I remember rather vividly the moment that I decided I never wanted to sing another contemporary praise and worship song again. Back in the church that my wife and I call home — the church in which we were married, where many of our close friends still fill the pews every Sunday — reading the lyrics to Chris Tomlin’s “The Famous One” projected onto the big screen at the front of the sanctuary and hearing the lyrics passionately sung by everyone around me, I checked out.

“You are the Lord / The famous one / Famous one,” goes the refrain. “Great is your fame / Beyond the earth.”

Undoubtedly, God is famous. He’s very, very popular. In fact, his book is a perpetual best seller. He’s the subject of songs and stories, the object of prayers and praise. Yes, God is famous.

But who cares?

It seems to me that emphasizing God’s fame week after week in churches across America by those singing this and other Tomlinist anthems, tells us more about ourselves than about our God. We love fame. It is so valuable to us in fact that we feel the need to remind God of his popularity. Certainly, there’s biblical precedence for this, “The Famous One” features some more traditional fame language as well, “Great is your name / In all the earth.” But, it’d be difficult to argue against the notion that our love for fame, and the importance we ascribe to it, has reached a crescendo.

So much of our culture reflects this emphasis — from celebrity reality television to award shows to the glossy magazines that scream from supermarket checkout lines — but perhaps nothing so brings our passion for fame home as social networking. Think about it: just by creating an account, an ordinary person can have followers, friends, and fans. Like celebrities, we needn’t know all these people. Upon accepting a request or gaining a new follower, the “friend” becomes a number — one more digit in an ever increasing follower count.

I’m not exempted from this, as I’m reminded every time I pridefully mention my Twitter follower count and my wife rolls her eyes. I know, in that moment, that I’ve been sucked in to the same sad cycle I often decry. There’s nothing inherently valuable about fame, and further, it often distorts a very natural desire to be loved by someone into an obsession with being loved by everyone.

This is why I quit singing songs that recast God’s glory in terms of our 21st century American ideals, and why I immediately felt squeamish when I opened a new book by Toni Birdsong and Tami Heim entitled @stickyJesus.

The book’s dedication states that it is “For J.C.” There was a moment, I confess, when I hoped they didn’t mean the J.C., not because he doesn’t deserve to be the subject of a book dedication, but precisely because he was hiply addressed by his initials. Painful memories of youth group chants, “Whose down with J.C.?” made me shudder. The next line in the dedication makes it clear who they mean, “The Only Famous One.”

Again with the famous one!

As I continued through the book, reading chapters that attempt to explain the significance of the times we live in, that tell the gospel story in the language of social media and marketing, that charge readers to take to the internet with their message, all before going into strange detail explaining how to actually use sites like Twitter and Facebook, it made perfect sense.

Evangelicalism is fraught with a desire to appropriate the world’s values — in this case fame and social media — for the purposes of sharing the gospel. And, in the hands of two skilled marketers, @stickyJesus is able to do it quite convincingly. Though, I’m not sure who their target audience is, except to feel certain it’s not me. The authors explain the benefits as well as the pitfalls of social media use in rather elementary terms; I can’t help but fear that they’re training up a whole generation of empty nesters who will take to Facebook en masse to intersperse Bible verses among pictures of their grandkids.

To their credit, the authors are aware of how their effort to market the gospel online might be perceived. In a section entitled “Just a little marketing 101,” they tell the reader that she is in the “Kingdom business,” before self consciously adding “No, we are not ‘selling’ Jesus, so pipe down and stay with the story.” But, of course, the story is selling Jesus. “Sticky,” the authors explain several times, is a hip marketing term: “It’s the secret sauce in an advertising message that helps it hit the mark, get attention, and move people to act.”

So, the Tomlin song and @stickyJesus, with their emphasis on recasting the gospel in light of fame and popularity, are two tiny drops in the gigantic bucket of evangelical sub-culture, the overall effect of which makes Christianity feel cheap and temporary rather than meaningful and lasting. Evangelical culture is mired by disingenuousness; the message may be “sticky,” but the culture is anything but.

Sometimes this is just kind of funny, as in Contemporary Christian Music, trend following books, or hokey movies. But, in other arenas, this shallowness can be very serious. In politics, for example, it often means that a politician with an eye for the evangelical vote can simply market himself to this shifting demographic, saying the right words and phrases, speaking out against the same wedge issues, modeling back to them the insincerity they propagate.

We all want to be famous it’s true, though not necessarily something we should be proud of. And, yes, God actually is famous. But, utilizing this desire for fame as the next big marketing tool in the J.C. campaign is at best disingenuous, and at worst potentially damaging to the goal it intends to achieve.

About The Author

Jonathan D. Fitzgerald

Editor | Follow him on Twitter.

8 Responses to Jesus Christ, Fame Monster?

  1. ed cyzewski says:

    Speaking only of my own experience with this, I think that bigger problem I’ve seen is the reliance on marketing and promotion to “attract” people to church rather than embodying the Gospel in my local community. I feel like it has taken an embarrassingly long amount of time for me to start figuring that out. If I’m honest, some days I just want the advertising to do the work for me. Perhaps in figuring out how to embody the Gospel I can also find the antidote to the fame monster.

