Celebrity Culture, the “Speaking Circuit,” and John the Baptist

I am one of those tortured-soul types.  And this post is an invitation into one of my ongoing struggles.  (“Welcome all you suckers to Struggleville” as my friend Bill Mallonee used to sing).

The struggle I am writing about here is more than a personal struggle.  This is a church struggle.  The issue is this:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church? 

The question is important for both those who lift their voices publicly, AND for the church which gives them a platform and lends the ear.

I am struggling with this because I am an author.  As an author, I have this overriding sense that God has supplied a message that needs a public hearing.  But marketing techniques, strategies for “building your platform,” and trying to bag multiple speaking engagements can feel like dodgy enterprises.

I remember having coffee with a marketing pro while my first book was circulating between editor and copy editor as an unpublished pdf file.  She told me it was time to start making calls, time to get the word out, time to knock on the doors, utilize my networking skills and call on all my contacts: if you believe in your message, you have to get it out there, and that objective requires marketing.

This “marketing pro” is not a slick ad-woman with a knack for cut-throat business dealing.  She is a Godly, sensible person committed to getting the messages of God through certain authors to the church.

But did anyone ever have a heart-to-heart with Jeremiah and tell him he needed to beef up his networks and start Tweeting like a maniac?


But… Yet…

Here is the thing: the Bible is full of people to whom God gave a public message and to whom He assigned a public ministry.  And in 6th century BC Judah and in 1st century AD Athens, there was a culturally accepted apparatus in place for how someone aired public messages in public.  Jeremiah could stand on the Temple steps and Paul knew to ascend the Areopagus.

I have been thinking about entering what folks in the know call “the speaker circuit.”  It feels presumptuous even to write that, and the phrase “the speaker circuit” makes me cringe with awkwardness.

But… Yet….

I really believe in Faith Without Illusions.  I remember those long hours writing on cynicism, revisiting my own disillusionment, praying and studying with such urgency—and all these practices were endured for the sake of finding and producing some cultural artifact (a book) that by the astonishing and ironic power of providence would be helpful to the church. And as I work on this second book (‘TheoMedia’) the excitement and urgency is no less.

Then again, when Jeremiah had a fire in his bones, he didn’t have a product to sell.

And it is quite unlikely Isaiah would have done much book signing while sitting nude outside that Jerusalem gate.

Now, I am not celebrity-material in personality or appearance.  I am a marketing flop, not a marketing pro.  I have tweeted about my book once.  I blog about it very rarely, and I feel a little weird about having the image of its cover on the  column to the right.  But the fire is in the bones, crackling within the pages, and perhaps it is irresponsible not to get the thing out there on the Temple steps and in the ears of those lingering about the Areopagus.

But how does one faithfully lift a voice in the public square without endorsing celebrity culture or co-opting the personality-driven tribalism so prevalent in the church?

Dear Church/Campus Ministry/University,

I am a gifted speaker and a published author.  I would love to share with your congregation/students what God has placed on my heart.  Please consider booking me for one of your upcoming church/chapel events so that we can all benefit from these insights together.


Itinerant Speaker

I used to get letters like these quite often when I served in pastoral ministry.  And they always turned me off.  My book is on the stuff Christians do that make us cynical.  And this sort of thing can get my own cynical juices flowing.

But… Yet…

Many of us have been divinely appointed to the public role of lifting voices, whether through preaching or writing.  So how should it be done with integrity and with a cautious resistance to the trappings of celebrity culture?

I have some friends who do this speaker circuit thing for a living, and I trust them.  I just really trust them.  I can look to them as models. The one I will make the most influential model, however, will be John the Baptist as he is portrayed in the Gospel of John.  For the Fourth Evangelist, John the Baptist showed up, loudly pointed to someone greater, and then faded away….   That is the demeanor captured in the painting above where the Baptist juts his long, lanky finger out toward Jesus.

More on that in the next post….



Imagination & Biblical Scholarship

Since living in England, my family and I have had our imaginative capacities expanded when it comes to reflecting on history.  Bounding on castle grounds and clambering hillsides once ascended by Viking invaders or defended from Picts by Roman soliders… these multi-sensory experiences provide a landscape / cityscape / castle-scape for imagining the historical events that transpired so long ago.

Using the  imagination might seem too much like a flight of fancy when it comes to so sophisticated a discipline as biblical scholarship.  But in fact, we are always using our imaginations.  The shreds of papyrus picked up in the sands, the torn pages of faded codices, the cracked sculptures discovered under the earth in modern day Turkey, the crumbling mortar in the remaining temples—these are textual and material artifacts by which we imaginatively construct the world of the Old and New Testaments.

Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans when the church was still young and just beginning to flourish in the Empire.  My kids run alongside it sometimes, wielding plastic versions of swords or shields fashioned from the prototypes of actual weapons pulled out of bogs or found corroding in the dirt.  Those dear little children are role-playing, vividly spying their enemies on the horizon and fortifying their pretend defenses.  This is imaginative play.  They are mentally imaging a scene constructed in their minds from the ruins and remains of bygone events and peoples.

Professionally trained and long-tenured scholars do the same thing every day (though perhaps less playfully).  To really understand the biblical text, one must try to taste the dirt and smell the smells, to feel the grit and hear the banter in the markets.  Fanciful work?  Yes, at times.  But the imagination can be a powerful ally aiding our retrospective investigations of the past.

Now, sometimes biblical scholarship gets imaginative in ways even my kids would deem irresponsible.  Like stretching the imagination to say that clearly the Jesus of the Gospels was no more than an impoverished cynic-wanderer who had some pithy things to say.  Like offering a multi-year account of the history of some community purportedly responsible for one of the Gospel texts (for which there is little by way of evidence, textual or material).

Sometimes our imaginations get the better of us, I suppose… even if we would never want to admit that we are doing something as “childish” as thinking imaginatively.

In spite of the fanciful mishaps, we need not disparage the imagination as a tool of our trade.   Running along Hadrian’s Wall with my kids and deflecting sailing “arrows” with my “shield” might be another element of my training as a PhD student.

Imagine that.

The Poet William Wordsworth on the Pastor-Theologian

I visited Rydal Mount a few weeks ago, the home of poet William Wordsworth.  My father-in-law was visiting us here in England, so we spent a couple of days in “the Lakes” (besides my father-in-law, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were apparently also sighted in the Lake District that week).

Rydal Mount sits just on a sloped hill affording a view of both Windermere and Rydal Water.  With the gardens elegantly manicured, inspired by the tender care the poet gave to every flower bed, stone and patch of green, the place feels like a dreamy sanctuary.

When we were leaving, my father-in-law bought me a collection of Wordsworth’s poetry from the gift shop.  I will be reading those sonnets for the rest of my life.  I was pleased to come across this one, called “Pastoral Character,” from the Ecclesiastical Sonnets (number 18):


PASTORAL CHARACTER, William Wordsworth

A genial hearth, a hospitable board,
And a refined rusticity, belong
To the neat mansion, where, his flock among,
The learned Pastor dwells, their watchful Lord.
Though meek and patient as a sheathéd sword;
Though pride’s least lurking thought appear a wrong
To human kind; though peace be on his tongue,
Gentleness in his heart – can earth afford
Such genuine state, pre-eminence so free,
As when, arrayed in Christ’s authority,
He from the pulpit lifts his awful hand;
Conjures, implores, and labours all he can
For re-subjecting to divine command
The stubborn spirit of rebellious man?


A few things stand out to me….

For one, Wordsworth’s portrayal is of what I would call a “pastor-theologian” or a “pastor-scholar.”  Note the phrase “learned pastor,” and given the way ecclesiastical structures work in England (and noting the setting of the mid-1800s), many pastors/priests would be among society’s intellectuals, though the clergy often worked well beyond the pale of where most elites worked (like in remote country parishes, for instance).

Another observation is the restrained sense of power and authority.  There is tension between exerting force and exhibiting meekness.  I think good pastors live in this tension.  The line, “meek and patient as a sheathéd sword,” is a powerful illustration of ministerial restraint.  There is a might, a sharp-steel element of danger in the pastor.  Not a danger posed to the flock, but to evil, to twisted thoughts, to deception.  The place of conflict is the pulpit; the means of engagement is exhortation (“Conjures, implores, and labours all he can”) and the authority is that of Christ.  But again, note that these images of strength are balanced with the weight of statements about meekness and peacefulness of heart.

Another observation, made from the initial lines, is that the pastor’s home (the “mansion” probably refers to a parsonage or vicarage) is a safe, open place wherein the members of the flock feel at ease.  The pastor’s home is as critical as the pastor’s pulpit.

So the pastoral character is that of a soul exuding comfort and peace while also engaging evil in the realms of the pulpit and the hearth, the chapel and the home.

Good stuff.


Panicky Self-Preservation, Being a Dad, etc.

Mandy and I have a 6-month old son. He’s our first child. It’s been an amazing experience.

It’s certainly cliché, but we are learning a lot about our God, ourselves, and the Gospel in the process.

Things changed when our little Henry began to recognize his bottle. When he is hungry, he panics a bit. He whines, coos, cries, charms — anything to get roughly six ounces of milk.

