Several years ago, in the aftermath of Christian musician Michael English's affair with a backup singer, one Nashville pastor told Billboard's Debra Evans Price: "We dress people up, put make-up on them, have stylists do their hair, put them on a stage in front of thousands of people, shine a spotlight on them, and then expect them to be humble."
And this is the surprising part: We are still surprised when they are not humble or when Christian celebrities fall.
This past February was the ten-year anniversary of the public disgrace of Jimmy Swaggart, who has become a powerful symbol of Christian celebrityism gone wrong. On page 30 of this issue, Randall Balmer recounts a visit to Swaggart's church and reports on a weary evangelist and preacher who has had a hard time forgiving those who were critical of him and who has not been entirely successful at learning from his mistakes.
Swaggart, the media figure, reminds us that the Christian-leader-as-personality cult is dangerous for both the celebrity and his or her followers. Humility is indeed a tall order for those in the seductive glow of the spotlight. Celebrityism, even among Christians, is a snare.
Wisdom demands that we become suspicious of celebrities. A big, red "Be skeptical" sign should flash in our minds whenever we see Christian personalities plastered on our book and magazine covers or hear their smooth voices sweetening our tvs and radios. Skepticism is not cynicism; Paul's poetic description of how love "believes all things" (1 Cor. 13:7) is not an excuse for credulity or blind faith, least of all not in human beings with feet of clay. After all, Jesus admonished us to be "as shrewd as snakes" as we try to be as "innocent as doves" (Matt. 10:16, NIV) in a sinful world. ...1
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