Being Famous Doesn’t Make You Moral

huge.96.480462The news story is so common that the name can be left blank.  “N. confessed today that he has been unfaithful to his wife and children and let down his fans. ‘I want to say I’m sorry for what I’ve done and ask God’s forgiveness.'” I do not believe that our nation is suffering a rash of infidelities. We are suffering a rash of cheap shots – easily made because the targets are too big to miss.

A Basketball Coach, a Senator, a Congressman, a News Anchor – these, and similar folk, are all people that our entertainment culture has “writ large.” The few minutes of fame afforded certain figures usually brings additional wealth and influence. Many of those around them are eager to use the cache of their presence for their own ends – sometimes the ends even seem good. Thus the commonplace headliner at a local evangelical church – the popular coach or the football star. It carries a not so hidden message: ‘Jesus is a winner.’

With every winning headline the target gets bigger. When human frailty reveals itself, the headlines that follow are bigger still. That a football coach goes to Church and believes in Jesus is not news. That he does drugs and chases women on the side – that’s news.

Hypocrisy sells.

The popular-figure-as-Christian-leader is an American myth. For years our history books were filled with mythic tales of the righteous founders of our nation. Not even ancient Israel had such righteous leaders. King David was a murdering adulterer. George Washington could not tell a lie. The disconnect between these two figures is the disconnect between the traditional Christian faith and the American Christian faith. Jesus is not an American and He did not found our country. He also did not coach at Notre Dame.

Being moral does not make you famous – and being famous has nothing to do with being moral.

I am not a believer in traditional morality – because I think it’s a modern invention. Conventional morality thinks in terms of a moral code well kept. Think Immanuel Kant as business leader. Proper Christian morality thinks of death and resurrection. Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Immoral people act the way they do because within they are filled with death and corruption. There is something fundamentally broken about the human being – and we often find our lives to be a mass of contradictions.

The moral man, in this understanding, is the one who acknowledges his utter weakness before God. Christ told His disciples, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Someone who believes this spends his life learning to depend not on himself but on the only Lord and Giver of Life.

In Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the 12 traditions teaches that  anonymity is essential to the program. AA does not depend on famous spokesmen to sell its way of life. It wisely depends on men and women who successfully struggle for sobriety. What they do and who they are is of no consequence. All that matters is sobriety. Indeed a famous spokesman, returning to the bottle is just the kind of advertising they do not need.

The Christian faith is not helped by the endorsements of the rich and famous, the talented and successful. The resurrection does not need the testimony of dead men. For the Christian Church is a communion of dead men and women who cling to God because He alone gives life. We survive because we can share the good news of that life with each other. Anonymity is not a bad idea.

In 1998 I was received into the Orthodox Church. Several reporter friends of mine wanted to “do the story”: “Episcopal priest converts to Orthodoxy.” I politely refused the invitation. It’s not an interesting story I told them. I am becoming Orthodox because I am a great sinner. This is just the story of a prodigal returning home. Just another dead guy.

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29 Responses to “Being Famous Doesn’t Make You Moral”

  1. Twitted by Evangeltweet Says:

    […] This post was Twitted by Evangeltweet […]

  2. Mickey Says:

    In the middle of a discussion right now about “conversion stories.” From one dead guy to another, thanks.

  3. Bill M Says:

    Father Stephen, I imagine that holding this truth becomes harder for you as time goes on. After all, you are famous now – for a given definition of “famous” – and people look up to you. There is a tension here that needs to be maintained somehow: that we admire and imitate people who are ahead of us in the faith (titled, or not) while at the same time knowing and acknowledging that they are broken as we.

    God bless you and protect you.

  4. FrGregACCA Says:

    “God bless you and protect you.”

    Amen. For Christians, fame (or even a modicum of “successful” ministry), brings with it new temptations and vulnerabilities.

  5. John Costas Says:

    This is my first visit to this page. What a wonderful surprise!
    When I was younger my friends and I would say, “What if so and so became a christian?”, put in any famous person. Humility, how hard.

