I used to know an old lady, now dead, who was the proud owner of no less than five university degrees. She seemed to be alert and extremely intelligent but there was one thing she could not do which was to spot a scam artist. So she would be sending money off to all kinds of companies who promised her that she had won or was about to win a large prize in a foreign lottery. She would tell her relatives that when this money arrived she would give it to them. The relatives pleaded with her to stop sending off all this money but the letters she received were so convincing that she could not help herself. It was only when her relatives found a way of censoring her post that the nuisance finally subsided.
In many ways the quality that drew this old lady to be taken advantage by the scam artists was an attractive quality, the ability to trust another human being. We think of Jesus commending the capacity of the child to trust as being something worth striving for. We might commend this quality in our churches. It is certainly a more attractive quality than the opposite, the ability to question, to be cynical and mistrust others. Christians somehow, we think, are meant to be people who love, are kind and extend the hand of friendship to others. But sadly the same qualities are easily turned into a naivety, gullibility and vulnerability to every charlatan around.
This ready cross-over from something essentially good to something that is sad and unfortunate is a dilemma for Christians. Christians are themselves victims to their own special brand of scam-artists. At Chris’ suggestion, I psyched myself up to watch on the God Channel some of the people whom I would call Christian scammers. It was a creepy experience. How anyone would want to give money to some of the people who speak on the God Channel, I do not know. Clearly they are skilled practitioners as loosing the heart and purse strings of those who watch. Chris spoke to me about a lady he knows who in spite of living on very little was sending every spare bit of money to a Television evangelist in the belief that she was somehow serving God. This is very sad as no doubt she was depriving herself of comforts in order to enrich an evangelist. He was then using the money to ‘prove’ that God was blessing him by allowing him to have every kind of luxury and indulgence. There is something deeply offensive about this scenario.
In talking about this pattern of exploitation that affects many Christian individuals up and down the country, Chris reminded me of another pattern of persuasion that is freely used. This is the ‘parading’ of Christian celebrities in churches, large and small to give their testimonies. The celebrities are individuals who have become household names in, for example, acting or sport who are also Christians. By arriving at a small church to share their story of how they became a Christian, the celebrity scatters a little star-dust over the congregation. But other things seem to be going on as well. By being brought face to face with a ‘successful’ individual who is a Christian, the church member is given the message ‘you too can be like me’. Of course this subliminal message is total nonsense but many people buy into it. They take on the belief that by being a Christian like the celebrity, they too can be rich and famous. Their feelings of well-being through being Christian men and women are enhanced. ‘We can be winners like you, because we are on the same side’ is the thought that is given.
Celebrity testimonies given in church apparently cost the churches concerned a great deal in financial terms. I have heard of fees of £1 -£2,000 being paid out for a 20 minute witness. Clearly the leadership believe the investment to be worth-while. But their investment can ultimately be seen to be buying into something that is a fantasy. By allowing the congregation to boost their self-esteem through contact with these Christian celebrities and the subliminal messages they bring, the leaders are in fact colluding in a scam. To repeat, the scam that is being sold is not directly a financial one. It is selling to people the idea that being a Christian can lead to earthly riches and success like that of the celebrities. It is a scam because it is a message that has no basis in reality but feeds frustrated ambition and a sense that life may not have delivered all that was promised.
One of the things that retirement and increasing age gives to one is the sense that you do not need to look up to other people as though they are ‘superheroes’. Most people, even though they may have extra responsibilities in life are no better or worse than you are. Their extra status, if they have it, brings added burdens. The life of a ‘celebrity’ whether in the church or in any other walk of life is not one to be envied. The further up one climbs a particular ladder, the more difficult it is to climb down again. There is an old joke about a man who spent his whole life climbing a ladder of success and recognition only to discover when he reached the top that he had set the ladder against the wrong wall. Fame brings isolation, not to mention the envy of people who may resent your success. Perhaps Christian leaders, who are tempted to ‘buy-in’ Christian celebrities to speak to their congregations, should use their time and energy of helping their members to celebrate the ordinary but immensely valuable gifts of compassion, empathy and the ability to listen to others. These gifts are far more needed in our divided world than the capacity to be a celebrity.