Christianity, Russell Wilson, and Celebrity Culture
For the last couple of days an interview Russell Wilson did with San Diego’s Rock Church has been trending on Facebook. Why? Because of the revelation that he and songstress girlfriend, Ciara, were practicing abstinence.
The video was linked to by a local Fox affiliate with the headline: Ciara and I aren’t having sex after God spoke to me.
I was immediately curious how people would respond to this story. Would they be entranced by a salacious story about a local hero? Would they be interested in his faith because he’s so high profile? I skipped over the story and went straight to the comments.
They didn’t disappoint:
- “I love Russell so much that I don’t even care that he’s lying right now.”
- “I quit having sex with my girlfriend after Santa Claus spoke to me.”
- “Good on ya Russell Wilson!! God will bless you both for this decision. You have our support and prayers!!! Thank you for being transparent a real hero for young boys to emulate!!!”
- “As long as he hands the ball to Beast, I don’t care. Go Hawks!”
- “Hahahahaha….f’ing christian horse crap. God had time to tell wilson not to have sex, but he didnt have time to tell Sandusky not to rape kids in the locker room…ridiculous”
The comments went on and on. Most of them were from non-Christians who couldn’t care less about Wilson’s religious views, followed by the comments of Christians who were excited about Russell’s positive Christian example.
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Christian spirituality and celebrity culture, and the way the church flocks to any famous person who makes the most tenuous profession of interest in Jesus Christ.
The kingdom overturns the status quo
The whole New Testament narrative overturns the world’s idea of value. When Jesus shows up, he reshuffles the deck. Suddenly the last (those living on the edge of respectable society) are first, and the first (the prominent) are last. The key to distinctive lies in service, and Christ promises to exalt the humble.
This idea was completely foreign when Jesus shared it, and it’s no less foreign now. Because our culture places fame on the highest of pedestals, Christians tend to rush to any pseudo-celebrity that promises Jesus and the gospel a platform.
This rushing after fame is questionable for a number of reasons:
- It ultimately undermines the gospel. I remember working in Christian retail with over a million dollars in inventory and not having a single book on missions, but the biography section would be filled with the latest celebrity offerings. This fact communicates something about our perception of the kingdom. It’s easy to infer that God wants famous people with huge platforms from which they can talk about Jesus. We tend to forget that the gospel is personified in the everyday faithfulness of normal people.
- It sets people up for failure. Celebrities are just regular people — under a great amount of stress. Famous Christians are constantly being told that if they’re not using their fame to spread the gospel, they’re undermining the very reason God has blessed them with popularity. The ones who take this to heart feel like they have to turn every moment into an opportunity to talk about their faith, but what happens when they struggle?
Obviously Russell Wilson wasn’t as forthright about marital troubles in the press as he was about his faith, and why would he be? But when news hit that he was getting a divorce, Christians lost their minds. I remember reading some of the meanest nonsense from disappointed Christians who felt that he had “thrown away his Christian witness.” And like every Christian celebrity, Russell was strung up by the very people who, just the day before, was so glad he was speaking up for truth. Look at Justin Bieber or the Jonas Brothers trying to negotiate youth’s rocky road and a vocal Christian witness in front of millions with the temptations that come with celebrity.
- It confuses people. Like the rest of us, people of renown tend to filter Christian themes through their own experience. So God’s goodness gets conflated with lifestyles and opportunities that most of us will never know or experience — but we all long for. So when Russel Wilson gives his testimony, it’s about a 14-year-old that Jesus dramatically visits in a dream to foreshadow the future being prepared for him. What’s that future? It’s an NFL quarterback career and a big platform to share the gospel. I don’t mean to pick on Russell; it’s just the example that’s fresh in my mind. A lot of Christian celeb bios have the same theme — God preparing people for the spotlight. But people need inspiration for their workaday lives. They need to understand that the life God often prepares for us is a quiet one working with our hands (1 Thess. 4:11).
Celebrity is big business
Christian publishing and media outlets help to muddy the water when it comes to Christian celebrities, and famous pastors, musicians, and (yes) even bloggers. Don’t kid yourself, Christian magazines know that a Beth Moore cover story is going to sell a lot more copies than one featuring Luci Shaw. Should it be that way? Probably not, but it’s reality.
When it comes to hawking their wares, there’s no difference between Christian companies and their secular counterparts. There’s value in having well-known celebrities endorsing their products. The very weakness that leads the Corinthians to argue about which early-church leader they should be following (1 Cor. 3:4–9) helps inspire people to lay down thousands of dollars if they think it will help them study the Bible like their favorite celebrity pastor.
