Here Come the New Gods

This article by Jon the freelance theologian was originally published in Issue 22 of Faith for Life in February 2005 and relates to the popular reality TV show Big Brother, which began in the UK and has since been exported all over the world.

Here Come the New Gods
– Random Fandom and the Cult of Celebrity

Amid the hype about Big Brother ‘going evil’, one disturbing trend seems to have been overlooked. This is the rise of the ‘Superfan’, promoted by the companion show Big Brother’s Little Brother. Likeable BBLB host Dermot O’ Leary encouraged members of the public to apply and tell him why they should be a Superfan. The winners of the competition then declared on TV their undying love and support for the incarcerated competitor they were allocated.

Now, on one level, this is all fairly harmless froth designed to fill a half hour show that can’t show too much action from inside the Big Brother house without ruining the later, longer programme. But there is something bizarre about promising absolute loyalty to someone who is totally unknown. If the object of your obsession turns out to be a boring geek or a latent psychopath, there is no way out – you’re their Superfan no matter what.

This willing subjugation in worship to another person is partly fuelled by a desire to appear on TV (and thus assume some sense of personal validity), but it also seems to be a trait within society. The magazines that are filled with sordid tales about the antics of B-list celebrities sell because people want to live vicariously through the lives of those they don’t admire but wish to emulate. You can’t admire some of these individuals, but you can still envy their fame and the money they are making from a photo-deal with Heat.

In California, meanwhile, the media circus is in full swing surrounding Michael Jackson’s child-sex trial. If ever there was a case of madness induced by mass adoration, Jackson’s name must head up the list. The fans gathered outside the courthouse, or lining the route that Jackson’s limo drives down, have already decided that their hero is innocent. He must be, because to think that he could do the things he is accused of is too horrible to contemplate. It’s exactly the same kind of adulation that allowed the Emperors of Rome to get away with their infamous crimes.

Where do we as Christians fit into a culture that seems intent on creating a new pantheon of demigods? It’s easy to launch into a diatribe against idolatry, the sin proscribed in both testaments precisely because it’s so easy to fall into. But is this obsession with hero worship in our post-Christian society actually a hopeful sign?

The oft-mentioned desire to worship something other, something outside our fragile, failure-prone existence is perhaps the root cause of the obsession with celebrity. The irony is that people seeking to emulate these clay-footed idols effectively deny themselves the validity they earnestly seek. They want to be known and adored, but do so by trying to change themselves into something different, negating the possibility of ever being accepted for who they are. An extreme example of this is glamour model Jodie Marsh, forever branded the ‘New Jordan’, who in turn manufactured a new personality, leaving behind Katie Price to become the ‘New Pamela Anderson’.

What is being sought in celebrity culture won’t be found there. The Kingdom offers a place where you can be known absolutely and loved for who you are, affirmed by One whose acceptance does not depend on your well-oiled PR machine. Far from asking people to conform, He offers to transform; instead of becoming an idol, He will confer true deity.

The human heart’s longing to worship has often led it astray. But even the Superfans on BBLB are acting out of hope – that there is something worth of worshipping. It is up to us to help realise that hope, bringing them before a King worthy of their worship.

Wedding (Alarm) Bells

Question from CM, United Kingdom

Could you give me an input of your views on the theological implications of the recent marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla since the Church of England endorsed it?

The theological implications of the latest British royal wedding relate mainly to Anglicans and the marriage causes difficulties for two reasons. Firstly, Prince Charles is the next in line to ascend the British throne and thus become the nominal head of the Anglican Church. Secondly, it has always been the position of the Anglican Church that divorced persons could not remarry in an Anglican church. Prince Charles and Camilla were both divorced and had admitted to being in an adulterous relationship.

In many ways Prince Charles’ personal life remains his personal life, but questions have been asked about his suitability to lead the Anglican Church given his behaviour. In the blessing ceremony, both Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles participated in the traditional prayer of penitence from the Book of Common Prayer, which enjoins people to seek God’s forgiveness and renewal in the face of ‘manifold sins and wickedness’.

