In Mary Shelley’s novel, Frankenstein, a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, conjures up a way to give life to the nonliving. His ambition leads him to an unorthodox science experiment that breeds a grotesque creature for whom he will claim no responsibility. In the course of time his monster becomes all his grief and ruin. With his lofty ambitions shattered by despondency, Victor determines that his only destiny is to “pursue and destroy the being to whom I gave existence.” But it’s too late. The monster couldn’t be contained.
I’m not a literary critic and, to be honest, I’m only superficially familiar with Frankenstein. But among its several themes the story line stands as a warning against overreach and creating what was not meant to be created. While Shelley’s novel is the Romantic movement’s pushback against the Industrial Revolution, perhaps there’s a small prophetic voice to remind the church how quickly ambitions can spiral out of control and result in misshapen monsters that actually prove to be destructive to the noble aspirations with which we began. I say that because, as it appears to me, this is exactly the kind of monster the broader evangelical movement has created. In the laboratories of experimentation something has been created that can only be described as a type of monster–a culture of councils, brand names, and celebrity-ism–and it’s becoming increasingly hard to contain. Something has been created that was not meant to be created.
On a personal note, I’m not very enamored with this culture. Within it I have no friends but I also have no enemies. Among it I have no future but I also have no past. From it I have gained nothing but I have lost nothing as well. I am just an obscure pastor serving in an obscure place in an obscure denomination. Maybe that gives me a bit of a bias or uneven perspective of this cultural monster. Or, perhaps, it’s precisely my enigmatic position that grants me a certain liberty to communicate the concerns I have with what has been created. After all, it will cost me very little.
Now at this point it would likely be very easy to begin naming names. The culture I’m speaking of has many faces from the popular councils and networks, to the brand names, platforms, blogging empires, promoters, and celebrity pastors all of whom give life to the monster. I should note that I’m not opposed to specifics. Those who shamelessly self-promote themselves to the public eye should expect public opinion and they shouldn’t get to ignore, bully, or silence those who offer less than enthusiastic support. But rather than descend into those particulars I simply want to reflect on what I perceive to be a few noteworthy concerns about this culture of councils, brand names, and celebrities.
This monster of councils, coalitions and networks, flourishes in an environment that exists independently of the spiritual authority and accountability structures intended by Jesus. That wouldn’t be a problem except that many of these organizations seem to have assumed to themselves the work of the church–e.g. connecting the grace of God to the world, or calling to freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness, or renewing faith in the gospel, or standing together for the gospel, etc. Jesus intended the church to be entrusted with the ministry of gathering and perfecting the saints, and he intended that to be accomplished under the authority and accountability that he also established. When you extract the work of the church from the structure of the church you begin to create an environment ripe for dangerous problems. Problems like false teachers, public scandal, doctrinal imprecision and error, abuse of influence, and the promotion of them all, where those involved are answerable and held in check by the will and whim of a board of directors devoid of biblical spiritual oversight. That’s the monster we’ve created.
This monster of brand names and platforms, flourishes in an environment that encourages consumerism. What is often being promoted seems, at least to me, to be a small step above a marketing scheme, showbiz, or a strange form of entertainment. After all, to get headlines you only need the right key-note speaker; or pick the right target audience; or include the right adjectives–scandalous, inexhaustible, radical, extravagant; or affix the right logo; or define the right narrative and wrap it all up in terms of the gospel and you’ve got a recipe for success that’s too big to fail. The result is that the ordinary means-Word, sacrament, and prayer-are replaced by an extra-ordinary method of advertising. That begins to look a lot like the self-ambition that, though it may have the right goal, is borne out of what should be an intolerable greed. Jesus is not a means to the end of promoting a brand name or platform, he is the end itself. That’s the monster we’ve created.
This monster of celebri-fying pastors flourishes in an environment that cultivates spiritual dangers for these men. We have watched and read with sadness the moral failures and downfall of those we have happily heaped demands, pressures, publicity, exposure, expectations, and contracts upon. Their failures have been many, and their failures–failures like adultery, cult-like leadership styles, domineering personalities, scandalous coverups, egoism, unentreatability, lack of self-control, manipulation, spiritual abuse, abandonment of community, family strife, doctrinal error, etc–have all been seen by the public eye to the shame of the church and the dishonor of Jesus. While they bear the responsibility for their sin it must be asked if the culture that has been created fosters conceit, yields double-standards, feeds pride, and sets mere men on high places and slippery slopes from which they are prone to fall for lack of footing. That’s the monster we’ve created.
Yes, we have created it. Through participation, sponsorship, donations, investment of time and energy, we have created something we never should have created. A monster culture of councils, brand names, and celebrity-ism. Will we do what Victor couldn’t and take responsibility before this monster can’t be contained?