George Whitefield, Celebrity

I joked recently that I’ve done irreparable damage to any chance of ever becoming a celebrity pastor by, well, just being me. There never has been any danger of my being swept up on the celebrity circuit and I’m okay with that. Thoughts about celebrity and its place in the Christian world have been on my mind for some time and were brought to the forefront recently by my reading of the concise, readable, and helpful biography of George Whitefield by Thomas Kidd, George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.

George Whitefield was an influential figure in the Evangelical Awakening of the mid-18th Century, a powerful preacher, and probably the most famous person in America and England during the time of his prominence. Think Bono. With a powdered wig. Bono WhitfieldKidd tells Whitefield’s story with care and insight.

A trap that can plague biographies of Christian heroes is that the authors can so fawn over their subject that weaknesses disappear. A corresponding and opposite trap is that authors can so labor to avoid the first that they will hide their genuine admiration for their subject and in so doing downplay aspects of their subject that makes him or her admirable. Kidd clearly admires Whitefield and believes his contribution to evangelical Christianity as well as American history is a story needing to be told. At the same time, he does not hesitate to expose Whitefield’s disappointingly pragmatic take on slavery and his insensitive and neglectful treatment of his wife. Some may think that these faults so color Whitefield’s legacy that we should be wary of praising him, and I tend in that direction. Kidd is wise enough to not pass that judgment. No saint comes without vice. I get that.
Whitefield Kidd
Whitefield, born just over 300 years ago, as 1715 dawned, was converted to evangelical Christianity as a young man and was early captured with a passion to preach to the conversion of others. He was ordained in the Anglican church but never filled a traditional clerical role. Driven to preach an evangelistic message he sought the crowds where they might be found, and more often than not they were found outside in massive gatherings both in the England of his birth and on seven trips across the Atlantic, in the colonies of the Americas. Through such labor he became the most famous man in the English world of the time.

That is, he was a celebrity. Word would spread that he would be preaching at a certain location at a certain time, and before long, sometimes as many as 20,000 or more people would gather to hear him. Then, as now, I suspect that caused the ordinary parish preacher to wonder what he would need to do to live up to the expectations that the passing celebrity would leave in his wake.

Kidd wants us to be aware of Whitefield’s impact upon the American character and the movement that would two centuries hence be known as evangelicalism. As a pastor and a Christian I want to know what was going on in Whitefield’s heart. Whitefield left a series of published journals, but these were edited by him prior to publication. What would I excise from my journals were I to edit them for publication? It would depend upon the image that I wanted to present, and I wonder to what effect such editing colors what we know of Whitefield. The specter of celebrity creates a filter behind which no doubt some hide.

Celebrity is often the price that those who are called to lead in the church must pay. My ministry has been shaped by men who would be labeled celebrity but whose celebrity has arisen from gifts which God has used to give leadership to the broader church. Those celebrated for their leadership deserve to be heard. Those who promote themselves in order to be celebrated do not. And rarely, I suppose, can we tell the difference.

George Whitefield is a strong biography and I am grateful for it and commend it highly. That I come away from it with a lower regard for its subject than I probably should is more a reflection of my own bias toward local church ministry and away from the mass public ministry of the celebrity. That will continue, of course, until I become one. I think I might be waiting a while.

Note: special thanks to my son Seth for any alleged Photoshop work which might appear in this post.

Christian Honorees

At this year’s International Christian Retailers Show which is wrapping up this week in Orlando, former Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams was honored among others with the “Champions of the Faith Award”. According to the press release, “Award recipients live their lives dedicated to the principles taught by Jesus Christ in work and also beyond their professions.”

Apart from the fact that I’ve pastored two churches in which most of the people would qualify for such an ‘award’ judged by that criteria, I’m troubled by the very concept of granting such awards. I have in my mind as I type heroes and champions of the faith who have been my mentors and models over the years. And I think that there is not a one who would have consented to receiving such an award. They were certainly never motivated by such a thing.

I’m in no danger of ever being offered an award, but the very idea of it troubles me. It seems to grate against Jesus’ teaching that the greatest in the kingdom is the simple believer who trusts in him. The truly heroic may be the godly mother struggling against all odds and apart from all renown to raise a child in the face of a father’s hostility. She doesn’t want an award – she simply wants to see her child come to love Jesus. Humility and award giving seem to be at such odds with one another.

And if we are to honor those who have been truly honorable, should we not wait until after their work is done? One cannot make the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame until several years after retirement. Even the US Postal Service will not release a stamp in one’s honor until ten years after the honoree is dead. (An exception is made for former presidents for whom stamps are released immediately upon death. But they still have to be dead.) If we had the sense to do this, it could serve to ameliorate the embarrassment of honoring a man or woman only to discover after the fact that he or she was not in all ways honorable. (I’m tempted to call this the “Herman Cain Effect” after many Christians hopped on the ‘Cain for President’ bandwagon only to have to hop off when his indiscretions became public. But candidates for naming rights abound.)

Years ago I attended a conference in which the speakers were something of a Who’s Who in evangelicalism. When each was introduced and after each finished speaking, the crowd wildly cheered. It seemed to be the thing to do. But I remember watching Ravi Zacharias after his message quickly take his seat and hold his head in his hands. Of course, he may have had a terrible headache. I never asked him. I like to think, though, that he was embarrassed by what he considered inappropriate accolades.

