The Paradox of Christian Celebrity

We are currently re-reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. (You can listen to the daily readings from the Rule here on our main website.) It is a chapter that means more and more to me as I see both the possibilities and the challenges inherent in any attempt to live a truthful life. This autumn re-reading happens to coincide with the announcement of the shortlist for the Christian New Media Awards (CNMAC13: see here) which has generated some interesting debate about the nature of Christian celebrity and the place of awards for blogging, tweeting, websites, etc. Let me say straight away that it is the notion of Christian celebrity I want to explore here, not CNMAC or the awards it will be making. An earlier post on social media and humility may also be of interest (see here).

There is a paradox in the whole idea of Christian celebrity, for we all have the idea that Christians ought to be ‘retiring’, shunners of the limelight; but it might not be so paradoxical if we could free the concept of celebrity (= known, honoured, frequented) from the trappings of the celebrity culture we see all around us. To be known as a Christian is something every Christian should aspire to: our whole manner of being should proclaim the fact, not just our words or our dress, and it should be apparent whatever we are doing (cf. St Benedict’s Twelfth Step of Humility). Why then the unease? Is it because there are people who make a business out of their Christianity, who parade their Christianity for ends other than God? People who want to be recognized, applauded, for what is, in fact, a work of grace and not their own doing? Empty vessels making a lot of noise and ultimately proving they are not what they seem or want to seem?

I was pondering this in relation to some popular American preachers and came to the conclusion that we must distinguish between active and passive celebrity, that which is sought and that which is ‘imposed’ —or maybe ‘bestowed’ would be a better word. Popular acclaim is not in itself indicative of anything other than that someone or something has been noticed by others. No outsider will ever really know how truly humble or otherwise an individual may be. We tend to project onto others our own likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, confuse the person with the position/office and generally muddle along as best we can, admiring X and ignoring Y. It is hero worship translated to the religious sphere. The Catholic Church has always known how to handle this, but she prefers her heroes (= saints) dead so she can apply certain tests of authenticity. ‘The good that men do is often interred with their bones’ is indeed true. Hero worship can be useful. It can inspire us to emulate the virtues of others. It can also be harmful, leading to idol-worship, the setting-up of that which is less than God in the place of God.

I am really undecided about Christian celebrity. There is potential for good and potential for harm. Ultimately, it is not the Christian celebrity (= person) who is responsible for what we make of him/her, but we ourselves. That surely is the paradox at the heart of this question: what we choose to honour may be Christian or it may not. It is we who need humility to keep us grounded in truth, love and service. What do you think?

Note on CNMAC13
Do have a look at the conference programme and, if you can, attend. You will learn  a lot. This blog was nominated by someone, I don’t know who, and is on the shortlist for Blogger of the Year. Check out the other entries. They are well worth reading if you don’t already know them.


10 thoughts on “The Paradox of Christian Celebrity”

  1. I suspect that those seeking celebrity for it’s own sake, are losers in the humility stakes.

    The other day, I was watching the announcement of Military Awards for those who’d carried out, heroic, life saving or life preserving acts in tours of Afghanistan.

    While the citations for their awards, quite rightly highlighted that what they’d done had take courage and bravery, well above what might be humanly expected, all of the recipients on interview by the media exhibited a high degree of humility of deprecation in respect of themselves and attributed what they had done to ‘just doing their job’ or helping their mates.

    Their embarrassment as being singled out was obvious.

    Somehow this restores my faith in human nature and humility. Their supreme acts of sacrifice, risking their very lives for others goes to the heart of what Jesus give us about those who lay down their lives for their friends.

    At the heart of celebrity needs to be a depth of humility that blesses the Grace of God that has given them that acclaim, not a self satisfied selfishness that they’ve done it all themselves.

  2. How striking it is in Matthew’s gospel (chapter 5) that it’s the Beatitudes that are immediately followed by those injunctions to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world !

    “Blessed are the pure in heart…, blessed are the peacemakers…, blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…, blessed are you when people revile you… You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot [‘cannot’, he says, not ‘shouldn’t’] be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

    It’s just as you say… See the good works and give God the glory.

    • PS St Paul, of course, is splendid on the subject of boasting too. There’s plenty to reflect on in 2 Cor. ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. For it is not those who commend themselves that are approved, but those whom the Lord commends’ (10. 17-18). And then there’s the glorious chapter 12, culminating in the Lord’s words, ‘My grace is sufficient for you.’ (How utterly scriptural the Rule of St Benedict is !)

  3. As I was reading, the word “balance” came to mind. Balance in how we view a “famous” Christian; balance in how we present ourselves. I haven’t attained balance in the sense that it’s something I have. Rather, it’s something I work at every day.

  4. Sr Catherine your blog has got me really thinking today. My mind has turned to 1 Corinthians 12 and the passages about the Body of Christ.
    Christians are all part of that body. Some are hands, others feet, eyes, ears and so on.There are parts of the body which are so personal that they are kept covered for modesty sake. In contrast there are parts of the body on public display, naked and exposed for all to see. Christian celebrities may come in to that category of Christ’s Supernatural body on earth. Some parts of the body have to be visible for all to see!
    Christian celebrities are a very special part of The Lords body on earth.
    Curiously I have noticed in the media reports of the Middle East that there is little said about the large number of Martyres who have laid down their lives in Syria Egypt and elsewhere. Perhaps they are part of Christ body which are modestly covered over,away from the gaze of the World.
    These are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. Thank you for bearing with me ^.^ >:)

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