Denzel Washington isn’t shy about being a Christian. In a recent interview with GQ, he points to the Bible as the code he lives by. That a stellar actor with clear Hollywood cache would unabashedly speak of his faith is trumpeted by some Christians as a victory for the faith. But is it? What is helpful and harmful in how we think about the relationship between celebrities and Christianity?
We need to be clear about the positives, especially in the case of someone like Washington, who takes a thoughtful and nuanced approached to his vocation as an actor. He recognizes the complexity of art in a fallen world, even scribbling the words “the wages of sin is death” on the initial script for the violent film Training Day. Washington’s commitment to his craft is to be commended, along with his willingness to reject roles that he sees as genuinely incompatible with his faith.
On the other hand, we need to be aware of the danger of celebrity worship or exalting anyone in the public eye. I do not think Washington or other Christians should be less vocal about their faith. I do think, however, that we need to question the worldview often implicit in championing celebrities who are Christian.
For starters, we must combat the false assumption that God’s kingdom works in a top-down kind of way with the most influential people, such as celebrities, being most valuable. We make this mistake, in part, because we assume that the most visible people in our society are those who make the most difference in moving world history the direction it should go. Celebrities, politicians and sports stars - according to this mindset - are the ones doing big things and therefore making a big difference.
This view can prevent us from recognizing that truly living out our faith can often be quite boring. People routinely speak of “being in a rut” as a bad thing. Nonetheless, the Christian life is about intentionally steering into a not-very-glamorous “kingdom rut” and working out our faith daily in a host of seemingly insignificant ways. Good Christianity will be “boring” in that we will spend the vast majority of our lives doing small things faithfully. Instead of thinking big for God, Christians should do a better job of thinking little. When our exaltation of celebrity unwittingly denigrates faithfulness in little things, it is a problem. As Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 12, all members of the body are vital, and those who are less visible and less noticeable are actually accorded more honor.
But perhaps part of why we focus on celebrities is because that focus lets us off the hook. We can tell ourselves that they are doing the things that really matter, so perhaps our own role (or even our own sin and unfaithfulness) is not that important. In his essay “The Gift of Good Land,” Wendell Berry argues that it is harder, not easier, to pursue faithfulness in ordinary life, noting that “it may, in some ways, be easier to be Samson than to be a good husband or wife day after day for 50 years.”
From Denzel to doormen, janitors to jazz musicians, Tebow to truckers, God is less interested in his people doing “extraordinary” things (as the world would define them) and more interested in his people doing ordinary things with extraordinary faithfulness and obedience.
What Do You Think?
- Does it matter to you when a famous figure identifies as a Christian?
- What are the advantages to high-profile figures of faith? Disadvantages?