I have to admit I was a bit surprised when we were given the chance to have the first interview where #N/A talked after his identity was known. It was strange for us, because we are a small church and we’re not used to the sort of attention that comes from celebrity status. To be sure, a great deal of the attention was bad, but that sort of comes with the territory. Given the format that we usually use when discussing various matters and our subject matter, I thought that discussing matters of celebrity would be a bit too shallow, but I guess I underestimated the serious direction the conversation would turn as we found some very strong biblical discussions to deal with questions of novelty. Overall, I think the episode was a strong one and I was glad we were able to rush it to production and post the whole video, it really drove a lot of traffic our way. It reminded us that sometimes you need a hook to get the attention of the world, and we certainly found it with the attention brought to us. It’s only a shame we won’t get to talk more in the future, but at least we’ll be looking forward to meeting him in the first resurrection.
I think that we often have a presentist bias when it comes to issues like celebrity. We think our age is the first age to have dealt with this as a problem. Truth be told, though, the Church of God has dealt with celebrity for a very long time. A few decades ago, Bobby Fischer was a celebrity, and it appears that he had a bit of a special privilege because of the attention that he brought Worldwide Church of God through his chess excellence. Admittedly, not all of that attention was good because of his self-hating anti-Semitism, but it was a great deal of attention nonetheless. Often the attention the Church of God has received throughout history has been for those who were leaders, or perceived leaders, of the Church of God. Think of, for example, the attention that Herbert W. Armstrong brought to the doctrines he taught, not only through the fact that he was hated by cult watchers but also for his ability to get along with a wide variety of world leaders. He was someone who was a genuine celebrity of a religious kind, for better or worse, for being on television as well as being in the public eye. The same was true for his son Garner Ted, as one of the first moments of Church of God celebrity status that I witnessed came about when Garner Ted has his problems with the masseuse, some of which ended up on A Current Affair. Clearly that is the sort of attention we would want to avoid.
But again, if we go back earlier in history, we find examples where people we would consider as fellow members of the Church of God throughout history had celebrity status within the larger world. Samuel Ward was a seventh-day Baptist, who we would consider a member of the Church of God, and he was a political leader within Rhode Island during the time just before the Revolution, and his congregation dealt with his political activity by limiting his ability to be involved in the church because of his politicking, and he ended up dying of smallpox while still politically active. Earlier than that we have example like Peter Waldo, who is one of the few famous people who comes to our attention during the period of the Middle Ages when it comes to our Sabbatarian beliefs. But still, celebrity status is something that has been at least an occasional aspect of the lives of some of the people who have shared our belief system, and how these people and the people around them dealt with celebrity status is interesting. Do we hold to a different standard because someone brings fame? That brings resentment from others, to be sure. Do we view celebrity as a negative thing and make it a burden for those who have it? That is hardly any better, if at all. How are we fair to celebrities while also showing appreciation for the gifts that they bring in money and attention?
Even in the Bible we have this being seen as a problem. Paul, for example, found himself as a somewhat notorious celebrity in many of the cities where he went and preached. From what we can read in the book of Acts, he focused that celebrity attention on preaching the Gospel. A few examples should suffice to show how he did this. In Acts 14:14-18 we read about Paul and Barnabas refusing to accept the idolatrous regard of the masses in Asia Minor when they were preaching: “But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard this, they tore their clothes and ran in among the multitude, crying out and saying, “Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men with the same nature as you, and preach to you that you should turn from these useless things to the living God, who made the heaven, the earth, the sea, and all things that are in them, who in bygone generations allowed all nations to walk in their own ways. Nevertheless He did not leave Himself without witness, in that He did good, gave us rain from heaven and fruitful seasons, filling our hearts with food and gladness.” And with these sayings they could scarcely restrain the multitudes from sacrificing to them.” I think anyone who is a stare would do well to reflect upon these words. When people tried to flatter Paul and pretend that he was divine, or above the human level, he was very quick to refuse any sort of idolatrous views and to affirm that he was a human being with the same nature as everyone else. If anyone thinks any differently of me, it is my responsibility to set them straight just as Paul did, although I don’t think I’m the sort of person who would be easy to idolize.
