Playing Celebrity Christian Bingo with ‘US Weekly’
Miley Cyrus, in an April 2009 interview for USA Today, called herself “an intense Christian.” That statement came about a year after her infamous Vanity Fair photo shoot in which the then-15-year-old pop star appeared topless, partially wrapped in a blanket, her exposed back to the camera. The Vanity Fair scandal was followed up with a series of self-shot sexually suggestive photos that found their way to the internet.
In another 2009 interview, trying to distance herself from these incidences, she gave an interview to Christianity Today in which she reaffirmed her profession of faith and admitted making mistakes. Later that year, she could be found dancing on a pole in a pair of very short shorts during her performance at the Teen Choice Awards.
Miley Cyrus is just another in a long line of Christianity-professing celebrities who have done or said things that brought reproach upon the Savior they confess. There’s a sense in which the acts committed or the statements made are not very different than those made by many other professing Christians.
The fact that these professing believers have said and done things that are contrary to Scripture is not my concern. All Christians commit sins; they just don’t draw the same level of attention because not all of us have the same level of public visibility. My goal is not to draw attention to them to serve as reminders to us that we are to live in a manner worthy of the calling which we’ve received (Ephesians 4:1). That application is obvious.
My purpose in drawing our attention to celebrities who profess faith in Christ is to ask, Why do we draw attention to celebrities who profess faith in Christ? In the same way that those on the fringes of Hollywood circles love to get people to notice the fact that they’ve rubbed shoulders with an A-list actor or a chart-topping singer, many evangelicals get a kick out of name dropping. And just like the Tinsel Town hobnobber, the evangelical wants Christianity to look cool by virtue of its celebrity association.
In a culture in which fame is sought after as though it were virtue, the obsession with celebrity can’t help but rub off on evangelicalism. We’re called to be in this world, but not of it. But sometimes slapping a bumper sticker on your car to remind yourself of as much isn’t sufficient. It’s tempting to want to brag to the world that your favorite athlete just thanked Jesus after winning a big game. But really, why should this person’s celebrity status matter?
What do we have to gain by our association? The thought seems to be that we want the culture to see that we’re cool, too. If we’re able to associate our religion with actors or singers who are well-liked, or at least well-known, then we gain their cultural acceptance by proxy. But is cultural acceptance really what we ought to be striving for?
Jesus gave us no advice for how to achieve acceptance from the world in which we live. In John 15:18-19, he told his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own, but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” It seems his expectation of the Christian experience was a little different. The concern Jesus addresses here is not that his followers might be marginalized in society, but that they would be hated.
There’s far more to be lost than gained by associating Christianity with individual celebrities. For every Albert Pujols, who uses the platform given him by his fame to preach the gospel, there are dozens of celebrities who make a living singing songs or making movies that undermine the Christian worldview they would presumably hold to. My concern is that when we recklessly draw attention to a person’s profession of faith, we are linking that person’s actions with belief in Jesus Christ. And for better or worse, that association shapes the way the world thinks about Christianity.
A few years ago while in Italy, I met a Muslim man from North Africa. He was put off from Christianity by the way he saw it portrayed in America. His attention had been drawn to the fact that Britney Spears was quite open about her having been raised in a Baptist church. Her “Christianity”, and by affiliation, America’s “Christianity”, combined with images of the scantily clad pop sensation from magazines and music videos he’d no doubt seen, made our religion an incredible offense in his eyes. The hypocrisy in her public persona was lost on him because he saw a “Christian nation” (the dangers and plain inaccuracy of that term are a topic for another post) taking no action against her behavior. My fear is that his interpretation of Christianity is not unique.
So Evangelicals, stop latching on to and touting every celebrity who calls themselves a Christian. Please at least wait until you’ve heard their testimony and witnessed a public life that adorns the gospel they proclaim. These are the people we want to draw attention to. Not because they’re famous, but because they’re a living testimony to the grace of God.
Christianity is cool not because some actor or pop star claims an affiliation to it; it’s cool because Jesus Christ died on a cross to redeem a fallen people. If you’re looking for someone famous to tell the world you’re associated with, look to him.