Culture Friday: Celebrity conversions

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Friday, the 20th of September, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: And I’m Megan Basham. Some big names in show business are calling on the name of Jesus. Here’s Kanye West this week in Atlanta.

Have a listen:

WEST: …to be radically in service to Christ is the only culture that I want to know about…our Father, Christ Jesus, thank you so much for bringing me to the home where I was born. Thank you for saving me, replenishing me, for delivering me…

West is hosting pop-up worship services he’s calling Sunday Services, and his new album will reportedly be called “Jesus is King.” On the morning chat show The View last Friday, his wife Kim Kardashian West said he’s had an amazing evolution of being born again and being saved by Christ. Naturally, this is all causing a lot of buzz, especially with the religious press.

Trevin Wax joins us today for Culture Friday. He’s a pastor, a blogger, and author. His books include This is our Time: Everyday Myths in Light of the Gospel. 

Trevin, thanks for being here today.

TREVIN WAX, GUEST: Glad to be with you both.

BASHAM: You know, I tend to see two reactions to celebrity professions of faith. There’s the approach of taking any vaguely Jesus-friendly comment as evidence of salvation and being really excited that someone so rich and famous shares our beliefs. I recall a couple years ago when actor Shia LaBeouf said something Christianity-positive and suddenly I saw a lot of other Christian news outlets rushing to proclaim the news that he’s a believer. 

I felt a little like a wet blanket, because when I read the comments closely, it seemed pretty clear to me that he was referring to his method acting approach. But, I’d learned that discernment the hard way! I’d been burned years before by an interview with a young actress who was very eager to tell World Magazine about her faith. You may remember her—she starred as Hannah Montana. So because of a couple of instances like that, I tend to be a little leery.

So, what are some biblical guidelines Christians can consider when celebrities like Kanye West and Justin Bieber announce they’ve become Christians?

WAX: Well, you know, it’s interesting. The Bible gives us some instruction when it comes to leaders in the church and one of the things when we’re talking about leadership in the church or people we might put on a pedestal, that we might look up to as examples in the faith, it says “not a recent convert.” There’s a specific note there from the Apostle Paul when he’s giving qualifications for leadership because there’s wisdom in their being a life and time for fruit to be born. And I think one of the interesting questions is not—I’m always hopeful, I’m always optimistic when I see anybody showing signs of life in faith. I think we want to guard from having a pharisaical kind of heart or the raised eyebrow, a skeptic sort of view of someone who is professing faith in Christ. 

So, the way I would say it is to put it like this, we need to celebrate conversion or the initial sign of conversion wherever we see it. At the same time, before we lift someone up as an example of the faith or put someone on a pedestal, there is a sense in which you see that faith born out in fruit. And I’m always curious why this rush, especially among—sometimes among evangelicals this rush to champion to any celebrity who says something vaguely Christian, like you said, or who looks like there may be some kind of sign of faith there. Sometimes we rush to put that person on a pedestal in a way that I think says more about us than it does the celebrity. Because we can give off the impression that we’re looking to have our faith ratified by famous people. Or that there’s some kind of credibility that we get in our faith if cool people, you know, are becoming Christian or something. And I think we’ve got to beware of that. Apparently, maybe we have a complex or something. I don’t know. But I think we’ve got to ask ourselves the question, you know, while we want to celebrate good signs that we see, I think we also should step back and say, you know, before we rush to put someone on a pedestal, there is biblical precedent for allowing there to be a period of fruit in someone’s life and acknowledging that. But we also need to be careful that we don’t take celebrity culture from our culture and just bring that right into the church and basically continue to fuel the flames of that just with our own Christian lingo or something.

BASHAM: Well, and I think, too, for their sake because if somebody had put a microphone in my face, I can’t imagine the kind of foolish things I might have said.

WAX: Absolutely. And then, so this is another thing we do as Christians that we’ve got to watch out for. We put someone on a pedestal really high and then we all attack them when they fall or let us down or they do something or they don’t take the right position or they don’t know the Bible doctrine correctly. And so we can be really quick to lift someone up but then as Christians we can also be really quick to kick someone when they seem to have fallen down or they’ve gotten something wrong. So I think we’ve got to do some soul searching when we look at this topic.

REICHARD: Trevin, we’re talking human foible here in many ways. I want to segue into something I saw on your blog.  A reference to an article about what statistics can and can’t tell us about ourselves. In fact, that’s the title of the piece by Hannah Fry this month in The New Yorker magazine. The idea is that because we live in this era of lots and lots of big data about everybody,  we can lapse into a kind of certainty about human behavior that isn’t true.

WAX: Yeah, you know, this article caught my eye because statistics and surveys and polls and research can often be thrown out there not just as a descriptive analysis of something, but as making a prescription of how we should act or how we should live. And what this article really put forward was this idea that we’ve come to believe that if we have the right information or if we just have enough data then we can predict human behavior. But that’s really not the case.

There are collective characteristics that you can see with a lot of data, but to make a prediction for an individual based on that is actually problematic. And one of the things that is fascinating in the article is it shows some examples. At one point she says, “the more data that are collected, cross-referenced, and searched for correlations, the easier it becomes to reach false conclusions.” And I think that’s something we need to consider, especially when we see statistics thrown around about the church and the culture and statistics about declining churches and what it means. And all sorts of issues that we see in our society.

REICHARD: But without big data and big conclusions, life is harder to navigate, isn’t it? How should we think about statistics when we see them cited in news articles?

WAX: Well, I think there’s some good steps that we can take. I worked several years alongside Ed Stetzer with Lifeway research. For many years he was often giving us suggestions and counsel when it comes to statistics and he had some good rules of thumb that I’ve really taken to heart in recent years. Be careful when you’re looking at items that look promotional. Maybe there’s this book that’s going to fix everything or this conference that’s going to fix everything. And statistics that are moving people toward action. You want to be careful about that because sometimes the cause may be good, but if statistics are used in a poor way, then they’re manipulative rather than true. But one of the easiest things is just to use your head. Sometimes you’ll see these statistics that cannot be verified. There’s the biggest one that I’ve heard in recent years. 90-something percent of evangelical youth drop out of church after high school, never to return. Well, never to return? Like, how could anyone know that? Has anyone tracked, you know, the 90 percent of evangelicals? Have they all died and they never came back or—? So, statistics like that, I think, you’ve got to do a little digging into the research to see just how widespread a survey may be and is it reputable? Is this statistic being used fairly? I think those are good rules of thumb for us to consider.

BASHAM: Reminds me of a certain editor in chief of WORLD Magazine! 

Trevin Wax is Director for Bibles and Reference at LifeWay Christian Resources and a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He is the general editor of The Gospel Project.

It’s Culture Friday. Trevin, thanks so much for being with us today.

WAX: Thank you guys. Have a good weekend!

(Photo by Brent N. Clarke/Invision/AP, File) In this Sept. 7, 2018, file photo, Kanye West attends the Ralph Lauren 50th Anniversary Event held at Bethesda Terrace in Central Park during New York Fashion Week in New York. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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