This post draws on last week’s “Celebrity Culture, the ‘Speaker Circuit,’ and John the Baptist.”
In that post I struggle over being an author who believes deeply in his message to the church, but feels uncomfortable with the apparatus for getting messages out to churches: booking speaking engagements, beefing up a network, using social media to expand a platform, etc.
Please note—I have friends in the speaker circuit who conduct themselves nobly and with integrity. They do the practical networking stuff in a way that seems grounded in Christ-centered devotion. I’m just expressing my own personal discomfort with the whole thing.
(Paul refers to “weak” believers who could not eat the meat sold in the Greco-Roman markets. Some people held convictions that were unnecessary, but not necessarily wrong. Maybe I am one of those sort when it comes to this.)
Celebrity (& Consumer) Culture and Mass-Marketing Divine Oracles
Beyond my own personal wranglings, the way the church and her “influencers” receive and relay messages is extremely important for us to think about. Should we be examining the apparatus of message-marketing that serves as a primary means of shaping and influencing the church’s thinking? Here is the question from the previous post:
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?
To get a public message out to a wider audience beyond one’s own local parish requires public relations. And that can get tricky for a Christian in a culture that loves (and loves to hate) local or regional or global celebrities.
What’s more, mass public messages to the church today are often in the form of purchasable material, like books (or speaker bookings, when can creep up into multi-thousand dollar figures per 30 minutes).
This means that the messages must be buy-able.
Which also means that public messages get intertwined not only with celebrity culture, but with the values and operations of our consumer culture. I know I get squeamish quite easily. But some of this is worthy of squeamishness.
A Voice in the Wild
Enter: John the Baptist.
I acknowledged in the last post that the prophets and the apostles (we could add Jesus Himself) offered public messages within a certain range of expected parameters for, well, ancient PR. They were different from their contemporary public figures, and tried to draw distinctions: Paul could be easily looped in with the sophists, the (usually) itinerant crowd-wowers and cultural “influencers” of antiquity’s public square (1 Cor 1 offers a whiff of this). Though different, they were using certain means of public communication already established in the culture. Even in Jewish quarters like Palestine there was some understanding that a rabbi might take up followers and share his teaching in public with others.
By 1st century standards, John the Baptist was something of an off-the-charts sensation.
His fame, of course, cannot be understood thru our own pop-cultural lenses (in spite of the language I just used in the previous sentence). But we can note that his was a household name. Hordes gathered to him. Were John ministering in a 21st century setting, his Twitter followership would have been enormous and his blog stats through the roof… assuming he would have used social media.
And actually, that is a big assumption, mind you, no matter how confident today’s media enthusiasts might assert axiomatically that he certainly would have been known as @JBap.
But maybe he would have—the man had a message. He is described in terms of “a voice” (from Isa 40:3). And he did not shy away from lifting that voice. But before we jump to conclusions about how he might use modern-day PR methods, let’s consider this: his preferred attire was not that of fine robes (or designer jeans!) and his preferred venue was the barren wild, not the market or the palace lawn (on his dress and base of operations, see Mt 11:7-8).
So how did he manage his public persona?
Perhaps just as importantly, how did the Gospel writers present his public persona?
In all four Gospels, John the Baptist appears like a bolt out of the blue… and then he recedes almost immediately into the background, drifting backstage as soon as Jesus appears.
John’s Gospel, as I mentioned in the prequel to this post, seems most deliberate in presenting the Baptist as a loud, robust, vocal persona whose “platform” exists for one purpose only: to exalt another. In Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls John the greatest man born of woman (Lk 7.28/Mt 11.11).
What we find in the Fourth Gospel is that the vocation of the greatest of all mortal men is to point to someone greater… and then fade away.
Behold the Lamb! (Jn 1.29, 36)
He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3.30)
John the Baptist is a good role model for anyone involved in public ministry. To the extent that our books, “speaking events,” Tweets and blog posts are in direct service of the message we believe God has given us—these should point to Jesus while the author (the “voice”) intentionally recedes into the backstage shadows.
The Church of One Celeb
But there is something else to learn from John’s Gospel about today’s apparatus for conveying and receiving mass-marketed messages. Not only should we be concerned with the public persona, but with how the people of God receive and regard that “celebrity” figure. One does not become “famous” without fans or “popular” without a populace. How should the church behave itself in regard to our prominent leaders, “influencers” and messengers?
Like Andrew and the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-37—
The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.
When our prominent “influencers” point beyond themselves to the Best and the Highest, then we should follow the trajectory of their gaze. As in the well-known work of art above, let’s follow the trajectory Grünewald depicts of John the Baptist’s long, re-directing finger.