Christianity and Celebrities

Q – I have been listening to your recent sermons on how there is not such thing as a Christian “celebrity,” or at least there shouldn’t be such a thing. Well, I was flipping channels tonight and I landed on TBN for a moment because I came across a sound that I like. It was band performing. You’re a music man, so you should be familiar with ska. Anyway, there’s a Christian band, that performs ska music and I really enjoy them: Supertones. Very similar to Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Now, since you’re a music man, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you know who I’m speaking of.

Jim – Yes, I am familiar with Ska Music. No, I don’t know the Mighty Bosstones nor the Supertones. But, I have a very narrow range of listening interests, these days. I overdosed on music in my youth, knew every band and every member, practically. But, these days I’m much less interested. Much of current music is derivative rather than creative. So, in honesty, I have my collection of CD’s that I like and when I’m in the mood for music, that’s what I listen to.

Q – Ok, so I’m watching them and enjoying them and they occasionally promote their new album. I couldn’t help but think that you’d think that that was wrong somehow. So I put myself there: if I were there listening, I’d be doing the same thing as the audience. Jumping up and down, having a great time, knowing that I was in a non-violent atmosphere, you know, the type that can sometimes crop up at concerts of that genre. (i.e. moshing)

Jim – I have no problem with them advancing their latest product. That’s the whole purpose of touring. For most bands, touring is a money drain. It’s very expensive. But, you tour to increase your audience and sell records. That’s where the long-term money is – publishing.

Q – So, I’m watching and enjoying and growing very spiteful towards you thinking how legalistic you were being…

Jim – Man, I love it when people grow spiteful toward me and call me legalistic. I live for nothing else…

You know, people who don’t understand what I teach call GCA a “cult.” People who think I’m not serious enough when I preach, because I’m willing to laugh and enjoy the Word, have told me that I’m not “reverent enough.” Others think that I put too much emphasis on the grace of God, so they call me “antinomian.” And, of course, I’ve also been labeled a “literalist,” and a “dispensationalist,” and (perhaps my favorite) “you have to watch him, he’s a free-thinker!”

I get called all sorts of names. If people disagree with my stance on any subject, they say I’m a “legalist,” despite the fact that I never force the Law of Moses on people’s conscience, I don’t have a list of rules for people to follow and I don’t interfere with people’s lives in order to judge their outward behavior or performance. I am the least “legalistic” pastor I know. I leave it up to you and God to work out your behavior in accordance with your individual conscience.

But, I do hold a firm conviction that God’s Word is not to be compromised, nor should Christianity be mischaracterized or dumbed-down. I’m quite didactic on those principles. So, sometimes my words rub up against people because I say those things authoritatively.

Anyway, I’m glad there was a second half to your sentence.

Q – … and then it happened: it was all over and the announcer came on and said that they needed my ‘love gift’, large or small on a regular basis in order to continue to be able to put on this kind of programming. It was very similar to PBS when they run a show and ask for pledges.

Jim – Right. Both PBS and TBN are public benefit, not-for-profit corporations. As a consequence, your gifts to them are tax deductible. But, also as a result, they cannot sell advertising in order to make money. PBS gets government grants and then they make up the difference by having pledge drives. Of course, they also have a neat little “trick” they do where they allow corporations to underwrite their programs, then they announce the names of the contributors (along with their slogan or catchphrase) before and after the show, which is technically advertising! People always find loopholes, eh?

Meanwhile, speaking of loopholes, TBN makes their money from charitable gifts. But, TBN knows that most of their audience will not send money unless they get something in return. So, they send their donors cheap trinkets that they call “love gifts.” It’s an exchange of money for product, but by calling them each a gift, they avoid taxes because they are not technically “selling” the items.

The purpose of the 501(c)(3) tax status was originally designed to lift some of the burden off local governments by giving churches greater advantage in serving their communities. For instance, when local churches raise money and use it to feed the poor and help the needy, that’s fewer people the government has to support. And, since the government cares for those people with tax dollars, churches were given the right to raise charitable contributions by giving the donors a tax break on those gifts. It was never meant to allow self-serving (as opposed to “public benefit”) enterprises to become rich tax-free. But, that is unfortunately how it is too often used.

Q – It was then that I think I understood, sort of. I don’t think that you’re saying that anything is wrong with this Christian band performing a concert and even promoting their new c.d. Right?

Jim – Right. They have as much right as any other artists to go out into the marketplace and promote their songs.

Q – But when the money comes into play for profit to TBN…no wait…Ok, yes,

I’m confused.

Jim – You’re on the right track. TBN is promoting the concert by giving it scheduled airtime. One way that TBN makes money is by selling airtime to different ministries. They don’t just give that time away. The large national ministries that you see on TBN pay handsomely for primetime spots. That’s why you don’t see any local churches with moderate congregations on TBN. They can’t afford the airtime.

