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.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is editor of Patrol and author of Not Your Mother's Morals: How the New Sincerity is Changing Pop Culture for the Better. Follow Fitz on Twitter.
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