Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and What to Make of Celebrity Conversions

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Photo by Pieter-Jannick Dijkstra

Kanye West has undergone a conversion to Christianity, according to his wife, Kim Kardashian. “He has had an amazing evolution of being born again and being saved by Christ,” she says. The conversion has resulted in a forthcoming album that will include Gospel songs, as well as hip-hop church services as part of a tour that has included New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta.

In other news, Justin Bieber recently spoke about his struggles with childhood fame, heavy drug abuse, and the pain he inflicted on the people closest to him. He credits several pastors (some associated with Hillsong) for helping him through the fallout from some terrible decisions, and he urges his fans to consider the “unfailing love of Jesus” for them.

We could multiply examples of celebrities in recent years who’ve demonstrated a connection to Christianity, from Chris Pratt to Shia LaBeouf. I’m old enough now to see a pattern that goes back decades—to when the Jonas Brothers were championing “True Love Waits” and Miley Cyrus was talking about her relationship with Jesus. An older generation still talks about Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan’s “Jesus phase.”

Two Reactions

Whenever a celebrity claims Christianity, we see a couple of reactions among Christians. Some rush to praise the superstar and to share far and wide the great things said about the love and grace of God. Others cast a wary eye toward the celebrity, responding with cynicism regarding the star’s words and actions.

For the first group, it’s as if a celebrity conversion conveys a sense of validation for many Christians. Isn’t it wonderful? This rich and famous (and super cool) person has found Jesus! Too often, it feels like underneath this reaction is an inferiority complex: See, Christianity isn’t so uncool, after all! The result is then to lift up the celebrity as a great example of Christian faith.

For the second group, it’s as if a celebrity conversion is merely a pretext for extending their fan base, finding personal enrichment, or adopting a cultural Christianity that is therapeutic, not doctrinal. Yeah, we’ll see how long this lasts. Besides, you can tell from other things they’re saying or doing that they’re not seriously following Jesus. The result is to diminish the celebrity’s statements and to remain skeptical about their sincerity.

Closer Look

What is going on under the surface of these common reactions? I wonder sometimes if our response to celebrity conversions says more about us than the celebrity. Here’s why.

We live in a celebrity culture in which fame equals validation and significance. When we hear news about a celebrity conversion, we usually don’t picture the lone individual standing before almighty God—stripped of all earthly trinkets and worldly success—on the same level as you and me and everyone else. We still see them in their celebrity form, as the avatar created by their promotional machine. And once someone professes faith, we tend to slip into the same worldly assessment of their significance.

Feeling perhaps a bit insecure regarding our faith in a secular age, and hoping that a famous person of great stature might make our faith more plausible to others, we celebrate a conversion because it says something about the legitimacy of what we believe. We don’t feel so “out there” or so “strange” when a respected celebrity gives us a nod.

The most extreme expression of this outlook leads us to celebrate the vague, spiritual comment from a celebrity more than the conversion of someone in our congregation, even though we have a relationship with the latter and not the former. Because the world says celebrities “count more,” we think their conversion counts more, too.

What happens next? We are too quick to lift up celebrities as examples of faith and leadership. This, despite the specific warning of the apostle Paul to not put into roles of official leadership anyone who is a “recent convert.” The fruit of repentance takes time. And while we celebrate anyone’s profession of trusting in Jesus as Savior and King, we are required by God’s Word to test people’s professions by their lives, and to look for fruit in keeping with repentance.

But because Christians feel like we are underrepresented in Hollywood, it’s easy to latch on to any celebrity who could become a force for good in that environment. Our rush to establish a celebrity as a leader in matters of faith does injustice to both the celebrity and also the church, requiring a sped-up sanctification process on behalf of the celebrity (because they’re already seen as a leader) and setting the church up for letdown when the movie star disappoints.

This is why, over time, people migrate from the first group to the second group. Initially excited about a celebrity conversion, they champion the story far and wide, only later to be disappointed in the lack of fruit they see in the movie star, or in the unbiblical stances a celebrity takes. Then, on the same social media accounts where they once celebrated the conversion, they excoriate the celebrity for failing to live up to Christianity’s morals and theology. Once this process repeats itself enough times, it’s no wonder many Christians respond to celebrity conversions not with hope and optimism, but with the sneer of a skeptic.

Check Your Heart

Both of these reactions say more about us than they do the celebrity. They reveal that we’ve adopted the worldly assumptions about fame and fortune, meaning and significance, relevance and validation. If your first reaction to a celebrity conversion is jubilation, ask yourself if you react the same way when someone of “lesser importance” shows interest in Christianity. If your first reaction is to sneer and criticize a celebrity’s statement, ask yourself how you’d respond to a neighbor who made the same profession or comments.

If you see a difference in either case, it’s likely because we are unwittingly focusing more on celebrity than conversion.

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