In light of the firestorm over one Hong Kong pop celebrity turned preacher and his recent controversial (heretical to some) remarks and the new trend of celebrity testimony and overexposure for their “faith”, I’ve got to come out of the woodworks to say something, simply because I’m known (to some “people”) as the big mouth of HK theological circle.
I’ve read a recent blog about the fact that Augustine thought of conversion of Victorinus, a Roman Neoplatonic philosopher and intellectual, to be a real victory (no pun), and that this “influence” is necessary. I believe Augustine is wrong. My opinion differs radically and I’ll talk about why in this blog.
The celebrity culture all over evangelicalism, whether it is in Asia or North America, whether it is about some defector from Tienanmen Square or a great athlete who prays after he scores, is killing the church at the moment. In the evangelical world, this logic is popular, “If so-and-so can be converted, he can influence so many for Jesus.” This logic is flawed based on our results. Has there been significant church growth from so many celebrity conversion? No!
In my 49 years of life on this earth and having been raised as a Christian, I can honestly say that many celebrities have been propped up too early. Some have done well simply because they were not new converts, and have merely carried on living out their faith even after they became famous. Many new convert celebrities had been welcomed “all-access” into many pulpits just because of their status. When they mess up, people make excuses simply because they are celebrities. No one wants to see a hero (i.e. idol?) being propped up only to stumble and fall. According one blogger, if the same standard is applied to all baby Christians, the church would have been filled with heresies by now. The problem is deeper than the mere rise or fall of a celebrity.
I want to bring attention to a different and more positive take on this whole idea. I do not blame the celebrity! I think many are shocked at this statement. What do people expect from enthusiastic but immature and new believers (I’m talking about some celebrities, not all) who have been handed the spotlight immediately? We must not blame the newly born-again celebrity. I blame the pastors who led them to Christ. Yes, I do.
The problem is the leadership of the church and the kind of culture they have created or should I say, the kind of idols they create. The reason many fall is because they have not gone through the normal and humble life of a learner. Some have not even repented of any of the wrongs they’ve committed and, in some cases, continue to commit. Instead, they become teachers immediately, even before they learn anything about their faith. Since they’re used to the public hanging on their every word, they continue to use that to influence others “for Christ” except they’re unaware that their every word misrepresents their faith. It’s like me switching profession from being an academic lecturer who has lectured only on Christianity to being a lecturer on computers. Do I expect others to listen to me about computers? I hope not, but maybe some will. I’ll be doing a disservice to them if I talk about computers. If Madonna endorses Obama, should I listen to her? Only if she has a PhD in economics or political science. What does Madonna know about politics anyway. The same thoughtlessness is happening in Christianity. I do not deny that these people are influencing people for faith, but what kind of influence and what kind of faith though? I really shouldn’t be blogging about this because what I’m saying is as basic as the food we eat but because the church has gotten away from the basics so far that I need to write.
How should we handle celebrity converts? Should we even ask such a question? I guess we should since we’ve gotten so far away from biblical idea of spiritual growth. I say to handle them in the same way we handle any new convert. Just because they’re famous, it does not give them the convenient rights to speak publicly for the faith. They should go through learning and discipleship like everyone else. They need to get their theological foundation so that when they do influence, they can influence the right way rather than the way some Christian celebrities are influencing the society right now. Some are not even gifted teachers of their own faith. If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers and discipleship, everyone should be treated equally in our churches. There is no “red carpet” in church (well, except for the picture I uploaded above)! I’m unsure which pastors are the ones who led this particular Hong Kong celebrity to Christ, but they are almost entirely responsible for the mess we’re in right now. What then is the problem?
The problems are two. First, many pastors want to use celebrities to boost church attendance, exposure, and in many cases, to boost the financial bottom line. This happens both in some (not all) mega-churches in Hong Kong and in North America. Second, many think that conversion number is the basis for all success, no matter how we convert. Both problems are related and can be summarized into one single concept: quick-fix pragmatism. If it works, it must be right! Many think that the Church is very different from society, but we aren’t. We are just as secular in our pragmatic mindset. Many churches are exactly like society. Are there exceptions?
People not only point to Augustine’s example Victorinus, but they also point to Paul, as how celebrity influence was good for the gospel. This naive view misses the mark. First, we have no evidence at all that Victorinus’ conversion was influential at all, other than Augustine’s own words. Surely, his conversion probably represented more of the Christian victory over pagan intellectuals in Augustine’s society rather than merely for evangelistic effects. Augustine’s writing then was merely his own personal opinion. Why shouldn’t Victorinus impress Augustine? After all, both of them had Neoplatonic leanings. Augustine’s opinion can’t be taken at face value no more than any text without its historical contexts. Even if Victorinus was influential, Augustine would surely scoff at the educational level of most of these Christian celebrities as societal influence. They’re no Victorinus. Augustine was looking to change culture and remake society through intellectual change. Many of such celebrities lack the education necessary to change the culture, even when the media give them all access.
Regarding our interpretation of Augustine, we should also look a bit deeper. Augustine himself was no minor success as a prodigy of rhetoric and great learning even before he converted. He was a a huge influence in church history. Much of Augustine’s success was probably not merely due to his worldly talent, but the mentorship Ambrose gave him as he grew into maturity of church leadership. Augustine is the positive example of proper discipleship needed even if a new convert seems fit to be leader.
Paul’s case is very different than Augustine’s Victorinus. While Victorinus’ situation is merely an opinion of a respected (but surely flawed) churchman showing concerns of his time, Paul’s call, according to his own letters and the early church witness, is exceptional. As a professional student of Paul (my PhD is in Paul), I dare say that Paul had studied Judaism from which so-called Christianity grew more than most people in his era. He was also a genius. His “conversion” (I hate that term because he was really “called”) did not try to create a new religion. He was basically reforming what he knew. This sentiment is very clear in Galatians 1-2 (part of my PhD). He made it very clear that his call was a very unusual case. What he knew far surpasses what most of us know. He had enough knowledge for many geniuses today to write books about.
No one today can compare with Paul. Using exception as a rule has already ruined evangelicalism. I think we need to go back to basic instead of worshipping quick-fix pragmatism. We need to go back to the hard work of discipleship or risk losing any semblance of the gospel we have left. Or we can just stop pretending that discipleship really matters and just go the secular route. Hypocrisy, after all, is both repulsive to Christians, and especially to non-Christians. We can start there.