When Celebrity Christianity Backfires

Let’s be real, you guys.

The Internet does not need another post about what is certainly now the most significant bearded Christian duck-hunting reality show controversy OF ALL TIME.

And honestly, I wouldn’t add one if I didn’t think this might be a slightly different angle than the majority of what I’ve been seeing in my feeds, which amounts to either conservative or progressive Christian outrage at A&E or Phil Robertson. But is this outrage, on either side, the best response to the obviously intolerant and racist words of the Duck Patriarch? Certainly, the conservative “free speech” or “religious freedom” stuff is just ridiculous, revealing the empty politic of legislative power under the surface of modern evangelicalism yet again. But the progressive Christian attempt to counter the conservative perspective, while needed, may also be missing the root issue involved. Which for me comes down to the systemic, cultural appropriation of celebrity that plagues the American church.

I’ve talked about this before as Celebrity Christianity, the cultural trend wherein Christians adopt the values of celebrity culture as ideals for the Christian life. Thus, excessive wealth, ease, fame, and power amount to a “calling” which reveals God’s “favor” and “blessing” on one’s life. Culturally, these become the overt or covert goals that every Christian desires to achieve, not because they are basically greedy (well, maybe some folks are) but more because they have bought into the mantra that celebrity equals a more meaningful and influential Christian life (with pleasures to boot).

The Duck Dynasty folks, Phil Robertson chief among them, are convinced that they are on a mission from God and have a unique calling from God. Their celebrity – money, fame, ease, and power – equates to a platform from which to witness for Jesus. And, in the current culture-war climate, that also means to witness for Fox News, the GOP, and Southern white culture, and against gay relationships and gay marriage. With the hope being that the popularity of their show and their brand will mean a tipping of the scales in the fight to take America back for God.

I have said before that my critique of Celebrity Christianity is not aimed at Christians who simply gain notoriety or a platform. Notoriety is fine, and it can be a very good thing if folks have gained that platform for good reasons and are doing actual good in the world. But the problem enters in when the values of celebrity culture are appropriated as Christian values – when they are theologized as the favor of God and a calling from God. This leads to blindness about the way in which the system of celebrity itself – with its excessive wealth, ease, fame, and power – circumvents the justice of God in the world by widening the already impossible gap between the have’s and the have not’s, and further oppressing marginalized peoples instead of empowering them. The ultra-cool megachurch that gives lots of blankets to the homeless while maintaining multi-million dollar programs and properties and enriching pastors and staff members, may think it is doing “justice” while it is actually only serving to widen the systemic gap between the privileged and the oppressed. The blankets are a band-aid at best; at worst they are a show. It’s the kind of thing that made the prophet Amos so angsty.

Even more so when the aims of attaining and maintaining celebrity are highly political, as they are with the bearded Robertson’s. The calling becomes especially deceptive, homing in on supposed issues of immorality (gay sex) while committing the true immorality of intolerant and oppressive lobbying and language. Again, this is what made the prophets angry. Not least of them Jesus, who chided the Pharisees for straining moral gnats while swallowing oppressive camels.

And that’s where the root issue is revealed. In this episode of Duck Dynasty, the Robertson’s have experienced the backfiring of Celebrity Christianity itself. The system is not built to last, and we will continue to see eruptions like this, where the harmful ideation and action of an essentially oppressive posture is called to task even by the world’s sense of justice (in this case, A&E’s sense of justice). Christian dynasties – empires – have fallen before. That shouldn’t shock us, nor necessarily engender rage (on either side). It should “seem good to the Holy Spirit and to us” for this kind of discipline to take place, that true kingdom witness might emerge in its wake.

So while I appreciate (and have joined) the progressive calls for sanity among our more conservative brothers and sisters, and love and legal equality for all our neighbors, we must not forget what drives – and will continue to drive – the machinations of religious oppression. Celebrity Christianity is alive and well in the Duck Dynasty, and the root issue is a posture of arrogance and power instead of kingdom humility and healing. And this can occur in other places too, not just among “conservatives.” Wherever we are not heeding the call, despite any notoriety we may achieve, to love mercy and walk humbly with our God, and let God’s justice flow like a river through all these valleys of oppression, we too may fall prey to the allure of the empire’s oppressive celebrity values. 