  6. frjustin Says:

    Some thoughts prompted by yours: In St. Basil’s Liturgy we pray “In Thy goodness, guard those that are good, and make good those that are evil, by Thy lovingkindness.” God is good, and He desires to make us like Himself. Certainly God’s ‘goodness’ is not defined by conventional reductions of Christianity to an external code of morality, a code that governs actions but leaves the heart largely untouched, but what is this goodness for which we pray?

    From St. Maximus (I spoke about this on his feast this week): “When God brought into being natures endowed with intelligence and intellect, He communicated to them, in His supreme goodness, four of the divine attributes by which He sustains, protects, and preserves created things. These attributes are being, eternal being, goodness, and wisdom. Of the four, He granted the first two, being and eternal being, to their essence, and the second two, goodness and wisdom, to their volitive faculty [will], so that what He is in His essence the creature may become by participation. This is why man is said to have been created in the image and likeness of God. He is made in the image of God, since his being is in the image of God’s eternal being (in the sense that, though not without origin, it is nevertheless without end). He is also made in the likeness of God, since he is good in the likeness of God’s goodness, and wise in the likeness of God’s wisdom, God being good and wise by nature, and man by grace. Every intelligent nature is in the image of God, but only the good and wise attain His likeness.” [400 Chapters on Love, 3.25]

    If St. Basil and St. Maximus speak true, and I believe they do, how would you distinguish the goodness that they expect us to put on in contrast with the ‘goodness’ of traditional or conventional (I assume you use these terms interchangeably) morality. God truly wants us to be good [by grace] as He is [by nature] (Matt 5:4-48, for example); yet many Christians have reduced the power of the Gospel to transform us to be like God to a message of ‘cheap grace’ or easy forgiveness, captured in the slogan “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven,” which while true for nearly all of us, gets twisted to mean that we should *just* be forgiven, not perfect, and that we rest content being forgiven without putting on God’s wisdom and goodness, or waiting with some fantastic hope that God in the eschaton will simply wave His hand over us to make us good and wise.

    You quote Jesus in John 15: “Apart from me, ye can do nothing.” This is the discourse in which He urges His disciples to abide in Him that they may partake of His life and bear fruit. Herein lies the answer: to abide in Christ, to allow Him to work through us, to remove the garbage from our lives by repentance and confession, to partake of his life-giving Body and Blood so that He can have room to make us by grace what He is by nature.

  7. Peter T. Says:

    So how is this different–is it different–from a saint like Constantine or Vladimir? Why do we canonize all these kings and queens, if it is not at least in part a recognition that by their public prominence they had (and took) greater opportunity to influence others for good? Take away their fame, position, wealth, power, etc., and what do you have left? I’m not saying you don’t still have a saint–but how many of them would have their own feast day?

    Then there are those who become famous *as saints.* I’m thinking here particularly of the monastic elders, who may be humble for their part, but that doesn’t change the fact that they achieve a type of celebrity, and by virtue of that celebrity they are remembered somewhere besides their own little monastery. And since we know that monks and priests and bishops can fall like anyone else, shouldn’t we also avoid this (at least, though perhaps not exclusively, until after they’ve reposed)?

  8. George Patsourakos Says:

    A person’s popularity or wealth has nothing to do with the moral character of that individual. Some people believe that because they are famous or wealthy, they can do whatever they want — even violating God’s Commandments — and still have no feeling of guilt.

    The fact is that a person’s morality is not determined by his popularity or wealth, but by his heart. The person who prays to God daily, genuinely loves God, and lives by God’s Commandments — even if that person is homeless — is the kind of person that God prefers.

  9. shmikey Says:

    great and indeed, relevant commentary to so much around us today.

  10. mary Says:

    fr.stephen,i finish a bio on “stonewall”thomas jackson. judgeing is not my dept. that’s God’s dept.bottom line as an orthodox christian i now know God hears my prayers to the dead for the dead and with the dead.but my one prayer after reading that bio was Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner. when i recieved all the paper-work from my brother to become “a daughter of the confedercy”. i thank him for all the hard work it took him in finding all the papers.i in all good conscience would never join. God Bless all the men who fought and died for our great country. some people,generals included who has their “15 mins.” of fame,God have mercy on their souls. mary.

