Christian Saints vs. Cultural Celebrities
The deaths of Steve Jobs and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth reveal the church's captivity to cultural values.

Earlier this year, on October 5th, an influential and visionary leader died. His life forever changed the American experience, and his legacy will be felt for generations to come. An ability to see a future many thought impossible marked his work even as he inspired others to dream of that future. "No" was an unacceptable answer for this man; the status quo was meant to be shattered. Countless people see the world and its possibilities in profoundly different ways because of his passion and drive.

In a strange twist, October 5th was also the day Steve Jobs died.

The first man, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, was pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabaman, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Shuttlesworth was a catalyst at seemingly every stage of the movement for racial equality: forming the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference, participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, joining the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961, and pushing for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For his efforts, at least three attempts were made on his life. When his home was bombed in 1956, the young pastor boldly claimed, "God made me dynamite proof."

How many people in your church have heard of Fred Shuttlesworth? Too few, surely. How many sermons, in the Sundays following his death, cited his as a life worth imitating? Not many, I'm afraid. In contrast, I have a hunch that the life and death of Steve Jobs was fodder for countless sermon illustrations in the days following his death. This, I believe, is a missed opportunity. Whatever their many accomplishments may be, our culture's heroes—and Jobs was that and more to many—should not always be our heroes.

At least two factors make it difficult to spot saints like Fred Shuttlesworth in a world that celebrates—or, as Skye has pointed out worships—Steve Jobs. First, the huge disparity in media coverage devoted to these men's deaths meant the civil rights pioneer and pastor was barely a footnote to the entrepreneur and CEO. This shouldn't surprise us. Steve Jobs is the archetype of the American dream: an adopted child who grew up in humble surroundings; a non-conformist who went his own way; a self-made man with fabulous wealth; an optimistic prophet whose technological wizardry promised solutions to our greatest problems. Shuttlesworth, on the other hand, was an 89-year-old pastor—a pastor!—whose day had long passed. Even at the height of his influence, far more people were opposed or indifferent to his message than agreed with him when he said things like, "We intend to kill segregation or be killed by it."

Displaying 1–9 of 9 comments


December 22, 2011  11:49am

Here is a twist from the pew. I would have rather heard about Shuttlesworth-so would most of the people I know in our church. WE are not some dumb downed stupid people. If you would sit and talk with us-you would find out that while we admired Steve Jobs's intelluct and abilities, our lives have been transformed by the living church of Jesus-our sunday school teachers, our youth group leaders, our parents best friends who believed in us when we were wild teens, our mentors, life group leaders, our friends who sat with us when our parents died, encouraged us. Our heros are not the cultural heros, they our the flesh and blood saints of the church. I am finding these articles somewhat patronizing to the average church member, maybe even arrogant.

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December 19, 2011  9:28pm

Steven w.–I guess any pastor who cares about the poor of our inner city communities these days and becomes conscious of the needs (and heroes) of that community will become a target for guys like you. Can't we who claim to know the Lord in His mercy afford to be a little more generous and gracious with each other? David, good job! Keep telling us about the real heroes. So many throughout history are unsung and known only to God. Their glory will be revealed on His Day, when "many who are first will be last, and the last first."

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steven w.

December 16, 2011  7:47pm

Was Shuttlesworth "saintly" or just another political and prideful man? Another political and proud person is Pastor John Hagee. I doubt whether Mr. Swanson would apply the appellation of 'Saint' To Mr. Hagee. I am left to ponder if what makes a 'Saint' of a preacher to Mr. Swanson is simply whether the preacher is to the left or right of him.

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December 16, 2011  4:00pm

David is correct in pointing to the shallowness in most believers in their understanding and awareness of current heroes of the faith. But I think his analysis of why this is true and his solution to solve it is short sighted. The key element of his solution points to the key element of the problem and only serves to reinforce the problem for further generations. "It falls to us—especially those of us with a microphone on Sundays—to make sure their names and stories live on." The phrase "…those of us with a microphone on Sundays" so aptly describes all the tradition driven assumptions about how God is going to funnel His wisdom for his people through the one guy with the microphone who doesn't work in the market place. The rest of the people are forever incapable of any substantive spiritual value. It's assumed God really doesn't talk to them very much that they would know about heroes to build up the household of faith when they gather. Most everyone likes this comfortable one man with the microphone thing, but it's tragic disfunction to accomplish the high aspirations of God for His people should be totally obvious. But instead the best the microphone guys can do is try and tweak the current program to some how improve the sad realities. God's Word is so clear that He is dispensing His wisdom through ALL His people to deliver in "one another" dynamic. God's people are severely dumbed down when they refuse direct listening and direct expression to each other and instead outsource it all to one guy with a microphone. There are few exceptions to this, but praise God there are some. Let's consider… "…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching." No microphone guy here.

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Michael J.

December 16, 2011  2:20pm

Good thing God is no respecter of persons.

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Mike Gantt

December 15, 2011  6:09pm

All the attention given to Steve Jobs at his passing makes me wonder if the world similarly mourned the passing of the architect of the Tower of Babel. Surely it was the technological feat of its day - that period's equivalent of an iPhone. Oh, we don't know the name of that architect? Similarly, Jobs' name will eventually be forgotten. We, however, serve a name that will never be forgotten: Jesus Christ our Lord.

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December 15, 2011  1:07pm

these things would probably not be as big of a problem if we applied the same rigor to the living. Tebow, anyone?

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December 15, 2011  11:32am

A similar scenario to August of 1997 (I believe) when Princess Diana and Mother Teresa passed away on the same day. Only heaven will truly measure the impact of a life. But this post hits the nail on the head when it comes to preachers' role in telling the right stories.

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December 15, 2011  10:41am

On the flip side, of which I'm sure Mr. Swanson is vaguely aware of...though, yes, Mr. Job's was a celebrity, his "glowing" admirers were suddenly disabused of their glowing "all things Stevie!" when the truth of the man came out...and what a surprise that was. Granted, it is considered impolite to speak ill of the dead, but also, in my opinion, it is also disingenous to speak to highly of someone who didn't earn that position other than to ascend to the heights on the backs of others efforts. So perhaps, it is good that Mr. Shuttlesworth will be known as a solid worker of the lord, a "celebrity" to those whom he championed, and yet, to the greater twitterized world, an unknown. Lord knows how ugly it can get when celebrity is thrown to the masses.

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