Likewise, Contemporary Christian Music record labels have promotional budgets for creating videos and buying airtime. So, TBN sells time to record labels for them to promote their roster of artists, particularly the popular ones or the ones that appear to have the widest margin of return on investment. Anyway, appearing on TBN will help sell records, which makes a profit for the record label and hopefully some of that money will trickle down to the artists (who are always last in line). TBN then uses the concert to hopefully capture a younger audience and while they have their attention they hit them up for contributions.

That’s business. Unfortunately, it’s also become “christian” business.

My complaint has to do with the fact that the network is called “Trinity Broadcasting.” (Originally, they were “Praise The Lord” until Jim and Tammy registered that trademark for their network, PTL.) Yet, the network is really a vehicle for selling products, making celebrities and raising money. Even the occasional preaching you hear is primarily “prosperity” based, designed to get people to send more money in the hope that God will give them more money. It’s a business with a huge overhead. By definition, it’s not a ministry. It does not serve people in any ministerial or servile way. It provides entertainment and alternative programming. But, in the end, it is a big-budget business.

So, I have no problem at all with you sitting in front of your television enjoying a band. That’s just fine. And, if they were on TBN, that’s not your fault. 🙂

But, I do have a problem with the whole industry that is designed to make money, using the gospel of Christ as a platform from which to create and promote celebrities, all the while calling itself Christian. Genuine Christianity does have hallmarks, particular characteristics that prove it is the genuine article. Those include charity, kindness, long-suffering, patience, teaching, sacrifice and a Christ-centeredness that believes “He must increase, I must decrease.” Those attitudes are diametrically opposed to the celebrity-driven culture that TBN promotes.

And, that’s my complaint.

I don’t care if any band or any artist wants to go out into the marketplace and promote itself and its message. That’s free enterprise, which I am a great fan of. And, I have no complaint with any of those bands that you like. If you enjoy the music, that’s a matter of taste. Go for it. But, once you drag God into the conversation, once you say that you are representing Christ and His Word, then you have entered an entirely new arena. No longer can your primary purpose be self-promotion. You must be certain that Christ is your whole purpose. That’s where the problems begin, though. In order for these bands to promote their message – regardless of their theological depth or lack of it – they must promote themselves, their name, their image and they must sell a certain number of units or they will be dropped from the label in favor of bands that make more money for the corporation. Hence, the message is secondary to the profit. So, the message that’s promoted must necessarily be as universally appealing as possible. But, the genuine gospel has a built-in offense. So, they reduce the gospel to its most inoffensive elements for the purpose of finding the widest audience and selling the greatest number of units. Consequently, the bottom line supersedes the gospel.

I do no like that sort of compromise. It is an insult to the message and a perversion of the truth.

But, I’m a hard-headed old man.

By the way, I know several musicians who are fabulously talented, but who use their gifts solely for the service of the church and the edification of the body of Christ. They are not interested in becoming famous. They are interested in using their gifts for His glory. And, they are happy, fulfilled musicians who make a living from their music. They aren’t rich, but they are in His service. And, that’s enough for them. So, it can be done. To be famous is a conscious choice. And, the trappings of fame (which I know all too well) are diametrically opposed to the Christian ideal.

I’m not trying to be offensive. I’m just trying to hold to the truth. That’s my gig. In order to do what I’m called to do, I know I’m going to beat my head against the wall of modern society and our current state of theological indifference. That’s part of the package, I suppose. But, it hurts somewhere in the pit of my stomach when I see the magnificent sacrifice of Christ reduced to neatly packaged morsels of nonsense designed for mass consumption.

But like I’ve said before, where Christ is concerned, I’m an extremist. Oh yea, that’s another name I get pegged with. But, I wear it proudly. I was extremely sinful, God loved me extremely and Christ paid an extreme price to purchase my extremely wonderful eternity. So, I’m comfortable with the extremes.

So I say, enjoy the music. Know the truth. And, serve the One who is the Truth.

Q – Are you then saying that it is impossible to be a ‘popular’ Christian performing artist and still keep Christ at the center?

Jim – No, not impossible; but, very, very difficult. Fame is like a drug. Very few people are content with a small dose of fame. My brother (a past actor/stuntman) used to live with me in Los Angeles. We had lots of friends who became “famous” for short periods of time. And, it always effected them adversely. We used to say, “The monster eats everyone.” It was our way of saying that fame, and the industry of celebrity, chews people up and spits them out. But, once people get a taste of the hero worship that comes with fame, it is instantly addictive.

I want to believe that there are “popular” Christian performers who have their heads on straight and their faith intact. I just haven’t encountered many.

Thanks for writing. Enjoy your music. Remember what matters, who must increase and who must decrease.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.