I hate to undermine anyone’s naiveté, but a lot of Christian marketing is done like it is anywhere else. One famous person trades their audience for an audience they don’t have access to. A celebrity pastor agrees to tweet out a recommendation (often from their Twitter account run by an intern) for a company’s product if the company agrees to place an ad for the pastor’s book on their Facebook page. Then an employee with the company ghostwrites the endorsement for their product and sends it to the pastor to tweet out. It can all be pretty disingenuous.
Look at Fox affiliate’s subject line for that Russell Wilson story again: Ciara and I aren’t having sex after God spoke to me. It’s a brilliant subject line. It appeals to Christians who want to someone famous they admire to stand up for righteousness, and to everyone else it it offers details about the sex lives of celebrities with an interesting “God talks to me” angle. But the truth is that it’s a masterful subject line created to get clicks and grow ad revenue. . . and that’s all it truly is.
Capitalizing on fame
You see it with celebrities all the time. Interviews meander away from the actor or singer’s craft into a discussion of politics, foreign policy, and spirituality. Most people don’t have the ability to see take what their favorite celebrity says with a grain of salt, and the celebrities themselves, asked too often about issues outside of their purview, begin to believe they have insight beyond the average person.
This often happens with the famous Christian. Does a well-known Christian have more theological acumen than the average person? Probably not. But that doesn’t stop them from weighing in on all sorts of issues. At least when Bono does it, he uses the currency of his platform to point at causes and needs that need to be addressed. Too often, famous Christians use themselves as an object lesson.
In explaining his Super Bowl loss to the Patriots, Russell told Rock Church in San Diego that God spoke to him afterward the interception that cost the Seahawks the game, “And on the third step God says to me, ‘I’m using you . . . I want to see how you respond. But most importantly, I want them to see how you respond.”
Did God say that to Russell? Maybe. It sounds like the kind of thing God might say. If God did say that, did he intend Russell to tell everyone about it? Probably not. If God wanted to make an example out out of Russell’s response, then the response speaks for itself. The minute that Russell draws attention to his response as God’s point all along, he inadvertently points to himself. It’s a dangerous position that Christian stars find themselves in when using their fame to promote God’s kingdom — because ultimately they become their own illustration and the hero of the narrative.
Fame is always about public relations and putting the best face on everything. The struggle we all experience is an important part of healthy spirituality. How can you have a spirituality that whitewashes all the actual failure and only has a glittering image as a platform. Again I think back to Russell’s failed marriage.
I don’t fault him for having a marriage that failed (nor do I have room to). But it points to the danger of using Christian fame as a platform, because everyone sees the celebrity as a shining example of faith and they don’t get to see the real challenges the person faces. So when a failure finally comes to the surface, it’s a shock and threatens to undermine everything they’ve said. When, in truth, our failure is an important part of our growing spirituality.
But handlers and agents want all of the good at the surface and to hide all of the bad. It’s not healthy for the celebrity, the audience, or the gospel.
Is God a respecter of persons?
Is fame wrong? Not necessarily. Musicians, bloggers, poets, and other members of the creative community are simply using their gifts, and provided their work resonates with people, they can grow and audience of people who appreciate their work. If someone can become known for something they do excellently, that’s fantastic.
Where it becomes wrong is when we elevate the individual in our minds, and thereby encourage them to elevate themselves as well. I remember standing with a youth group in a packed arena for a DC Talk concert and thinking, “there’s no way that this kind of adulation doesn’t screw you up.” We’re not meant to be elevated and objectified. There aren’t many of us (if any of us) that can truly handle it.
We’re meant to live in community where we can be authentic and open with each other. Fame encourages isolation and is too often inauthentic and manufactured. Keith Green’s wife once quoted him as saying that Christian fame was hard because you’re elevated even higher for trying to remain humble. It’s a no win situation.
Maybe we need to be making heroes out of the people in our midst who we truly know. Maybe if we find some renown doing something we love doing, we should do it the best we can and that’s our legacy. I’ll tell you quite honestly, I am more touched by Russell Wilson’s regular trips to the children’s hospital than I am in most of the stuff he says about God.
Perhaps we need to quit expecting the famous to be spokepeople for God, and let them just be people. And maybe, just maybe, we should be seeing the normal, everyday heroes in our own lives.
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