  2. John Hawthorne says:

    “To J.F.”

    It was funny to run across this as I had just complained to the pastor about another Tomlin song. In “Our God”, you find the following refrain:

    “Our God is greater, our God is stronger, God you are higher than any other.
    Our God is Healer, Awesome in Power, Our God! Our God!
    And if our God is for us, then who could ever stop us.”

    It’s hard to read these words without reading American Exceptionalism and Military Might. Besides being theologically unsound — scripture promises God’s love but not that “no one would ever stop us”.

    Durkheim was too close — it’s really easy to make our religion celebrate our cultural values. Thanks for the post.

  3. Brandon says:

    I’m not a fan of Tomlin’s songwriting, but I was ready to come to this song’s defense with a scripture passage in Isaiah about God’s fame. However, as I read further, I was reminded of how easy it is for us to look at scripture through the lens of our cultural immersion and equate an idea like “fame” with pop star status, marketing mojo, and social media popularity. Of course, when this happens, as you point out, Jesus/faith becomes just another commodity and Christ-followers suddenly start sounding like cultural power brokers and second-hand (wannabe?) trend setters (as if that’s the highest calling of “evangelism!”)

    Makes me wonder how people of faith can recover the art of subversion seen in the prophets and sages of old, not to mention the habitual pattern of Jesus.

    Maybe a skillful songwriter can craft a song entitled, “Mundane, Uninteresting One” and maybe a skillful writer (such as yourself?) can write a book to help would-be cultural entrepreneurs catch a vision for championing hope, meaning, and purpose found in God’s in-breaking Kingdom, without reducing the Gospel to a marketing strategy.

    (Steve Turner has paved the way for this. One book that blew me away was a short one entitled “Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts.”)

    Thanks for your challenging words. May your Twitter followers continue to increase and your wife continue to roll her eyes and remind you of what’s most important to you. =)

  4. JONATHAN says:

    i agree that when we begin to analyze the meaning of “fame” in our culture, it ends up becoming narcissistic and all about the pride of the individual.

    i’m not a die hard tomlinite. i rarely do his songs at my church. and i too hated the song “famous one” when i first heard it for those very reasons. but i have since come to love the song. not because of the word fame at all, but because it reminds us that God’s creation itself is pointing to Him, and that He is none by all the world.

    the song came out of a trip that chris took to africa and that was how the people of that tribe talked about God Almighty. it was literally translated “famous one”. they had been worshipping a creation-god for years and years and years, and then the missionaries came and shared with them who this God truly is.

    so the term did not come out a desire to make Him more popular (or the american fame monster), it came from an african jungle tribe, that wanted to call God by the biggest name they had in their language.

    i would also contend that there are points in scripture, and points in the early church, and even now in mission areas, where, in an effort to communicate the gospel to a people group, they would change the language so that it would be better understood. paul changed the language about what happend on the cross a many times (sacrificial language, financial language, relational language, etc.) i really think it is the task of the gospel-er to do their best to communicate Jesus using the tools and language of our culture, so as to make it understood. i’m not saying in a “J.C.” type of way. that is just straight up cheesy and ridiculous. (family guy comes to mind: “he turned his chair around and sat on it backwards…he gets us.”) but i do believe we need to find ways to communicate that will help our culture understand who God is and the life that He is calling us to. the only true life, full of joy and peace that they can’t find anywhere else.

  5. Christina says:

    Hey. This is interesting…what do you think of Relevant magazine? I am still not sure about it myself…I think that Jesus didn’t really need to be cool/famous right? I mean, that is just a modern ideal anyway is it not? I feel like we are all so lost…it is scary. I don’t want to be overly critical, and yet we are called to live out and share the gospel so what of all of this “relevance”? Also, I love Christian music, but I feel like I am expected to listen to it!! Weird. I like Dave Crowder, but not all of their songs…the only artist that I can think of that I really love is Keith Green..a lot of Christian music sounds the same….

  6. Kyle Treadwell says:

    I’ve been thinking about this post for several weeks. I think that engaging the larger framework from where this song developed should be considered.

    Tomlin is part of the Passion “movement”. The central theme of this movement is Isaiah 26:8 – “for Your name and Your renown are the desire of our hearts”.

    In light of this the idea of the “famous one” does not offend me as much. The book you describe does though. To me, the idea of reducing the gospel to a high pressure sales pitch is offensive.

    I enjoy your writing, Jonathan. I don’t often agree with you politically or theologically, but you constantly push me to re-examine my beliefs.

    Grace and peace,

  7. Doug says:

    Totally agree. Tomlin is a very talented song writer and leader, but “Famous One” and “Our God” are two of my least favorite xtian praise songs. What I find most disturbing is when I tell friends at church about my disdain for the lyrics of either of these songs, their response is usually, “Hmmm, I guess I never thought about what the words mean.”

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