What Justin Bieber is to a bevy of giddy schoolgirls, John Piper is to star-struck seminoids. My first meeting with Piper was a brutal guerilla ambush. He was taking a tour of the seminary library where I worked, unaware that he was being stalked like paparazzi prey. As he entered the elevator I stealthily shot up the emergency staircase and was waiting for him when the doors opened. His experienced entourage was no match for my shamelessness. Before they could wriggle him out of my request, I had him. So Piper, in the hallway, with one sprained finger in a splint (I kid you not), leaning on the back of his bent-over assistant, patiently autographed the proffered copy of Desiring God before retreating. I felt dirty. I had treated a man I deeply respect like a rubber stamp. And I vowed that my next meeting would be infused with a modicum of dignity. [A goal I almost accomplished. See next week’s post “The Day John Piper Touched My Chin.”]
Let me be clear: Piper is not to blame for my giddiness at meeting him. I am. It’s groupies like me who create the need for bodyguards. Hagiolatry is seldom the fault of the venerated saint. Mary is turning in her grave over the teaching that she was “assumed into heaven.” I imagine meek Moses rolling his eyes at the release of Spielberg’s “Prince of Egypt.” In the same way John MacArthur squirms as he endures florid conference-speaker introductions that rob him of eternal reward. CJ Mahaney deflects effusive compliments by his trademark humble replies, making you feel dumb that you misdirected your praise. And Mark Dever dilutes attention by memorizing the name of everyone who ever approaches him, which makes them feel significant and thereby appropriately blurring the line between commoner and celebrity. Paul Washer simply delivers a verbal head butt to the brown nose of any flatterer. Francis Chan temporarily relocates to Thailand to escape the temptation to revel in his new-found fame (a curious move that will undoubtedly elicit a future Cripplegate post).
With the possible exception of Mark Driscoll—and Acts29ers I’m sure will correct me if I have misread overconfidence for narcissism—every Christian “celebrity” I’ve met has seemed genuinely uncomfortable with attention directed at them. By the way, I am aware of how ironic my name-dropping must sound, but please remember that I confessed up front that I am part of the problem in many different ways.
One famous anti-celebrity, Derek Webb, observed in one of his less controversial songs that Satan’s strategy in contemporary evangelicalism is to turn “shepherds into sheep and leaders into celebrities,” (the half-rhyme sounds better when he sings it). Why is this Satanic? Because it is the opposite of what Jesus taught us to do.
Rom 12: 16 “…Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” You don’t see conference attendees flocking around the lowly convention center staff for a photo opp.
James 2: 1 “My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. …4 have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Do you ask your church ushers to sign your Bible? Me neither.
Matt 23: 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. …10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. My wife tongue-in-cheekily suggested that I put that verse on my business card.
It’s hard to glean from these passages how Jesus could have meant that it’s ok for us to tolerate a church culture in which Bibles are being autographed by preachers. It’s difficult to imagine our Instructor smiling at the blogs and Twiteratti that elevate some of his servants and criticize others, which is tantamount to the very I-am-of-Paul-ism that the Holy Spirit condemned through Paul’s own hand in 1 Cor 3.
How does undue adulation happen? When we focus too closely on the instrument we miss the hand that is wielding it. A weekend golfer who researches which clubs Tiger Woods uses, is missing the point. The contribution of his putter to Tiger’s success is negligible. St. Paul (excuse the title), somewhat of a reluctant celebrity himself, tried to point this out to his fans: 1 Cor 1:12 What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? …3:5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.
I don’t think the responsibility to cure our celebrity culture falls to the celebrities. They are mostly victims. I mean, if Mahaney refused to autograph your copy of Humility, would you admire him for practicing what he preaches; or would you think he’s being a jerk? Exactly. I like MacArthur’s solution. When I asked him to sign my MacStudy Bible, he included a verse reference under his name, which I received as a subtle and good-natured rebuke: 2 Cor 4:7 But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.
The remedy to this disease must be sitting in the pocket of the populous. We groupies are the ones that need to stop admiring jars of clay and rather adore the treasure of Christ within. I doubt this post will fix what’s broken. Maybe Challies.com will take a stab at it with his scalpel of discernment. But then again if he successfully started a grass roots movement to then Tim Challies would reach celebrity status as the guy who ended Christian celebrity. You see the conundrum.
So instead of inviting a panel of renowned experts on the topic to pontificate while we snap photos of them, I open the floor to you… How can we cure Evangelical hagiolatry?