A reasonably friendly article appeared on Vox: The rise of the star-studded, Instagram-friendly evangelical church: Chris Pratt, Justin Bieber, and the “cool” Christian celebrity. The article mainly discusses Pratt and Bieber and their place in a new pantheon of believing stars that grace Hollywood and the music industry. It also discusses the church environment where these stars rise to fame and present a new cool Christianity that has a certain mass-appeal. But do they? I’m not convinced that Hillsong Church, Zoe Church, or Churchome are all that new. Their leaders may don fedoras while their stars seem to be apolitical. Under the hood, however, these religious outlets are touting the same fundamentalism and authoritarianism that have been the hallmark of evangelicalism since the 1950s.
I won’t judge Pratt. I’m happy for him to do what he does. Same with Bieber. Please, let the kid behave. As for the new kind of cool evangelical religion that’s being advertised, I’d say the following:
1. This new type of evangelicalism is not very different from the old type, apart from perhaps, as the article says, the hardened stance on politics and the crazy ass support for Trump. That is to say, this evangelicalism is marked by the same tension as Billy Graham’s evangelicalism in the 70s. On the one hand, this evangelicalism looks cool. In its outlook, it has adapted to our modern consumerist culture. Underneath the surface, however, you will find a tenacious fundamentalist theology that is based on a so-called inerrant Scripture. It is a theology that subconsciously mixes a flawed theology and an incomplete hermeneutics with its absolute claims about what the Bible teaches. Evangelical theology is largely silent on justice, for instance. Also, the authoritarian structure of this faith still leads to widespread mental abuse (and worse). The adulation these new stars receive plays into this authoritarian structure while their mass-appeal masks its fundamentalism.
2. And this brings me to the next point: power. There is a strong tendency in evangelicalism to attempt to grow through strength, to use power to fulfill its purpose, to influence and persuade to obtain its objectives. Numerical strength and cultural influence are more important than sacrificial presence. This evangelicalism seeks to gain political dominance in order to legislate its version of Christian morality and tap into the limitless resources of Hollywood to reach growth without the cross. That is why these pastors look like movie stars. That is what these stars are all about. I’m not talking about these stars individually or what motivates them but about how they function within the larger strategy of this new form of evangelicalism.
An important distinction can be made in theology between the theology of the cross and the theology of glory. And this distinction is very helpful to understand what is at stake here. The theology of glory is of all times and places. It always rears its head in an attempt to subdue the theology of the cross. It tries to achieve glory both in terms of power and influence but also in terms of domesticating God. In the name of God people are subjugated and in the name of God such a theology proclaims its own version of God as God’s will. Evangelicalism has with its doctrine of inerrancy and its current political theology a lot of characteristics of such a theology of glory. It may look benign, but like most advertising, it sells you a fiction.
Opposed to that is the theology of the cross which does not domesticate God and does not make absolute claims on behalf (i.e. in place of) of God. It does not seek power but lives out the weakness of God as revealed in Christ. The cross of Christ expresses a divine No against human pride and self-sufficiency. It teaches people not to seek power but to look away from oneself. That is, it enables, facilitates, and practices self-giving. It does not seek glory but humbly seeks to be there for the neighbor.
The article also addresses the claim by many within this new celebrity evangelicalism that Christianity is not about religion but a relationship with Jesus. In the article Carl Lenz, Hillsong pastor and personal friend of Bieber is quoted as saying: “Religion has no power. But a relationship with God is a superpower.” On the face of it, this sounds attractive but notice that the focus is still on power, namely superpower. What results is a faith that is still a religion because it subverts the dynamism of the cross and the relationship with Christ into a fundamentalist legalism no matter how jazzy it looks or how much the word religion is avoided.
As for having a personal relationship with God. Christianity is not about having a personal relationship with God but about being reconciled to God through Christ (which is the symbol of transformation) and following Christ back into the world in service of the neighbor (which is not a symbol but the relationship with the other). God is the symbol. Christ is the other who addresses us from outside our centripetal self-involvement. The world is the stage of God’s love for the world expressed in and through our bodies for those in need. That, my friend, is Christianity. I don’t need no stars for that.
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Image: Edward Cisneros, Unsplash