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Daniel Turner looks at celebrity conversions and how churches ought to respond when they occur. 31/08/2022
Celebrities. It’s hard in today’s world to avoid them. Spend long enough online and you will find out what’s going on with the Kardashians. But what about when they come to church?
Next month, we’ll be releasing our latest series of The Sacred Podcast where former Theos Director, Elizabeth Oldfield, has conversations with public figures from all walks of life about the thing(s) they hold most sacred. Our first guest, Paul Kingsnorth, is a writer known by many for a variety of stances. From environmental activism to euro–scepticism, to his writings on authoritarianism during Covid, you can take your pick of the many controversial topics he has chosen to speak about publicly. Nevertheless, in this conversation with Elizabeth it was their discussion about his conversion to the Orthodox Church and, more so, the attention it received which struck me most.
With the recent Twitter frenzy around actor Shia LaBeouf’s interview with Bishop Robert Barron, where he discussed his upcoming film role as Padre Pio and how it led him to Catholicism, we once again witnessed the ceremonial pouncing on a celebrity convert. Overnight, LaBeouf went from ‘that guy in Transformers’ to a spokesperson for Traditional Latin Mass goers everywhere, due to an offhand, albeit insightful comment on the subject. A conversation about LaBeouf’s truly inspiring turn towards faith became marred by a mob using LeBeouf’s words as ammunition to defend their own liturgical preferences. (The drama really is as interesting as it sounds.)
From Paul Kingsnorth to Shia LeBeouf, to Kanye West and Justin Bieber, Christians of all stripes can be far too quick to fall into the same traps of celebrity culture that we see all through society, platforming those with fame and (sometimes) honest enthusiasm but who generally lack the knowledge and experience sought for in religious leaders. But where does this all come from? In her conversation with Kingsnorth, Elizabeth helpfully unpacked the situation, saying the response comes from two internal reactions in which you celebrate the news both because you are happy for the individual, but also, “selfishly”, because this person has validated your viewpoint and therefore, in some sense, you. As a result, Elizabeth concludes, this can turn into something “slightly weird, and grabby, and pressurising for people” who have had a public spiritual conversion.
As a Christian, I find conversion stories are always worth celebrating, regardless of how well the individual is known. Indeed, I believe that I am joined by all of heaven when I do (Luke 15:10). I also think there is a place for public witness and people using their platforms to spread their faith. But we shouldn’t allow our celebrations to turn into expectation. Furthermore, we mustn’t exploit the enthusiasm of these people for our gain. Given the vast amount of public scrutiny and pressure they already receive, how could we see this in any way benefitting their spiritual health?
Conversion is a beautiful thing, but for those of us who have experienced it as an ‘aha’ moment, or within a short intense period, we also know that it is a fragile time. From the mountain top of encounter, I am guaranteed to descend. Despite my fiery zeal and best efforts, I am still faced with the reality that I sin and will continue to for the rest of my life. To be cast into the public eye from this initial tender moment as a spokesperson for the faith is dangerous, as often it is the challenges one faces a little more down the road that really define and shape their faith the most.
I’ve heard that the late founder of the Companions of the Cross religious community jokingly said, “once people get baptised in the Holy Spirit they should be locked in a closet for six months and then allowed to come out”. I know looking back at my own experience how much I sympathise with this statement. As the Church, our response to public converts should not be to push them into the spotlight, but rather to gather round them, offer them genuine love and support, and equip them with the tools they need to walk a good Christ–like life.
The Sacred is back for another series every Wednesday from 14 September. Join Elizabeth Oldfield in conversation with writer, Paul Kingsnorth, Muslim Council of Britain’s Secretary General, Zara Mohammed, writer and minister Danté Stewart, TV presenter, chef and restaurateur Dame Prue Leith DBE, and many more.
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Daniel is the Content and Communications Officer for Theos and a producer for The Sacred podcast. He previously worked in the charity sector in operations, content and media. Daniel studied Music at Goldsmiths, University of London, and spent time throughout his degree volunteering for an ecumenical Christian university outreach. He has a strong interest theology, with a specific focus on Catholic liturgy and apologetics.
Posted 31 August 2022
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.