  11. Ken Kannady Says:

    fatherstephen: AMEN! Have you seen this?:http://www.geocities.com/adam_todm/USCatholic_History.htm I became Catholic because of a friend from Moscow and still keep up with the Orthodox Church. Yours in Christ, Ken Kannady

  12. John Eubanks Says:

    O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I think this prayer, the “Jesus Prayer” is what I want inscribed on my tombstone. I fall, fall, and fall again…and God in His mercy lifts me up – yet I am reminded about how frail I really am. Apart from Christ, I am nothing; and I demonstrate this over and over.
    I pray for you and Beth, and ask your prayers for me and my wife and children who also suffer because of my sins. God bless you.

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    Bill,
    Whatever I am or am perceived to be – I am just one dead guy speaking to other dead guys.

  14. fatherstephen Says:

    Peter,
    Very, very few kings or queens are canonized as saints. And very few of the saints are famous in their own day. It is dangerous, spiritually, for kings and queens, and it is dangerous for holy elders to be thought of as holy. St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s book The Arena is probably the best text to demonstrate how dangerous such things can be. No one is canonized as a saint until after their death (usually at least 50 years). One monk I know says that the worst thing you can do to a monk is praise him.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    John,
    May God have mercy on all of us dead men.

  16. Darlene Says:

    I think the desire to leave our mark, to make a contribution, to not leave this world without being recognized for something, is innate in human nature. This is why humans often wonder what their purpose is in life. We do not want to fade into obscurity. We want to be remembered.

    However, if we visit a cemetery there we can read the headstones of many who have faded into obscurity. Or have they? In discussing this very matter the other day with my close friend, I said that in the eyes of the world, the millions buried in cemetaries are forgotten, they have faded into obscurity. Yet, GOD HAS NOT FORGOTTEN THEM. Since this is the end of us all, what sort of persons ought we to be? II Pet. 3:11 It only matters what our Lord thinks of us in the end, for it is He that we will stand before and no other. We should seek His commendation even though we may risk rejection from the world.

  17. Fr. Vasile Tudora Says:

    So Fr. Stephen, If I may rhetorically ask, you chose Orthodoxy because you think is the best hospital available for your spiritual disease, or, better, the only place where a dead man can be resurected?

    This makes sense🙂

  18. fatherstephen Says:

    Fr. Vasile,

    The only hospital that could cure the disease from I was suffering.

  19. Bruce Says:

    Here’s the 12th Tradition of AA in long form:

    And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of Anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.

    When my life is no longer about me and becomes about Him, I’m probably beginning to realize how unceasing the surgery it takes (with God’s help) to transform what I use to shut God out with what it takes to welcome Him in. Thankful contemplation is a great place to stay…in awe, wonderment, and gratitude for a Good God who fillest all things.

  20. fatherstephen Says:

    The simple, spiritual beauty of AA is a wonder.

  21. Carson Says:

    Here's the 12th Tradition of AA in long form:

    And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of Anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.

    When my life is no longer about me and becomes about Him, I'm probably beginning to realize how unceasing the surgery it takes (with God's help) to transform what I use to shut God out with what it takes to welcome Him in. Thankful contemplation is a great place to stay…in awe, wonderment, and gratitude for a Good God who fillest all things.; Here's the 12th Tradition of AA in long form:

    And finally, we of Alcoholics Anonymous believe that the principle of Anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities; that we are actually to practice a genuine humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us; that we shall forever live in thankful contemplation of Him who presides over us all.

    When my life is no longer about me and becomes about Him, I'm probably beginning to realize how unceasing the surgery it takes (with God's help) to transform what I use to shut God out with what it takes to welcome Him in. Thankful contemplation is a great place to stay…in awe, wonderment, and gratitude for a Good God who fillest all things.;;

  22. Sarah Says:

    This Aussie Anglican shouts Amen and Amen! I heartily agree with everything written here. Please pray for the people of Australia to be truly and genuinely open to our Lord and Saviour jesus Christ (only 10-15% of Australians attend Church regularly), and please pray that this nation will be roused to repentance and surrender to the giver of eternal life! . I know all too well what it is to utterly fall and fall again needing my Lord and SAviour Jesus Christ to pick me back up and set me on my feet… May you be blessed with humble wisdom and faith to continue in the path God has set before you.

