When its promotional campaign began in December 2016, Fyre Festival was touted as an exclusive, immersive, one-of-a-kind music festival on Pablo Escobar’s private island in the Bahamas. There would be beaches, booze, supermodels, private jet transportation, bespoke glamping accommodations, artisanal food, and music by the likes of Blink 182 and Pusha T. Fyre’s marketing team paid millions of dollars to “Instagram influencers” and models like Kendall Jenner, Bella Hadid, Emily Ratajkowski, and Hailey (Baldwin) Bieber to be the first to tease the event online. It was a brilliant strategy to hype an event that was promised by entrepreneur Billy McFarland (Fyre co-founder) to be the “biggest event in a decade.”
Except that it was all hype. After paying top dollar to attend Fyre (tickets ranged from $1,000 to more than $12,000), attendees showed up to a desolate island and disorganized mess. It was closer to a Cormac McCarthy apocalypse than the yachts-and-models paradise promised in the promo videos. The advertised “culinary experience” turned out to be soggy cheese sandwiches, “luxury tents” turned out to be waterlogged leftover disaster relief tents, and Blink 182 was nowhere to be found.
Social media had a field day with the disgraced festival, lawsuits were filed, and fraudster McFarland is now in jail. Netflix’s Fyre—along with Hulu’s rival documentary about the Fyre Festival, Fyre Fraud—now stand as cautionary tales about the unreality of the social media age, where what you see online is rarely what you get in reality.
It would be easy to watch the crash-and-burn narrative of Fyre with a certain degree of delight. Rich kids lured to the Bahamas for a weekend of hedonism, based solely on polished ads featuring Instagram celebrities, got what they deserved, right? We shake our heads at the gullibility of our age. We wag our fingers at the “emperor has no clothes” nature of this vapid cultural moment.
But rather than being amused by the can’t-look-away debacle of Fyre, perhaps Christians could see it as an opportunity for self-reflection—a chance to assess our own tendencies to fall for online fakery and perpetuate disconnects between hype and reality.
Stop Falling for Fake. Fight for Facts.
What happened with Fyre is ultimately a subgenre of our larger crisis of epistemology. Fake news. Alternative facts. Post-truth. In a world where digital deception is easier than ever and critical, slow, evaluative thinking is rarer than ever, we don’t know what to trust. Recent media examples include the Covington Catholic schoolboys and Jussie Smollett. In both cases the uncritically fast, rush-to-rage nature of social media produced a flood of polemical commentary that turned out to be a fool’s errand. Why? Because it was reacting against what turned out to be fake news.
Christians have been as guilty as anyone else in jumping into online frays before sufficient facts are gathered. We are often opportunistic in calling what we don’t like “fake news” and accepting as true what is convenient for our narratives. As much as we talk about the importance of truth—as followers of a Messiah who called himself “the truth” (John 14:6) and said “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32)—we sadly aren’t known for our rigorous fidelity to truth online.
Our world desperately needs guidance in how to discerningly sift through the glut of misinformation. Christians could be these trusted guides in world of wobbly, disorienting digital chaos. But we aren’t currently. As Trevin Wax has argued, we need Christians to care more about getting the facts right, “whether or not they’re useful or beneficial to ‘the party line.’” We need to rise above the tendencies of our age to reduce facts to partisan ammo; to see what we want to see rather than what is there. Christians of all people need to fight for truth because it is true, not because it helps or hurts our cause.
Christians of all people need to fight for truth because it is true, not because it helps or hurts our cause.
Christians might not be tempted to fall for an expensive, hedonistic music festival because we saw an Instagram post of Bella Hadid on a yacht in a tropical setting. But we certainly fall for our own brands of polished presentations that don’t reflect reality: celebrity pastors whose Steve Jobs-esque charisma wows: “girl, wash your face!” self-help gurus whose perfectly imperfect hair tricks us into falling for their “authenticity”; authors, speakers, and Instafamous influencers who pitch themselves as “relatable” but only so they get us to buy what they’re selling.
Christians can be just as gullible as the Fyre Festival attendees. We just fall for different things.
When Fantasy Faith Doesn’t Match Reality
Perhaps the truest line in Fyre comes near the film’s end, when Brett Kincaid—a commercial videographer hired to create the festival’s promotional videos—says this: “The real Fyre Festival happened twice. It was the shoots. What the commercial was was what everybody wanted.”
Fyre reflects a world where there is often, and increasingly, a vast distance between what is sold to us and what we actually receive. It’s the distance between the presentation of our best selves on Instagram and the reality of our often-awkward lives. It’s the distance we often assume is necessary in order to make the sale. Will people buy the thing we’re selling if we’re honest about its challenging aspects? Would they still “like” me on Instagram if they saw the real me?
Sadly, churches and Christians often fall into this temptation when thinking about how to present themselves as attractive to a skeptical and secularizing culture. We make the mistake of assuming the realities of Jesus, Scripture, and church are simply not desirable enough on their own. They need dressing up. And so we turn church into a consumer-friendly, comfortable experience full of amazing lattes, Ted Talk-style sermons, and music the kids like. We give our pastors makeovers—insisting they trade their pleated Kohls khakis for Uniqlo skinny jeans and avoid talking about things like hell, tithing, and biblical sexual ethics. We pitch the “abundant life” message of Jesus (John 10:10) but not the “take up your cross” message (Mark 8:34). We pitch Christianity as a tool for self-enhancement—becoming centered, known, living one’s best life—but downplay the self-denial side of it. In short, we sell a Christianity we think will get people in the doors. And often it works! Like the thousands of people who bought tickets to the Fyre Festival, crowds will naturally flow into churches where Christian faith is pitched in the “desirable life” language of Instagram fantasy.
Christians often make the mistake of assuming the realities of Jesus, Scripture, and the church are simply not desirable enough on their own. They need dressing up.
Christianity Is Costly. Don’t Crop That Out.
But what happens when they find out the rosy colored Christianity that was marketed to them isn’t actually real Christianity? What happens when they find out about the cost of discipleship—that following Jesus requires repentance and dethroning ourselves as chief authority; that church is often a frustrating and uncomfortable experience because diverse community always is; that suffering and tribulation are more likely to define our lives than popularity and flying first-class? What happens when they, like the Fyre Festival attendees who showed up expecting a party and got a disaster instead, realize the reality is far from the paradise they were promised?
Actually what often happens is they give up on faith, assuming the whole thing is a sham. Or they maintain the delusion that there is a “best life,” Bieber-branded, hipster Christianity somewhere and they just need to find it. Either way, the disconnect between the marketed faith and the real faith leaves them disillusioned and ever more skeptical about Jesus.
What happens when seekers find out the rosy colored Christianity that was marketed to them isn’t actually real Christianity?
And that’s why the lesson of Fyre for Christians is that we must be staunchly committed to a consistent faith—where what is presented is also what is practiced; where our lives match our words; where we trust that Jesus and Scripture, however costly they are, don’t need to be cropped and Photoshopped in order to be desirable.
If Christians are truly committed to truth, we must not only fight against fake news out there, but also in ourselves and in our churches. The world doesn’t need a Fyre-style, Insta-perfect Christianity. It needs a consistent, biblical, uncomfortable Christianity. Even if that’s a tougher sell.