The impact of the blessing will no doubt be felt through increased demands on Anglican leaders to soften the rules on divorce and remarriage. Theologically, divorce will probably always be a thorny subject. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus explicitly stated that a man who married a divorced woman committed adultery with her (see Matthew chapter 5, verse 32 and chapter 19, verses 3-9, Mark chapter 10, verses 11-12 and Luke chapter 16, verse 18). The issue for a Christian wanting to proclaim Biblical teaching is how to mesh those statements with 21st century situations. The problem with divorce, as with many such highly personal subjects, is that life never seems to be clear-cut. Theological debates have to be conducted in a sensitive way, because people affected by divorce can have old wounds reopened by ‘objective’ discussions.

Another impact of Prince Charles’ wedding will be the renewed vigour found among those who want to see the Church of England disestablished and no longer looking towards the British monarch as the head of the Anglican Church. In 2003 Against Establishment, a self-declared ‘Anglican polemic’ by Theo Hobson, predicted that if Prince Charles got married it would create a “constitutional conundrum” [Against Establishment, Darton, Longman and Todd, p.38]. Hobson is highly critical of the established church for failing to declare Prince Charles ineligible as head of the Church; failing to take a moral stance as it did in the cases of Edward VIII in 1936 and Princess Margaret in 1955. “This speaks volumes about the loss of the Church’s cultural authority… Now the assumption was that the Church would have to adapt itself to the lively love-life of royalty. Which it has duly done: its position on remarriage has conveniently softened over the last few years.” [op. cit. pp38-9]

The disestablishment movement will no doubt gather apace given the reaction of many evangelicals to recent events. While divorce will stay on the debating agenda, the fact that the Church had to, in a sense, go against its own principles to accommodate the man who will one day head it has raised alarm bells. Prince Charles has also famously said that he wants to be ‘a defender of faith’, rather than ‘the defender of the faith’. It might seem a small exercise in verbal pedantry, but actually it has huge theological implications. If Prince Charles really means that he regards Anglicanism, and therefore Christianity, as just one faith option amongst many, then a large proportion of the Anglican Church would disagree with him. The ‘evangelical wing’ of Anglicanism represents the growing local congregations within the Church of England and evangelicalism is often characterised by an emphasis on the exclusive nature of Christianity. Personal morals aside, any theological tinkering by the ‘head of the Church’ will undoubtedly cause dissent.

The challenge towards removing the British monarch as head of the Anglican Church may already be brewing. Interestingly, one of the people who lodged an objection against the wedding was Anglican priest Fr Paul Williamson from Feltham. He has since claimed that the Queen has broken her Coronation oath to uphold the doctrine of the Church of England by consenting to the wedding of two divorcees outside the Church.

At this moment there is no way of knowing what the end result of the royal wedding will be. Any changes in the Anglican Church’s attitude to divorce will take many years to come into effect. The issue of disestablishment may be resolved sooner, even if that means it has to be formally rejected as a way forward by the General Synod.

Thanks for your question, CM – it’s always good to have current affairs under theological scrutiny.

Pandemic and Pentecostal

Question from FM, Zimbabwe

What is the explanation of post modernity or other theories on the HIV/AIDS in the Pentecostal churches. Pentecostals seem to stress the spiritual way of handling this pandemic instead of approaching it literally.

The spread of HIV/AIDS proves to be contentious for Christians, mainly because of the means of transmission. In the developed world, it is still largely confined to homosexual men, despite some ‘cross-over’ into the heterosexual community. It is also more common in injecting drug users who share needles.

Due to its associations with homosexuals and drug addicts, the initial reaction among fundamentalist Christians was to pronounce it as divine judgement on sinful lifestyles. There were some very unfortunate statements made that homosexuals almost ‘deserved’ to catch AIDS because they were ‘living outside the will of God.’ This opinion has generally been dropped within Christian circles in Europe, but is still sometimes heard in America.

In Africa, the situation is different and much more serious in terms of its effect on society. The devastation caused by AIDS in Africa is due to a number of different factors. Firstly, it is very common in the heterosexual community. Secondly, unlike in the developed world, contraception (‘safe sex’) is rarely practiced. Thirdly, pharmaceutical companies have protected their patents to prevent affordable life-extending drugs being available in the developing world. The combination of these three factors has led to a rapid spread of the disease and, in some places, the near-destruction of an entire adult generation.

The reaction of Pentecostal churches in Africa is different to the reaction of fundamentalists in Europe and America. Rather than being a symbol of divine judgement on sin, it is seen as being Satanic in origin. This does reflect popular Pentecostal attitudes towards sickness and disease as being ‘of the devil’.