It’s even worse when the liquid is within his field of vision. The attempts to fend for himself, to seek his own self-preservation become more intense. He freaks. He’s panicky. Strangely, if we are in process of giving him the milk, he only gets more nervous.

That’s understandable. It’s on him, right? He’s the one that has to seek his own sustenance, right?


I’m his dad and I’ll never deny him anything that’s good for him. Ever. I mean, if he asks me for a fish, will I give him a snake?

Of course not, and I’m a sub-par dad.

The simple truth is that he can relax, I’m his dad. It’s okay. He really doesn’t have to do the panicky self-preservation bit.

Neither do I.

Deuteronomy, the Devil, Jesus and my Kids

[Note: The following is taken from the draft of my forthcoming book ‘TheoMedia’…]


Jesus quoted Deuteronomy more than any other Old Testament book. I was recently reading to my two oldest kids from Jesus’ temptation scene in Luke’s Gospel and decided I would inspire them with this: “when Jesus was assaulted by evil, he quoted Deuteronomy.”

For children who regularly fight imaginary bad guys and fairy tale beasts with toy swords and homemade archery kits, they did not seem very inspired. An old book they can hardly pronounce and probably cannot spell seemed like shoddy weaponry should a dragon draw nigh.

My wife and I have explained to our children that there are dark spiritual forces out there tempting us to do wrong. But the confrontation between Jesus and Satan in Luke 4 seemed a bit absurd in their ears: “Dad, if Jesus had not eaten in forty days, then why would it have been a sin to turn the stone into bread?”

The second temptation caused less consternation. Gaining the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping the devil was perceived as clearly wrong. But along with the conviction that worshiping anyone but God is bad, my oldest son was just as disturbed by the fact that Satan may have been guilty of false advertising. He knows the serpent of old to be a renown trickster.  Maybe he did not control all those kingdoms like he made out. My son smelled something suspicious, like when a friend promises a candy bar she does not actually have on her person.

The final temptation as Luke has it (Matthew follows a slightly different order) made no sense whatsoever to my kids. They could not quite figure out why jumping off the Temple heights would be a temptation. Surely Jesus would not fall for something that ridiculous. Only a fool would purposely hurl oneself off a bike or out of a tree, much less off a building onto stone pavement. As far as they were concerned, there was nothing heroic in Jesus’ valiant refusal . He was just using the sort of common sense they had learned from toddlerhood. Even their 4-yr old little brother knew not to jump off high places.

I almost explained that Jesus was actually resisting the temptation to pull off a spectacular stunt in the most public and religiously significant place in Palestine, and in so doing producing a grandstand media-event that would have resulted in a supernatural display of angelic powers (as Satan put it) which would instantly guarantee Jesus celebrity status.

I just stuck with a simple summary of what is arguably scene’s main point: Though Israel forgot Deuteronomy, Jesus did not.

Don’t forget Deuteronomy. It doesn’t sound like the typical lesson from a devotional or sermon. But actually, forgetting Deuteronomy, setting aside the media of God’s words, is why Israel and eventually Judah fell into rot and ruin.

The good news (“Gospel”) is this: though we forget the words of God, though we forsake him and fail to heed his commands, Jesus does not.  Jesus remembers Deuteronomy.



Jean Val-Saban and the SEC Dreamed a Dream: An Inter-marital Culture Clash

I’ve been taking care for all four kids since Wednesday while my wife visits Stratford-upon-Avon and London with her Dad.  Tonight, she is watching Les Misérables.   The girl deserves every second of leisure, and I am so pleased to manage the home for this 5-day span.  But today I am pretty worn down.  I’ve been writing early in the morning and at night before the start and end of the school day. Then I prepared a devotional for some of the leaders of my church here in England.

So tonight I decided I would not work—that is actually quite rare for me.  I am not very good with relaxing.

What should I do?  I decided I would watch Georgia football… ahhh.  That sounded nice.  But alas, the time difference!  So I just found the Alabama game online.

Right when I had the screen all aglow with SEC football, my cell phone buzzes with Miranda sending a text. Remember, she is in London seeing our favorite novel portrayed on stage with song….


Wife: Intermission and utterly speechless.  I am undone.  Nearly cried and sang out loud about 27 times. Simply undone.

Me: Oh Yeah? Well I’m watching Bama and SEC football.  So?

Wife, a few minutes later: I have you beat sucka, but yay for you. 


I love that girl.  Even though she is seeing Les Mis in London while I care for the kids and watch Alabama.

Oh wait! Alabama’s marching band is playing the theme from Phantom of the Opera from the stands!  This isn’t gonna be so bad….