    Blessings from Sydney,
    Australia.

  23. Lucian Says:

    Dead man walking.😉

  24. Top Posts « WordPress.com Says:

    […] Being Famous Doesn’t Make You Moral The news story is so common that the name can be left blank.  ”N. confessed today that he has been unfaithful to […] […]

  25. Richard A Downing Says:

    Found your blog following links on Twitter. Stunning, inspired, writing. I too am becoming Orthodox because I too am a great sinner. “and to those in the tombs he has give life.” Hallelujah.
    No one from the Anglican tradition ever told me this vital fact.

  26. Sophocles Says:

    Father,

    I too recognize the beauty of AA but I recently “came out” on my blog about my involvement and posted about it here:

    http://molonlabe70.blogspot.com/2009/07/post-twenty-one-steps-of-transformation.html

    I was deeply involved and can honestly say AA saved my life. I “studied” AA while in it as I participated in the recovery process of the 12 Steps within the context of the Fellowship. However, I always try to caution against full endorsement of AA for many reasons, some of which I go into on that post I did.

    I understand why you and others are taken by its simple beauty and while in, I, too recognized so many contact points between AA’s spirituality and the spirituality of our Saints and the Life we all are called to regardless of how “good” or “bad” we are.

    I am still deliberating about it all and have not come to a completely settled understanding of my own stance.

    But with time. Thank you for this post.

    A Blessed Feast of the Dormition.

  27. fatherstephen Says:

    I do not think the principles of AA need to be without Christ. A Christian alcoholic should understand who is “higher power” is and not secularize his experience. I do not think that Arch. Meletios makes this mistake (at least not in conversations that I know of).

  28. Sophocles Says:

    Father,

    As you will see in my post, I am very grateful for AA.

    AA is a very complex animal on many levels and I think pastorally as well.

    I totally understand why you are using AA’s use of anonymity as a backdrop to your piece here and I think it to be a correct use to contrast what we see all too often, “That because So and So is a _______, this is a reason for you to be a __________”, in an apolgetic manner.

    I’m familiar with Fr. Meletios work and I’ve heard his talk incorporating AA within the framework of that talk. I am also familiar with the hierarch in our Church that endorses the use of AA’s 12 Steps for use by non-alcoholics. I’ve been to his monastery, spoken with him face to face on several occassions and he came out to my home parish of St. Paul in Las Vegas for our Nativity Spiritual Retreat in 2007 and gave a talk making mention of the use of AA’s methods as perhaps something that should be normative in an Orthodox Christian’s life.

    I don’t necessarily disagree with this per se, but I remember feeling a little uncomfortable hearing this then and I still feel a little uncomforable about it.

    Again, AA is a VERY complex animal.

    Yours in Christ,

  29. Rebecca Says:

    Father Stephen

    I have read this passage several times, and I find this section to be particularly helpful:

    “Jesus did not die in order to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Immoral people act the way they do because within they are filled with death and corruption. There is something fundamentally broken about the human being – and we often find our lives to be a mass of contradictions.”

    This aligns itself somewhat to what my husband believes about our journey on Earth and the importance of how we relate to each other as an expression of our faith. My husband and I were both raised in the Roman Catholic faith, but we have opened our hearts to learning about other traditions as well.

    In some ways, I can see parallels between the references of “death” as we struggle with corruptive influences, and the transcendance (is that a word?) of redemption. My husband and I both see an interplay between this and other beliefs, his particular interest being Buddhism. I’m still sorting this out, learning how I can incorporate it into lessons I can apply to my daily routine. But I thank you for putting this into a context that has helped me deal with recent challenges. Too often, I allow myself to give in to the frustration and anger associated with seeing so many who are harmed by pretense in so-called “Christian” ideology and its political influence. This is a strong reminder that I have much work to do in rising above the din myself. No easy task, but this helps a great deal.

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