In a way, this is true. Christian theology has always held that sickness entered the world as a result of human sin (‘the Fall of Man’); sin that was encouraged by Satan, if, as many Christians do, Satan can be identified with ‘the serpent’ of Genesis chapter 3. However, whether the origins of AIDS are seen as spiritual or not, it remains a physical disease. It exists within the body of the host, attacking the immune system and infecting others exposed to it. In that sense, it is a physical thing and needs to be dealt with in a physical way – ensuring blood-safe practices, ‘protected’ sex and so on. The best preventative method is through faithful commitment to one sexual partner, ironically the Christian ideal as found in the Bible.

If HIV/AIDS is regarded solely as a demonic or spiritual problem and nothing is done to address the physical (or literal) problem, then the disease will continue to spread, irrespective of what is said in any church.

Thank you for your question, FM – the first one from Africa to feature on freelance theology.

Millennial Fever

Question from JM, United Kingdom

In light of the Left Behind phenomenon, what is the correct view of the resurrection with regard to pre- or post- tribulation? And how does that relate to Ladd’s Kingdom theology of a first and second resurrection of the dead and the millennium period of God’s reign upon the earth?

George Eldon Ladd is a twentieth century Christian writer whose central concept, of the Kingdom of God’s existence being in a tension between already present and still to arrive, has proved very popular within charismatic Christian circles. Popularised by notable charismatic leaders like John Wimber, the idea that the Kingdom is both ‘now’ and ‘not yet’ explains some of the difficulties associated with ‘signs and wonders’ Christianity, particularly the difficult puzzle of why some people are healed miraculously, while others are not.

The term ‘kingdom of God’ was in popular usage in Jesus’ day, referring to the hoped-for Messianic restoration of Israel as an independent nation. Jesus often uses the phrase ‘kingdom of God’ in that kind of context, but also widens the scope to indicate a time in history when God will bring everything to a close (‘the consummation’). It is an interesting facet of New Testament theology that the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is regarded as establishing the kingdom, so it is both a historical, concrete reality and yet at the same time something that is going to one day come in fullness, when Jesus returns (the second coming).

With this in mind, any discussion of the Kingdom of God has to take into account Christian eschatology (a study of the end times, from the Greek word eschaton, meaning ‘end’). It is usually about this point that many people become confused regarding eschatology, so for ease of use, what follows is a quick guide to eschatological viewpoints.

Lots of terms: The Rapture, the Tribulation, the Resurrection and the Millennium

Central to most views of the end times are some key themes in the parts of the New Testament that purport to reveal the future (for ease of reference, these sections are usually called ‘apocalyptic’ literature). The Tribulation and the Millennium are periods of time marked out in the book of Revelation. The Tribulation is a seven-year long time of suffering, during which numerous horrible plagues will sweep the globe and the Antichrist will rule the world. The Millennium follows the destruction of the Antichrist, whereupon Christ will rule on Earth for a thousand years. The widespread resurrection of the dead and final judgement is attested to in most of the New Testament books and the earliest Christian creeds. The Rapture is slightly different to the resurrection and involves Christians who are alive at the time being lifted bodily up into heaven.

There are two differing viewpoints regarding when the Rapture happens, either before or after the Tribulation. Left Behind assumes the former, with the heroes of the story ‘left behind’ when their loved ones all disappear. The fictional series then follows typical fundamentalist theology as the world becomes a police state ruled by the Antichrist, the Jews convert to following Jesus en masse (because God gives his chosen people a second chance and they see the error of their ways) and the political forces of the world centre on Babylon and prepare for a final showdown at Megiddo (Armageddon). This projected series of events has been popular in fundamentalism since the publication of C.I. Schofield’s Reference Bible in 1909.

Schofield, drawing on earlier evangelical literalist interpretations, almost managed to turn the whole of Scripture into a field-guide to the last days, with nearly everything being interpreted in light of current world events that pointed to the end. This trend continued throughout the twentieth century, especially through the million-selling Christian paperback The Late, Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsay, published in the 1970s. While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with employing a literalist methodology when interpreting Scripture, Lindsay, and other writers like him, firmly identified key contemporary movements and individuals with figures from Biblical apocalyptic passages. Examples include comparing the “giant locusts” of Revelation chapter 9 to helicopter gunships, identifying “Babylon” with Rome, the Pope as the Antichrist and the nations of “the North” (Gog and Magog in Ezekiel chapter 38) as the Soviet bloc.