My protest is one raised in the desert. Akin to my opposition to red letter Bibles, my thinking on this matter seems to be at such odds with the bulk of evangelical Christianity, and I’m not sure why that is.

Perhaps someone can help me understand.

Tim Tebow and Idolatry

Dirk Hayhurst is a professional baseball player and a writer with a depth and maturity of insight that I admire. His comments here on the “Tim Tebow Affair” (Tim Tebow: Are His Celebrity and Football Success False Idols?) are full of insight. Speaking neither for nor against Tebow, he rather challenges our temptation to wrap truth in the success of others. Odd it is that we who follow a savior who died in obscurity can be so caught up in celebrity.

The piece is so full of quotable wisdom that I simply must plop the final couple sentences here and encourage you to read the whole.

“…let us not continue some temporal media spectacle focused on production and sports celebrity. These things can evaporate like dew on morning grass.

“Instead, let’s focus on the same boring, consistent, and yet oh-so-exciting promises that have always been in front of us—that God sent his only Son into this world to die for our sins so that through his death we might have peace with God and new life. If that doesn’t get you pumped up, nothing any sports star can do will.”

I’m rooting for Tebow. I’m impressed by Tebow. But I’m once again reminded of how easily we create and then unwisely rest in idols.


Garfoose promo1By the way, Hayhurst is, uh, a character. His alter-ego is a ‘garfoose‘ – a half giraffe and half moose creation which I find wonderfully appealing. Nothing at all somber and dull about this guy. That’s why I like him.

Both his books are on my Amazon wish list. *wink, wink*

Interesting Things

A couple more items worth noting from this week’s news:

Winners or near winners of the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search have, as this article says,

…gone on to win seven Nobel Prizes in physics or chemistry, two Fields Medals in mathematics, a half-dozen National Medals in science and technology, a long string of MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants — and now, an Academy Award for best actress in a leading role.

Natalie Portman is, it seems, a pretty smart gal in spite of the fact that she fell for Anakin Skywalker.

+ + + + +

To the rest of us, the political uprisings in the Middle East seem sudden and mysterious. But Thomas Friedman had some interesting observations on what lay behind these uprisings, other than the contribution of the 83 year old former Harvard professor whose booklet on toppling dictators seems to have been influential.

Among his suggestions are geeky things like Google Earth:

On Nov. 27, 2006, on the eve of parliamentary elections in Bahrain, The Washington Post ran this report from there: “Mahmood, who lives in a house with his parents, four siblings and their children, said he became even more frustrated when he looked up Bahrain on Google Earth and saw vast tracts of empty land, while tens of thousands of mainly poor Shiites were squashed together in small, dense areas. ‘We are 17 people crowded in one small house, like many people in the southern district,’ he said. ‘And you see on Google how many palaces there are and how the al-Khalifas [the Sunni ruling family] have the rest of the country to themselves.’

Read the whole. Like I said, interesting.

Great Romances

In my wanderings last week, I heard about a PBS series called Great Romances of the 20th Century.
Great romances 20th

Great Romances of the 20th Century examines many passionate love affairs, including those of Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Juan and Evita Peron, and Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Great Romances unlocks the secrets that were behind some of the world’s most famous and rapturous relationships.

I suppose those ‘secrets’ would be fun to hear, but this is really not about ‘great’ romances, but ‘celebrity’ romances and celebrity romances, as Donkey so unceremoniously pointed out, watching the dragon spit out Lord Farquaad’s crown, never last.

Hollywood is not the first place I’d look for great romances or for secrets of their longevity. More likely are such to be found at the tables around us at church dinners populated by broken people who have learned to love one another ‘for better or for worse’. More likely they are to be found in the lives of the old couple walking hand in hand on the beach. These relationships might not make good TV, but they would make a great study for those newly married or contemplating marriage.

A year ago, I surveyed a half dozen couples who had reached at least thirty years of marriage. These are not couples who have faced an idyllic life. They have experienced shattered careers, cancer, and near divorce. But they are together and thriving and I asked them why? Their answers, which are really no secrets, are wonderful and inhabit my hard drive still awaiting processing and posting.

While that waits a future day, on this one which will expose some of us husbands as being thoughtless and others as sweetly romantic, which will cause some to celebrate the ‘in relationship’ tag on Facebook and others to curse it, we remember that great relationships are not built upon romance at all, but on love, which is something far greater and deeper and harder.

Happy Valentines Day!


Parade of Celebrity

I am a fan of the English Standard Translation of the Bible. Sit me down for a time and I will try to tell you why. I think there are good reasons to like it, but I’m always interested in understanding other’s reasoning for preferring it, and so I watched this video.

Interestingly, none of the speakers here really attempts to say anything more beyond it is readable and trustworthy. The real intention of the video, clearly, is to fix the celebrity status of each speaker behind the ESV.

So, there is little value to be had from the video’s expressed intention. What was interesting to me was the opportunity to see the faces and voices behind the celebrities I’ve heard about and/or read!