I was probably about 16 or so. The church I attended through high school had been involved in a revival that was gradually becoming more and more famous, eventually attracting people from all over the world.
I remember every few months my youth group would pack up into a van and drive several hours to attend the electrically-charged worship services at this revival-struck church. We would twitch and shake. We would jump up and down and scream wildly for Jesus. We would shout our "Amen"s to the pastor as he preached. We would rush forward at the altar call, to the heavy beat of deafening praise music, to receive prayer from the native revivalists shouting passionately into our faces, imploring the spirit of God to infuse, heal, ignite, empower, embolden, and restore our souls. We would go home and beg God to let us be the carriers of revival to OUR church, our schools, our city.
My pastors were friends with the pastor of the church where we went to get fueled up on revival. This guy had a magnetic personality. He was articulate, fiery, deep, well-reasoned, and had this je ne sais quoi about him... that thing, whatever it is that most great leaders seem to have... that ineffable quality that compels other people to admire them. He had it. He was the one God was using.
He was on my pedestal.
Sometimes after one of the revival services my youth group would be invited to go out to eat with the group of pastors associated with the revival. I remember one such late-night dinner. I was feeling elated at being included in an inner circle of sorts, (even though it was just a bunch of people eating together. But these were the important ones. The anointed ones.) I was feeling elated at the great spiritual experiences I had had in the revival service. I was feeling elated to be sitting just a couple chairs away from... him... The Pastor. And then it happened. I don't really know exactly why it happened. I looked over at him, right in the middle of taking a big bite of his burger, and in a moment infused with the depth of eternity, it struck me that The Pastor was just a human. A normal human like everyone else. He came tumbling down, as my pedestal he was on shattered into pieces.
And I felt angry. Surely he's aware of his humanity... How dare he allow himself to be elevated by all these people? How could I have been so naive? How could everyone else in the room play into this game? (It's only now that I see that the reason people play this game is to try to inflate their own perceived importance by associating with someone "important.")
Since that moment, I have continuously, stubbornly refused to put anyone on a pedestal again. I will happily admire their talents and their discipline in exercising their talents. But I refuse to let myself be too impressed.
There were several times this attitude really helped me. I remember two particular classes--one in my undergrad, and one at the audio engineering school where I got certified--that had professors who had built up quite fearful reputations. "Watch out," the gossip whispered, "Dr. So-and-so is a real hard nose. You will DIE in his class!" In both occasions, this reputation merely reinforced my already-obtained value of not putting anyone on a pedestal, and I entered the classes refusing to be afraid of the professors. In both cases I sat up front, instead of cowering in the back with everyone else. Spine erect, eyes flashing, pencil and paper in hand, I was ready to learn. In both cases I made sure my mind was sharp for the classes, and I pushed back at the professors when they showed their tough sides. In both cases I earned huge respect from them, not to mention high grades.
What is this tendency in us, to build pedestals and put people on them? What creates and feeds a celebrity culture? Is it because most people are blind to their own inner brilliance, so they seek it in others? Why is it so easy to buy into the idea that some people are more important than others?
And yet, even I, defiantly earthy as I am, still occasionally fall into the celebrity mindset, despite myself. Let's be honest. Would I have been as attracted to attend the Subverting the Norm conference if Peter Rollins weren't going to be there? Peter is another of those guys with that celebrity magnetism.
I'll admit... At least once the thought went through my head, "this is the closest I'll probably ever get to him." Yikes! How could I let myself do that again?!!
But if even I was partially motivated by celebrity, I can imagine many many others at the conference had similar motivations, at least in part. Peter Rollins and Phil Snider were the only "famous" people I had heard about from the conference before I went, but when I got there, I realized that there were a few other lightning rod speakers whose personalities could easily allow them to gather followings of groupies. (Not that I'm saying any of these speakers play this game or want this to happen. It's a hard thing to get people not to do...)
Ironically, the celebrity mindset is antithetical to the very nature of the conference. How often did the speakers talk about a weak God, a God of horizontal (not vertical) transcendence, a God of the marginalized, a God who rejects the powerful structures that dehumanize the masses and create hierarchies of importance? And yet, knowing all this, we are still all too ready to ascribe worship...
This is a tension that the conference attendees would do well to explore.
In this light, I see the story of Jesus as an incredibly powerful reproach to our celebrity culture. Remember that famous Messianic Secret, that has befuddled many a New Testament scholar? Why would Jesus not allow others to announce that he was the Messiah? Maybe because he was actively FIGHTING the celebrity culture. He, apparently, had that magnetic draw as well, as we see thousands of people flocking to listen to him speak. And yet, rather than allowing them to put him on a pedestal, he made every attempt to prove himself as humble as they were. He fought the urge to be exalted, even to the point of death. The ultimate crushing of the pedestal.