I don’t think the two men consulted with one another ahead of time, but Joshua Harris and Marty Sampson both announced their departures from the Christian faith on Instagram in strikingly similar ways. Sampson ended up deleting his post and walking back his de-conversion a bit, but the resemblance in word choice and tone was uncanny. That similarity reveals much about the mistakes we’ve made in choosing Christian celebrities—perhaps in allowing ourselves to have celebrities, in the first place.
Harris—well-known “purity culture” figure and author of I Kissed Dating Goodbye, as well as a onetime megachurch pastor, spoke of feeling “awake,” “alive,” and “hopeful” when he told Instagram followers that he had lost his faith in Jesus. In the accompanying glam photo, he gazes across a mountain lake like Caspar Friedrich’s “Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog,” having (I can only assume) intense feelings of some kind.
Marty Sampson, singer, songwriter and worship leader for Hillsong, said he was “so happy now, so at peace with the world…it’s crazy” after confessing “I’m genuinely losing my faith.” He went on to rehearse the village atheist objections to Christianity: that pastors sin, that there’s too much pain and suffering in the world, that it’s not fair for God to send people to Hell, that science keeps “piercing the truth of every religion” (whatever that means), that miracles never happen, and that Christians are judgmental.
This might sound like a list of intellectual objections, were it not appended with the claim that “no one talks about” any of them. To quote one of the twentieth century’s great philosophers, “whatcha talkin bout, Willis?” Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Christian apologetics could fill a U-Haul with books devoted to responding to these challenges. Sampson and others may not be satisfied with the answers defenders of the faith have offered to their questions over the centuries, but the one thing they cannot reasonably say is that no one talks about them. Yes, they do. All the time.
At best, this means Sampson is woefully uncatechized. At worst, it means he had an ulterior motive for his original post and used the laundry list of Dawkinsisms as a pretext. The emotive language with which he expressed his doubts could point to either. But the way he’s backpedaled and published links to Christian apologists in the week since makes me suspect the former.
Regardless of why this enormously popular singer/songwriter announced his departure from the household of faith on Instagram before returning to stand furtively in the door, the fact that he has spent years writing lyrics that inform the piety of millions should bother us. So should Joshua Harris’ sentimental au revoir. They should lead us to ask an obvious question: why were these men famous in the first place?
Neither owed his status as Christian celebrity to any unique qualification beyond decent stage presence. Harris became comfortable in the spotlight before most people reach their junior year of college, writing a book about sexual purity with which I largely agreed. But that book placed him at the helm of a movement he had no business captaining. Professor Dumbledore said, “I sometimes think we sort too soon.” I sometimes think we too soon throw the world at the feet of young men (and women) who can write a sentence or carry a tune.
The point is, poor formation, lack of intellectual depth, and dependence on emotion aren’t bugs; they’re features. In offering poorly-formed, shallow, emotive goodbyes to the faith, these men haven’t really abandoned the things that made them famous. They’ve just re-purposed them. And both seem to assume (or to have assumed at some point) that Instagram was the most obvious medium for rolling out their re-brand.
Indeed, it may be the natural habitat of the Christian celebrity. It’s renowned for virtue-signaling (think photos of coffee mugs with Bible verses and poverty tourism), unconditional affirmation (“you’re so gorgeous, girl”), and suffocating artistic solipsism (those vague quotations from authors the ‘grammer hasn’t read, accompanied by meticulously-composed photos in which he or she is looking meaningfully into the distance).
If this sort of performance worked so well as a basis for fame within Christianity, why should it not also work as a transition plan into post-Christianity? For that matter, why should a secular world whose motivational gurus and pop musicians invented this style not welcome our Instagram apostates with open arms (and wallets)?
Maybe that’s a little too cynical. I’m an optimist by nature, and I’d like to think all of this happened more or less by accident. Nobody planned it. But if anyone bears responsibility for public doubts and de-conversions by famous believers, it’s those working the curtains and spotlights. The Christian publishing and music industries are hugely complicit in the rise of people-who-have-no-idea-what-they’re-talking-about to prominence.
There’s a reason the theological faux pas of Christian artists are often the butt of satire, and why theologically clueless authors offering self-help as if it’s written by Jesus continue to top the Christian bestsellers list. Stylish, emotionally-satisfying, doctrinally-arid nonsense dominates our bookstores, our worship music, and our devotions. And lest we lay too much blame on the talent-scouts, let’s not forget who’s buying it.
In the short-term, all of this means that the frustrating spectacle of public apostasy is probably here to stay. The well-meaning Christian celebrities simply know nothing else. Less scrupulous celebrities may prefer losing their faith to losing followers. Marshall McLuhan’s adage that “the medium is the message” has never been so true. After all, the one thing neither Joshua Harris nor Marty Sampson now want for is publicity. If it works, why change method just because you’ve changed worldviews?
But in the long-term, Christians should ask ourselves earnest questions about who we place on pedestals, and why. Men and women who aren’t ready to spiritually lead, instruct, or inspire shouldn’t get a pass for showmanship. And if we keep offering it to them, their performances will increasingly take place not on stage, but under the EXIT sign.
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