Well, conservatives, which is it? Is Hollywood full of immoral dunderheads who are enslaved to an evil system, whose remarkable lack of education makes them horrible teachers on issues of global warming, abortion, and wealth distribution? Or is the fame of the celebrity something that we can use to our advantage when they agree with us, especially when they have a public conversion to something as important as our Christian faith? Should I ignore the cesspool of LA when they disagree with me, only to listen ever more diligently when they affirm my views?
Might I suggest a strategy to serious Christians when it comes to looking for affirmation: stop pandering! It’s not a good look. If a celebrity agrees with you, get in the habit now of not caring. If you really care what a famous person thinks about Christianity, you are placing an outsized value on a person who could just as easily change their mind and leave you hanging. You are giving an outsized value to someone who has an incentive to lie and may be in a process of deception, while someone who humbly and diligently studies or lives out their faith goes ignored. And you are placing an outsized value in what a famous person says rather than what God says, as though fame makes them more true.
In this case, a bishop may be playing into the hands of a celebrity who wants to grab some headlines when his movies are released. But, whatever the case, it is a pathetic display of the desperate state of Christianity: a guy in the marketing phase of his film’s distribution claims conversion, and we all lap it up like thirsty exes wanting to believe that their cheating girlfriend/boyfriend has changed.
The Curious Case of Shia LaBeouf
A perfect example of this sort of pandering, occurred recently with the news that the chronically disturbed Shia LaBeouf has swum the Tiber and converted to Catholicism. I am supposed to be gleeful at this? Well, perhaps I will be, but not because he is a celebrity. Rather, because he is the one repentant sinner about whom the angels will rejoice more than the 99.
That said, can we slow our roll and check back in a decade? Can we see if this conversion actually, you know, takes? For if this is real, Mr. LaBeouf is about to enter the spiritual testing of his life, and unless he has good people around him, there is no promise his new faith will survive it.
Portraying St. Padre Pio, an Italian monk and mystic who claimed to possess the stigmata, has apparently had a profound impact on Mr. LaBeouf. He has renounced his primitive ways and become a devout Roman Catholic who even enjoys the Latin Mass to boot. Sounds almost too good to be true. “One of the barbarians has finally seen the light! One of them now agrees with me! A famous person agrees with Jesus, so now I do too, even more than I did before!”
Well, I have thoughts.
First, why do we fetishize celebrity conversions? God is not a respecter of persons. God is not impressed with Shia LaBeouf’s IMDB profile. So why are Christians? I know why unbelievers are: because they are idolaters. But can we please refrain from the same temptation?
Second, does the right honorable Bishop Barron, whose interview with Mr. LaBeouf has exposed this conversion, really think this kind of publicity is wise? Does he not realize that Mr. LaBeouf is in the business of selling movie tickets, and a personal conversion to go with this particular film would tremendously help that? Does he not remember the Scriptural warning against parading the zeal of a new convert (1 Tim 3:6)? I get that this interview will be great for YouTube views (It has 1 million views in less than a week), but is it good for the Kingdom? I mean, we are exhorted to seek the Kingdom first, yes?
Don’t get me wrong, Bishop Barron, the new bishop of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester and prolific YouTuber, believes Mr. LaBeouf has the credentials for this kind of publicity. He has, after all, declared Mr. LaBeouf to be “one of the best actors of his generation.” (Has he even seen Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull?)
And? What difference does that make? Does the good Bishop not understand that actors lie, pretend, and make-believe for a living? Does he really believe that an actor’s conversion or faith is more important than the simple faith of the anonymous, illiterate, peasant in Bolivia? Is he not aware of the risk of this high-profile conversion?
After all, Mr. LaBeouf might be the most dangerous celebrity to pin your hopes on. He has, even by Hollywood standards, had many moments of strange behavior. For all we know, this may just be another unhinged moment he will soon get therapy for and walk away from. And he seems to love attention. How can we be sure that this is not just a way to get attention from a bunch of thirsty Christians who, having been beaten up by the culture wars, are desperate for some affirmation?
Third, I take particular issue with LaBeouf’s slam on Martin Luther, which just exposes his ignorance. He says in his interview with Bishop Barron: “When Pio was exiled, he didn’t hit Twitter. He just got quiet…he didn’t get loud. He didn’t do the Martin Luther. He did the St. Francis, which was he quietly got more Christ-like, and cultivated that as opposed to this rebellion.”
If a modern Catholic wants to defend the Roman Catholic Church of the early 1500s, by all means, go ahead. If you cannot see that the Church was disgustingly corrupt and swimming in filthy lucre, I don’t know how much credibility you have in spiritual matters. The common slur against Luther as a childish whiner is uninformed and libelous. The man was an incredible scholar, hyper-devout, faithful and modest to a fault, and someone courageous enough to stand up to undeniably corrupt powers. His arguments were made in dense volumes, not 140-character complaints. While you may disagree with his conclusions and interpretations, to write him off as a “rebel” is to buy the lie that Medicis who were made Cardinals at the age of 13 (Pope Leo X) are better Christians than a monk who had memorized the Psalter, lived in humility for decades, taught the Bible in a university, and insisted that God’s Word be the standard for the Church. I’ll take Luther any day in that showdown of misfits.
Right Now we Only See Through the Limelight Dimly
Hey, I get it: we all love a good conversion story. But celebrating celebrities ultimately undercuts our witness. We testify to the truth regardless of their popularity. Our message is foolishness to Gentiles. Hoping that someone from the “inside” will end up converting the masses is literally the opposite of what Jesus and Paul say we should expect. We are told that if they hated Jesus, they will hate us, too, and, again, that our message will be a stumbling block to the “wise” (1 Corinthians 1:23).
So don’t expect some rash of conversions even if Mr. LaBeouf has truly seen the light. If anything, he has exposed himself to powers of darkness that he may not yet comprehend. Rather than celebrating his conversion, we should be sheltering him. Puffing him up only makes a potential fall that more likely.
As a side note, the character to whom this conversion is credited, Saint Padre Pio, is either an angel from heaven or a duplicitous fraud. I can’t say from here. But here is a guy with stigmata on his hands and who was surrounded by accusations of fraud. It wasn’t until his death that the Church agreed that the accusations of fraud were untrue. And it is not like there have not been many, many frauds who convinced people they could perform miracles such as the Brazilian "spiritual healer" John of God.
For the sake of Shia LaBeouf’s soul, I hope this is a sincere conversion to Christianity, which is a sole reliance on the work of Christ for the forgiveness of sins. But there is no more value in a celebrity becoming a Christian than anyone else. I don’t need them justifying me. Rather, they, like all of us, need Christ to justify them.
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