Sunday, February 12, 2012

Whitney and the Cult of Personality

Whitney Houston died yesterday, aged forty-eight. It was a tragic death, after such a charmed life. The obituaries in print and online observe that she was a victim of her own success, of the cult of personality. They chronicle the reign of the diva in the '80s and '90s, and the addiction to crack cocaine and alcohol that destroyed her.

Right now, I'm watching the news: live footage of stars walking the red carpet at the Grammys. Though an official pall has been cast over the celebrations, the stars still can't help posturing in front of the cameras. After all, it's who they are, it's what they do. More than that, it's who our culture has made them. It's the cult of personality. As one mourner just stated on TV, "She was our American idol before there was American idol."

There's something deep within us that gravitates towards idolizing people, towards hero worship. This is true inside the church, as well as outside the church.

I'm halfway through a superb biography of Bonhoeffer. The following sentence in my reading today jumped out in light of Whitney’s death: "He never wanted his classes or the seminary to become a cult of personality, centered on him" (p 265).

The country was drunk on nationalism and the messianic persona of the new Fuhrer, a word which literally means 'Leader.' Bonhoeffer saw the ease with which fuhrer worship outside the church so quickly seeped into the church. The 'German Christians,' as the state church was known, embraced many of the values of the Nazis--largely out of nationalistic fervor and loyalty to Hitler. Bonhoeffer recognized this damnable human inclination and sought to guard against it in the breakaway church movement which became known as the 'Confessing Church.' The last thing that would be tolerated in this new collection of protesting pastors was the unhealthy elevation of any individual, especially him.

Like Paul, he recognized the fleshly tendencies that can be so divisive in the church:
I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, ‘I follow Paul’: another, ‘I follow Apollos’; another, ‘I follow Cephas’; still another, ‘I follow Christ.’          (1 Corinthians 1:10-12)
Bonhoeffer knew that each one of us must guard our hearts in what we both give and receive since, in the words of John the Baptist, there is only one who deserves adulation. He is the Leader par excellence. The Christ. The One and Only, our Savior.

And so, with John, we affirm this essential truth:

“He must increase, but I must decrease”  (John 3:30).

Monday, February 6, 2012

Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy

Today was rejuvenating. Slept in. Luxuriated in a couple of massive cups of strong Java coffee at the local True Coffee shop (with extra sugar to spite the Nature article that recommends regulating sugar like alcohol and tobacco), while reading Matthew's Gospel and some more of this superb biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Then, this afternoon, a brisk walk and pleasant conversation in the sunshine with my wife.

Bonhoeffer writes to his brother-in-law:
      If if is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible., not only in the New but also in the Old Testament. . . . 
      And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way--and this has not been for so very long--it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, and often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.                                                                                  - Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer, p. 137.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Depth of My Depravity

Last night I watched a German movie, Sophie Scholl: The Last Days. Made in 2005, it confronts the nation's Nazi past by telling the story of a 21-year-old woman who was executed, along with her brother and some others in the resistance group 'The White Rose,' for publishing leaflets critical of Hitler.

As the father of a twenty-one-year-old daughter, I found it simultaneously tragic, inspiring, and terrifying. It was tragic because a beautiful life, just like my daughter's, was snuffed out for no reason other than exposing such darkness as would not tolerate being brought into the light. It was inspiring because of her bravery and conviction and unadorned faith. It was terrifying because these evils were born in one of the most civilized societies in human history.

Evil is perhaps never so successful and insidious as when it is wrapped up so convincingly in a package which has something to commend it. This is why it can and does flourish in that pride we treat as a virtue and label "national pride." When God and volk (people, race, national identity) are fused, darkness is not far behind. Germany discovered that eighty odd years ago. Other nations are learning (or need to learn) the same lessons in modern times.

But national evil is only possible and successful because it is systemic "down the ranks." Evil flourishes in the saber-rattling of nations, in the venomous insults of campaigning presidential hopefuls, in the jealousies of academia, in the bullying on the playground, in the gossiping at church. . . simply because it is in the fabric of the human heart and we cultivate it like the addiction it is.

Evil thrives because the human heart is depraved. I mean yours. I mean mine. That is the most terrifying revelation of all.

Perhaps that's why Jesus said pray this way:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name.
Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done in earth, 
As it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive them that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
For ever and ever.