Of course, the sudden collapse of communism in the early 1990s forced a rethink over branding a now-destitute and ailing country as an aggressive force of evil. But in Left Behind chapter one, post-Soviet Russia has been resuscitated and as ‘Gog and Magog’ naturally attack the nation of Israel. Similar predictions of Russian revival have now been built into ‘end times’ literature. It would be easy to point out the flaws in this kind of fundamentalist interpretation. One key problem is that spiritualising ideological conflict blinds a person to more obvious realities. It could be argued – quite sanely – that the Soviet Union was an enemy of Israel because the United States was Israel’s staunch ally, not because of any divinely authored plan for the end of the world.

If there is debate over whether Christians will avoid the Tribulation through being conveniently raptured, or will suffer along with the rest of humanity, the real debate then unfolds regarding the Resurrection in relation to the Millennial reign of Christ. The most common view in evangelical and fundamentalist circles is pre-Millennialism, the idea that after the tribulation Jesus will return to Earth to reign, coinciding with the resurrection of the Christian dead. Both resurrected and living believers will be given transformed, eternal (‘resurrection’) bodies and will rule with Christ for a thousand years.

Unbelievers still living on Earth will presumably become believers, but regardless of their belief will be subject to Christ’s kingly rule. At the end of the Millennium, a second resurrection will take place of everybody who has ever lived and they, and those still living on Earth but refusing to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, will be judged and punished accordingly. At this point believers will take their place in the ‘New Heaven and New Earth’ as depicted in the book of Revelation. The two-stage resurrection seems to be implied in Revelation chapter 20, verses 4-5, but elsewhere in the New Testament only one resurrection, of both believers and unbelievers who will be separated out on judgement day, is mentioned.

Post-millennialism differs from this. It assumes that the Church has a mission and divinely-given mandate to convert the world to Christianity. As a result of an increase in the number of Christians, human society will more closely resemble God’s ideal and eventually a ‘millennial age’ of peace and righteousness will occur on Earth, at the end of which Christ will return to a glorious church, believers and unbelievers will both be raised at the same time, Christ will pronounce judgement and those who have acknowledged him as Lord will join him in the new Heaven and new Earth. Post-millennialism is therefore much more optimistic about the future and was very popular in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, until the carnage of the First World War, followed in a few short years by the Final Solution and the development of nuclear weapons; all things that breed pessimism regarding human achievement and progress.

Another eschatological point of view is that of a-millennialism. This would be the declaration that there will be no millennial reign on earth before judgement day and the institution of a new Heaven and a new Earth. The benefits of the a-millennial view is that it hold to Jesus’ eschatological declarations (e.g. ‘the Son of Man coming like a thief in the night’ in Luke chapter 12, verse 39) and it does not rely on one, fairly obscure Bible passage to construct a complicated theological system. The Millennium is only explicitly mentioned in Revelation chapter 20, verses 1-6 and a-millennialists would interpret the passage to mean that Jesus’ earthly ministry ‘bound Satan’ as found in verse 1 of that passage. Elsewhere the New Testament implies that all the events of the end times happen at about the same time. A-millennialism also dispenses with the troubling idea that during the earthly reign of Christ, unbelievers could still persistently live sinful lives.

Ladd’s ‘Kingdom theology’ was developed within a pre-millennial framework. His book The Blessed Hope advocates the post-tribulational, pre-millennial standpoint. The sudden return of Christ parallels His original advent and in terms of waiting for the Kingdom to be fulfilled, pre-millennialism fits neatly into the idea that Christians are currently caught ‘between the ages’, the ‘now and the not yet’. However, Ladd’s idea can be applied to Christian experience regardless of the eschatological viewpoint adopted.

There is an old joke that when faced with the choice between pre-millennialism, post-millennialism and a-millennialism, most people opt for pan-millennialism: the hope that it will all pan out in the end. In many respects this is the truest interpretation of apocalyptic literature. In trying to make it fit projected timelines of the end of the world, the central point is missed. Biblical apocalypses indicate one thing: no matter what happens, God is still in control. That is the kind of affirmation that Ladd makes in his assertion that the Kingdom is both here and also still to come, even if it does not feel like it right here, right now.