Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Cult of Personality: Emptying the Cross of its Power

2 months ago, I declared to a mate of mine that I would not post any more about what is now commonly known as 'Cult of Personality'.

I guess I'd already said my piece. And more than that, I found myself regularly being misunderstood. (Most of my correspondents thought that I was attacking their hero, and so they defended that hero, not realizing that my problem is *not* with their hero, but with we who lift them up! In many ways, they proved my point, but it never helped the dialogue!)

But I'm going to post once more, because I've just now read an article by Carl Truman from Westminster Theological Seminary. The article has put shape and insight into the very issue that I have found most troubling in our Mega-Church, Personality-Driven World. (H/T Justin Taylor)


I finally feel like I have an ally.

Here is it: "The Day they Tried to Recruit Me" By Carl Trumen.

Please take time to read the whole article. Trueman says of the Professorial world --
The cult of professor worship is perhaps the most dangerous and reprehensible cult in the theological world. (...) It is no respecter of souls: nothing so destroys a Christian leader, or his followers, than the mutual flattery involved in the uncritical adulation of a fan-base for a professorial rock star (and I use that term advisedly). Hence, while every instinct in me told me that the offer was a great opportunity to start up Team Trueman on campus, I chose to go against my fallen desires and immediately declined the offer.
But the bit that was most helpful to me is when Trueman made the point that the Rock Star Professor may 'negate the power of Christ' --
What is worse than this, of course, is that such people negate the power of the cross of Christ. Paul makes the point with ruthless effect in 1 Corinthians 1. To indulge in a cult of personality is not simply to miss the point of the cross; it is also to empty the cross of its power. That is why it is not simply incumbent upon students to guard against being sucked in to such idolatry. How much more is it incumbent upon the professors to avoid becoming the objects of such a cult? It is often said that you cannot enter into a pulpit and make yourself look like a great preacher and Christ look like a great savior at one and the same time. So it is in the classroom, on campus, at conferences: the professor, the theologian, cannot point to the power of the cross and simultaneously encourage a cult of personality. These things simply cannot stand together. Indeed, it is surely vital that the professor not only avoid creating such cults but also actively opposes them as they start to arise around him. To do less than this is, I fear, to empty the cross of its power and to lead others into idol worship.
Hear hear.

I have said something similar here:
It's even further nuanced by this: that when we always link to our favorite preacher, and then download, talk about, love, follow, go to conferences to fawn over, get a photo with, compare to, rate, hire because of fame, join a mega-church on the gifts of a single personality, make a Facebook group to express your appreciation for your favorite pastor-teacher, then… it may just be possible, without even realizing it, to 'empty the cross of it power'! It’s all in 1 Corinthians 1-2. 1:17 in particular.

What does it, in this text, mean to 'empty the cross of its power?'

I’m very nervous about the fact that even the good guys are going down the same route, in principle, as the followers of bad televangelists of the ‘80s: running after their favorite preachers. We just do it in style, and with good theology.
I could write as I have done before 'Discuss'.

But I'd prefer to ask: "Do you actually understand Truman's argument?" And if yes, then what do you think about it?


Here is the original post I put up on this issue:
No, I'm not a fan of John Piper.

And here are some others:
Yes, I am a fan of Selwyn Sexton (3 Posts).
Trading Card for Evangelicals.
Jonathon Edwards and Tacos.

And here are all 14 posts with the Tag:
Corinthian Hoo-Haa.

Pic on Flickr by Noniphon.


michael jensen said...

Is it too cynical to point out that Trueman has just let the world know that there are people who want to make him a hero? Should we be impressed by his humility?

Justin said...

Yeah-- that's cynical. Unless you know something I don't know.

Doesn't this happen at every college: take the lecturer out for a beer, and become his/her best mate?

Isn't Truman describing something that happens all the time?

Tell me MPJ -- You are the professor!

SamR said...

Great post Justin. Can I be your fan? ;)

Seriously, thanks for posting this stuff up. I love reading posts that point me back to the scriptures.

We're all susceptible to this issue, but so often people trying to warn others about this issue end up tearing down a godly person because they're 'famous' or can preach well, rather than pointing us back to our own hearts and to Jesus and his cross.

Justin said...

but so often people trying to warn others about this issue end up tearing down a godly person because they're 'famous' or can preach well...

Hey Samr -- yeah -- that ain't right. Good call.

But here is something I have seen: I've seen people with a legitimate concern *not* to empty the cross of its power - and so say things that Carl Truman has said -- and they just get told that 'it must be envy', or 'that's tall poppy syndrome'.


Maybe that's what they accused the Apostle Paul of. (Who knows?)

Or maybe it's a legitimate desire to make sure Christianity is a cross-shaped movement even in its agency, and not a movement of the Flesh.

Either way -- I thank God for all people who speak the truth. Especially when the truth is told by a non-hero, and out of the public eye, and before a God who sees all.

Oh, the power of that moment! (I wish we could see the power from God's perspective!)

Jim said...

Timely and accurate.
Do you mind if I refer to this post in a facebook note? (of course just to give credit where credit is due, not because I am a fan :))

Justin said...

Feel free to post a note, James.

P.S. I am not talking about anything happening in Sydney. I don't want to dismiss the power of critique because someone is famous.

I just don't want to be involved in the cult of personality.

Phil P said...

Great article Justin.

Its a challenge to keep Christ at the centre of our faith and believe fully in the power of the gospel (Jesus). The temptation we face daily is to put idols in the way of Jesus...and even Christian ones.

Thanks for the challenge!

Anonymous said...

The danger is double-sided. The problem when a 'personality' speaker preaches, there are those who - almost sub-consciously- flock to the personality (and risk emptying the cross of its power) and those who distract those who can't multi-task from listening to what the personality is saying, by raising the perplexing question of 'the cult of personality' and so also risk emptying the cross of its power, due to the torment caused by asking 'am I drawn to Jesus or the style of this preacher'. ;-)


mandy said...

ohhhh man, *sigh*

why are we even such "fans" of always talking about this stuff all the time ???

round and round in circles...;p
getting dizzy

(sorry justin!)

why do preachers always get so much attention anyway? maybe looking wider and reminding ourselves of the uncountable ways God works *outside* of formalised preaching would ground everything more in perspective a bit? i dunno?? :)

Justin said...

Luke -- not sure what you mean. But keen to hear it.

Justin said...

maybe looking wider and reminding ourselves of the uncountable ways God works *outside* of formalised preaching would ground everything more in perspective a bit? i dunno?? :)

Brilliant, Mandy. You just hit the nail on the head.

Justin said...


I think I understand what you are saying.

But -- and I say this with all respect to you as a friend -- 'emptying the cross of its power' is not about robbing the message of a punch. So its not both ways.

I think that emptying the cross of its power is when, in the divisions created by 'power' and 'wisdom', people pursue the 'powerful one' and the 'wise one'. The reason it empties the cross of its power is that the cross is weak to the powerful, and foolish to the wise.

In other words, when the World heads UPWARDS, the cross heads DOWNWARDS.

The Christian message is a plain declaration of the truth -- said, in Paul's case, in fear and trembling.

I think I have that right.

Emptying the Cross of its power is not about people having existential angst about whether they are loving Jesus, or loving the preacher.

Let me know what you think, brother Luke.

Eun said...

Hey Justin...
this is an interesting post; you might want to read my recent blogpost concerning a recent scandal at Hillsongs church. I'm not sure it relates..but somehow maybe it does.
have you heard of Michael Guglielmucci?