You know the story of the Prodigal Son, right? A father has two sons. One essentially wishes his father dead by asking for his inheritance early only to engage in loose living and then squanders his money. He returns home (literally) covered in shame and his father welcomes him with open arms. The second son self-righteously does everything right and is angered that “this son of yours” gets a hero’s welcome when he was disobedient to begin with.
Most pastors these days focus on the second son for, in the church, our biggest sin is not loose living but self-righteousness. (If only!) Both temptations are wicked and soul-crushing. But what a useful parable it is! Especially when once thoroughly secular celebrities become Christian. The parallels are hard to miss.
Here stands the church telling everyone how to live, presumably with the voice of the snide older brother: “don’t fornicate”; “don’t do drugs”; “don’t love money;”, etc. The world usually doesn’t listen and even judges us for preaching a message of prudence and thrift. The world proceeds to make a mess of things. But then, one celebrity comes from the world and, on occasion, says, “You know what, you were right after all! I’ve made a mess of things. Time to return home.”
We—the Church, those who have been preaching the right message this whole time—welcome the sinner home, especially if he is a celebrity. For we are so very hopeful that—FINALLY—someone with some actual influence can help us out. The heathen refuse to listen to us, so maybe they will listen to a former fellow-heathen. He, by virtue of his wealth and fame, apparently now has credibility. The tide is turning! We are winning! We have won over Kirk Cameron, Bob Marley, Larry Flynt (for a few months), Anne Rice, and now Kanye West. Our 400-year pagan experiment is drawing to a close!
Well, that is a slight exaggeration. Few people’s hope are that high due to one celebrity conversion. Right? In all seriousness, what are all the dynamics of a celebrity’s conversion to Christianity? Ought we to be skeptical? Hopeful? Disparaging? Praying? Do such conversions help or hurt?
I would like to lay down a few principles that would apply to any conversion, even those of celebrities. Perhaps this will help us know how to feel about a famous person’s conversion. For I would like to think that we will not disparage a homecoming as the judgmental older brother. But I also would like to think that we would not pin our hopes on the whims of men, even famous men. So, some thoughts:
1) God would have us all repent and believe, for that is the universal message of the Church to the world. God is no “respecter of persons” so he is not more joyful or surprised when a movie star confesses Christ compared to the lowly mechanic who replaces brake pads all day. In short, there is simply no ontological/intrinsic “extra” value to a celebrity’s conversion. The angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents, no matter their net worth.
2) Truth is not a popularity contest. The fame of a confessor does not make his or her confession truer. Either the Bible is God’s Word and we can believe it or it is not. A famous person endorsing it does not make it true any more than a famous person converting to Mormonism makes it true.
3) We should be as hopeful for a celebrity’s conversion as much as anyone else’s conversion. Jesus tells us the parable of the soil/seeds for a reason. We know in advance that some seed falls on rocky soil, worn soil, thorny soil, and good soil. Only time will tell if a new convert will persevere in the faith. So, we should pray for the Kanyes of the world like we would pray for any other new convert.
4) It is probably naive to believe that celebrities will help to break the hardened heart of an unbeliever, but we should hope for it, anyway. The problem with rooting truth in popular terms is that the moment a celebrity claims to have discovered it, that celebrity will likely become passé.
Sure, Kanye, for example, may have carved out a new audience for himself among believing Christians. But his conversion will likely cause everyone who already thought he was old and out of touch to be absolutely convinced of that now. In other words, ironically, Kanye lost credibility with the world the moment he confessed Christ. (That is kind of what Jesus predicted.)
5) By the logic of “a celebrity becoming a Christian helps to justify our belief”, then a celebrity who renounces his Christianity justifies that belief. In other words, if celebrities have outsized influence one way, why would they not have the same influence the other way?
6) There are no shortcuts to discipleship. Just as the numbers of those who come to faith as a result of a Billy Graham revival are remarkably low, so too will the numbers of Kanye’s converts be. Oh sure, perhaps thousands will become Christian because if it’s good enough for Kanye, it’s good enough for us. But how many will stay the course in being faithful disciples of Jesus? That is the goal, after all.
7) Finally, it may be that even one soul comes to faith as a result of a celebrity’s conversion, and we rejoice at that. But in the long run, is it possible that more harm is done than good? If Christianity is watered down to a mere moment, decision, or feeling, and that comes to be what an even larger group comes to believe Christianity is, then, yes, more harm is done than good.
Christianity is more than a decision to love Jesus. It is a lifelong pursuit of that love and it will come with temptation, hardship, and challenges unimaginable at the time that decision is made. If and when anyone reduces Christianity to anything less than what it is, the result will ultimately be more harm than good.
I am hopeful and from what I hear, Kanye certainly seems sincere. Let us all hope so. For his fall would be tragic for him and an embarrassment for the Church. And the longer we prop up new converts without adequate community, teaching, and discipline, the less we should expect them to follow through.