And the gospel of Jesus the Liberating King may be lost by us, only to emerge somewhere else, nearer to the margins.

[Image Source]

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    Killer post, Zach. Celebrity Christianity is indeed alive and well, and many Christians (over here, at least) seem happily oblivious to its subtle infiltration and subversion of the gospel.

  • Marlena Graves

    Indeed, this is fantastic. Your writing is razor sharp because your thinking on this topic is razor sharp (and on other topics, too). It’s a breath of fresh air. Keep it up. We need to lovingly and wisely speak this message, just as you have done. Many are with you and feel the same way. You voiced our sentiments well-that’s what good writers do. Thank you..

  • MatthewWimer

    Zach, this is a brilliant post. Is it Christian celebrities, or simply the combination of Christian and celebrity? I like that you not it’s one thing if fame comes from doing something great (such as Mother Teresa), but gaining fame from a TV show, then using it as a platform is something else. However, it’s not like the Robertson family has just come out as Christians. Why is it we’re comfortable with their faith only as long as it’s an undertone to their antics?

    I’m not as eloquent a writer as you, though I have a few thoughts on my own blog: http://www.lostlittlelutheran.com.

  • matthewhaller3

    Zach, nice post. I haven’t been very interested in this whole duck uproar. There are bigger fish to fry here. Thanks for giving some perspective on celebrity Christianity.

  • MarkADemers

    So very well put, Zach.  And as applicable for Pope Francis as Phil Robertson.  Whether celebrity is sought after, or handed to us, the dangers are the same.  “Dangers”, in this case, not so much to the celeb, but to the church, to the cause of Christ and the work of justice.  Very excellent post.

  • ZoePerissos

    Well done, friend. When idols are challenged, and fall, faith that had insecurely looked toward the idol, rather than the Author – is revealed in defending and fighting.

  • zhoag

    ZoePerissos thx Brandon :)

  • ZoePerissos

    zhoag Thank YOU. My pleasure. So much there that needs to be seen and heard.

  • evanwickham

    TeoBishop zhoag incredible. Prophetic even.

  • zhoag

    evanwickham TeoBishop thanks guys :)

  • tycob82

    You know I would agree with you about celebrity christianity, but quite honestly, I believe this man believes what he says and is not simply seeking attention or wealth from his opinions, or is he speaking for FOX or the GOP. He was exactly the same before the show, and now he has a platform and is caught in the cross-hairs of American tolerance.

    His genuineness and unashamed opinions about the gospel and his beliefs about morality rubbed shoulders with our extremely over-sensitive culture, which quivers when someone doesn’t believe in abortion or homosexuality, God forbid.

    I actually think we need guys like this to shake things up a bit, keep people on their toes. I know everyone is getting tired of Duck Dynasty in the news, but it’s not about Duck Dynasty, what’s bubbling to the surface is the theme of homosexuality and where many American’s (loud and silient) stand.

    This GQ/DD controversy was just the match to ignite the real burning issues in our country.

  • http://flamingfundamentalist.blogspot.com/ Curt_Day

    But Zach, i f I ignore the celebrities, especially the Christian ones, I am faced with having to do the following:

      1.   Think for myself
        2.   Be a better steward in the world for God
        3.   Care about those outside of my own neighborhood
        4.   To reflect more on my own life because I am not living vicariously through others

    Are you trying to make life more difficult for me?

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Curt_Day haha YES, yes I am.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    tycob82 Disagree. Phil and the family strongly believe they are on a mission from God to change American culture. That, mixed with money and political coopting, is an inherently coercive, arrogant, and intolerant position, and that’s my point.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Rob Grayson thanks Rob. agree.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Marlena Graves thanks so much marlena. i’m happy to hear that others resonate.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    MatthewWimer yeah, I think it has more to do with the culture of celebrity, and reality TV is certainly a part of that. Wealth, fame, ease, and power, leveraged in oppressive ways, are the substantial issues.


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