever level, provides a basis from which to stump for what you want. 

I've had men in church settings tell me I should agree with them because of their prominent role in the church, or because I should be respectful toward them as older men (and agree that they're right).  I respect older men and I try to pay attention to them about all sorts of subjects.  I am also willing to consider that if someone has a prominent role among a social network of Christians to give that some thought.  But if someone pulls rank I'd like to know why they think that merely pulling rank proves anything.  I remember a time when a couple of people at Mars Hill told me that so-and-so was practically a pastor at the church.  To that I replied, "Well, until he becomes an actual pastor I don't have to pretend that he IS my pastor."  Celebrity doesn't have to be at a very high level for a person to try to leverage that celebrity to get things. 

Let's not forget that there's more danger to celebrity than just wanting the claim or praise of other people.  It's silly and irresponsible to speak as though that's the real risk of celebrity.  Celebrity is just as much a case where you can be tempted to trade on your celebrity to get status or recognition or decisions you want as it is a temptation to want to be liked; if you don't get what you want you can be tempted to trade in on your celebrity, at whatever level you have attained it, to get what you want.  This isn't something mysterious, and it isn't something that even has to indicate a high level of celebrity.  It can be at as small a level as "I'm the dad, so I get to decide this" or "I'm the parent, so you're obligated to respect me before God [though I don't have to honor or respect you for any reason]."  There are certainly cases where one has a certain rank and from that a necessity to serve others.  Parents are supposed to raise children, and leaders do have need to lead but it's dangerous to trade in on celebrity and the power that comes with it as a self-justifying move.

Cosper may hope to frame things in terms of celebrity being proof of God's blessing and favor.  If you get good at something, why, celebrity will be inevitable, won't it?  Don't all super-apostles need letters of recommendation and announcements in advance of their conferences that they are super-apostles mightily used by God?  If Cosper's reasoning is sound then shouldn't Cosper say that Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, Paula White, and T. D. Jakes are, by dint of their bigger celebrity, more mightily gifted by God?  I mean, if he takes that line of reasoning at all seriously Cosper has to go there.  He won't, though, because he's blogging for the Gospel Coalition and not a website stumping for TBN, or writing for Charisma.  It should be telling about the weakness of the claim that celebrity is indicative of God's blessing and favor via gifting that a celebrity pastor in the Gospel Coalition is supposed to be subject to slanderous gossip while Joel Osteen is fair game.  Driscoll can lay into William Young over The Shack but puts the kids glove on and won't even throw punches about T. D. Jakes. 

And that gets me to what should be the most obvious flaw in Cosper's optimistic claim that God grants celebrity to people who get to the top of the heap and have the most gifts, in the annals of history the great teachings of the faith do not, as a general rule, have someone's name attached to them.  Sure, we know about the courage of Martin Luther but there's no coherent set of doctrines in Lutheranism that can't be found just about anywhere else in Protestantism if you look hard enough (Fearsome Tycoon can totally correct me on this sweeping generalization, by the way, if I turn out to be completely wrong). 

Now, sure, there's Arminianism but we all know that only got defined because Jacob Arminius made a protest against the systematics of Calvinism which, you get the idea by now.

But let's go further back and consider the flip side of celebrity.  How many heresies from the early church have some celebrity advocate?  Arius, Marcion, Montanus, Pelagius, Apollinarus, Macedonius I, Nestorius, do these names ring any bells?  Famous heresies have had celebrity advocates and there have been Christians who have become celebrities opposing them.  There are, of course, Christians who became celebrities for being despots and tyrants, too.  Celebrity is a double-edged sword, one can be widely celebrated but also widely defamed.  You can't really have one without the other, and it's a bit disingenuous to try to have the cake and eat it, too.  In terms of Christian greatness is the celebrity pastor really "more gifted" and "used by God to bless others" than the janitor who cleans up the bathrooms at a supermarket?  I don't think we can realistically say that that's the case.  

Proverbs does tell us that if there is a person who is skillful in work that person will stand before rulers and not obscure people.  That proverb is in there, but that janitor cleaning sinks and toilets won't be first in line to see the CEO or the primary teaching pastor at a megachurch no matter how wonderfully those sinks and toilets get cleaned.  If you do exceptional work you may get to serve exceptional people.  If you choose to see whomever you work for as exceptional enough to warrant exceptional work the odds "may" be better you will do exceptional work.  Of course in the end you or I may just be average and we should not feel so very ashamed if average is what we are. 

Instead of selectively defending celebrity for the people who are on our team let's forget about that.  Let's remember what Paul wrote to a church that was riven with factions and conflicts because of loyalty to celebrities:

Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

When we seriously make a case that celebrity is generally a sign of greater skill, blessings, and gifts from God just for our favorites and not in general don't we run a risk of saying that what Paul wrote to the celebrity-crazed Christians in Corinth shouldn't be taken to heart?

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