Be Careful Not to Celebrate What the World Celebrates

All men are, in the end, only men, and their flaws are as real as their gifts.

Here’s the real problem: These celebrities are, in fact, the idols of our age. We define greatness in our culture by celebrity status and the things which accompany it – power, wealth, fame, beauty, giftedness. We worship our gods as surely as any culture. Princess Kate, Bruce Jenner and the Kardashians cover our magazines and occupy a huge part of our cultural conversation. When one of these celebrities dies, I think we try to cover our own fear of death by trying to endow them with a kind of immortality in cultural glorification.

 

Today, the world celebrates the life and legacy of Muhammed Ali. Six weeks ago, it was Prince. Both men rose to the level of legendary status at times in their lives and both are celebrated as modern-day gods by our culture. For Christians, we must be careful not to simply, blindly join the world in its adulation.

No one likes a spoil-sport or a nay-sayer in the midst of celebration or commemoration. But we need to be cautious and discerning, so that we don’t join the world too enthusiastically and commit idolatry in the process. All men are, in the end, only men, and their flaws are as real as their gifts.

When Prince died, some churches opened their worship services on Sunday with “Purple Rain.” Singing the biggest hit song of a man who celebrated sexual deviancy and transgender hyper-sexuality in worship on the Lord’s Day is way over the line. Many people have already written about that, so I won’t say any more.

Today, I found myself mourning the loss of Muhammed Ali to the world and I had to ask myself: Should we celebrate a man who was arrogant, brash and self-promoting, a man who converted to the Nation of Islam? Should we idolize a man who was at times as divisive as he was incredibly talented?

Am I now being one-sided and unfair? Probably. After all, we must not be too quick to judge and condemn people either. After all, Prince was a supremely gifted musician. His pure musical giftedness is perhaps rivaled only by Stevie Wonder. For someone to be such a great instrumentalist (especially on guitar), vocalist, song-writer, arranger and producer is amazing. The fact that he got hooked on prescription pain medication and died of an overdose is horribly sad, but this kind of addiction has caught many, including many Christians.

Muhammed Ali was a great boxer, combining speed, footwork and punching power in a rare way. he truly did “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” At other times, he stood his ground like a gladiator and took the punishment before delivering the knock-out blow. He boasted loudly, but he backed up his boasts in the ring, so that makes it okay, right? Right? Well . . . he seems to have mellowed in his later years.

Here’s the real problem: These celebrities are, in fact, the idols of our age. We define greatness in our culture by celebrity status and the things which accompany it – power, wealth, fame, beauty, giftedness. We worship our gods as surely as any culture. Princess Kate, Bruce Jenner and the Kardashians cover our magazines and occupy a huge part of our cultural conversation. When one of these celebrities dies, I think we try to cover our own fear of death by trying to endow them with a kind of immortality in cultural glorification.

The death of a prominent figure in society gives us an opportunity to reflect on what makes for a good life. It gives us a gift, if we will use it to look inside at our own lives and think about how we’re living and what impact we’re leaving on the world. This kind of self-reflection is made impossible by run-away celebration.

If we as Christians simply go alone for the ride, then we will be swept up in the world’s idolatry. Prince and Muhammed Ali were greatly gifted by God and were examples of the power, creativity and wonder of God’s creation reflected in people who bear His image. But they were human beings, as full of weakness and sin as they were of gifts. Their gifts earned them a level of fame most people won’t achieve, but that doesn’t make them better people, more worthy of idolization. People of any kind make lousy gods.

How can we be faithful to God? Let’s focus our time and energy on what matters most: loving Him and loving others. Let’s not jump out there and bad-mouth these guys, but let’s also not blindly jump on the idol-worshiping band wagon. Instead, let’s allow the word of God to shape our worldview and not the media:

We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.
 And we know that the Son of God has come and has given us understanding, so that we may know him who is true; and we are in him who is true, in his Son Jesus Christ. He is the true God and eternal life. Little children, keep yourselves from idols. – 1 John 5:19-21 

Jason A. Van Bemmel is a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. This article appeared on his blog Ponderings of a Pilgrim Pastor and is used with permission.