There are other warnings in the Bible about the dangers of celebrity status as well. Ezekiel 14:13-20 reminds us that having heroes of faith and celebrities like Daniel, who was a celebrity during his time for his conspicuous service of the kings of Babylon and Persia, is not all it’s cracked up to be: “Son of man, when a land sins against Me by persistent unfaithfulness, I will stretch out My hand against it; I will cut off its supply of bread, send famine on it, and cut off man and beast from it. Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness,” says the Lord God. “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they empty it, and make it so desolate that no man may pass through because of the beasts, even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters; only they would be delivered, and the land would be desolate. “Or if I bring a sword on that land, and say, ‘Sword, go through the land,’ and I cut off man and beast from it, even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but only they themselves would be delivered. “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast, even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord God, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.”” Here we see that being a hero of the faith wouldn’t really help a nation that was persistently rebellious against God’s ways, and that is certainly true right now about our own society.
So, when we look at all of these things, it’s pretty obvious that being a celebrity is not really of a great deal importance to God. Does having a lot of fame and attention bring people to an awareness of the truth? Sure, sometimes it happens like that. Sometimes when our flaws and foibles are being brought to the attention of the larger world it brings shame upon us as well, so that attention is a two-edged sword and not an unmixed blessing. Ultimately, God doesn’t consider someone more or less faithful because they happen to be a celebrity. Like any gift, it comes with strings attached and with expectations and a greater degree of scrutiny. If we handle it well, it is a blessing for ourselves and for others and a means by which God can accomplish a great deal. If we handle it poorly, we bring shame upon ourselves and others.
When I started recording music I didn’t want to draw any attention to myself. I’m a pretty shy person, as hard as it may be for some people to believe, and I was glad to have an opportunity to record music and let my light shine without getting attention for it. I didn’t think that the situation would last, necessarily, but I was glad to have it for a while. And I didn’t want the attention of people I went to church with either. I knew that if people listened to music and knew that I was behind it, that they would turn around and try to figure out who I was writing about, and that was something I wanted to avoid, if possible.
When we’re dealing with creative people, or indeed with the communication of others, it is important to have a hermeneutic of charity. Even if hermeneutic is a somewhat scary word for people, it simply means our principles of interpretation. When we interpret anything, whether it is an e-mail that we receive or a sermon message that we hear at church, or a song on the radio it is important to view it in the most positive light possible. Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8-9 are often a bit of a cliche that we toss off without thinking about them, but we need to think about them: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” Anything can be viewed in a negative way if we choose to do so. There is always ambiguity in what other people communicate. We may know what we intend, but those who read or listen to our message do not have the privilege, such as it is, of knowing our hearts and minds.
We don’t have any say in the messages that other people communicate unless we talk with them and they listen to us. What we have a choice in, though, is how we respond to that message. What do we read into it? Do we assume the best possible interpretation that can be given to something and act on that? Most of the time we do not. How often do we, and I include myself here, complain about a message we have gotten from someone? We rake someone over the coals for forgetting to mention something important to us, or for saying something in a clumsy way. We accuse people of being racist or sexist because of an unfortunate choice of words, or because we have misconstrued what they said in a harsh way. We would all be better off, and we would have better relationships with others, if we interpreted what they said in as positive a light as possible, if we understood how easy it was to misinterpret and misunderstand what someone was trying to communicate, and to give others the same benefit of the doubt we would want for ourselves. If my art has any positive effect on those who know me, I hope it is to help them to practice this hermeneutic of charity with regards to my own creations. If my own efforts can help people to view a song or view interviews like this one in a more positive light, I will feel at least a little bit better about the undesired attention that I receive. I’m not going to hold my breath about receiving it, but yes, that is what I would like to see happen.
It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I hope that the people watching this or reading the transcript of this interview have at least some understanding of why it is that I wanted to give you all the first chance to talk to me before everyone else got to, and what sort of principles undergird the way I live. I’m certainly not a perfect example of the way of life we practice, but I hope that, God willing, I am at least a positive example most of the time in most ways, and that God is working with me to form me into His own image, and that people may see me and see a family resemblance with God and Jesus Christ through God dwelling within me. I hope I didn’t ramble too much. I don’t even know what booklet would be best to advertise. Ah yes, today we have been looking at what it is like to be a member of the Church of God in our present age. This is the United Church of God, and these are the Fundamental Beliefs of the United Church of God. Hopefully you all have enjoyed the conversation we have been having here. Thank you all very much.