September 22, 2010
Augustine on Celebrity Conversions
Is there such a thing as a “big win” for God?
One of the constant pleasures of studying Christian history is being reminded again and again that Qoheleth was right: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
American Christians have a complicated relationship with celebrities. On the one hand, we have a tendency to blame Hollywood and rock music for corrupting our youth. On the other, there are few things we like more than discovering that one of these entertainment insiders is a Believer. What could be more exciting than finding out we have a “secret agent” on the inside?
Well, it turns out this uneasy relationship with the famous is nothing new. In his Confessions (written around 397 AD), Augustine tells the story of a fellow named Victorinus, a notable Roman philosopher and rhetorician who becomes a Christian (Book 8, chapter 2). Victorinus was famous—so famous, in fact, that the Romans erected a statue of him in the Forum.
After years of educating senators and wooing the public, Victorinus became a Christian. When he finally decided to make his conversion public and join the church in Rome, the Christians there went berserk. Here joining the church was a real live celebrity:
Finally, when the hour arrived for him to make a public profession of faith…everyone, as they recognized him, whispered his name one to the other, in tones of jubilation. Who was there among them that did not know him? And a low murmur ran through the mouths of all the rejoicing multitude: “Victorinus! Victorinus!” There was a sudden burst of exaltation at the sight of him…and they received him with loving and joyful hands.
Augustine spends the next couple chapters trying to decide whether it’s appropriate that the congregation rejoiced more when Victorinus became a Christian than they did when normal folk—like you and me—joined the flock. It’s not as if Victorinus were the worst of sinners: “Are there not many men who, out of a deeper pit of darkness than that of Victorinus, return to thee…?” Sure. But they don’t get the same attention, for “if [the converts] are less well-known, even those who know them rejoice less for them.” This didn’t settle well with Augustine.
In the end, though, Augustine decides that—in this case, at least—the church’s enthusiasm was justified. For Augustine, the issue was influence. Before, the famous philosopher was using his power for evil (so to speak); now that he had become a Christian, he had the opportunity to use it for good.
The more, therefore, the world prized the heart of Victorinus (which the devil had held in an impregnable stronghold) and the tongue of Victorinus (that sharp, strong weapon with which the devil had slain so many), all the more exultantly should Thy sons rejoice because our King hath bound the strong man, and they saw his vessels taken from him and cleansed, and made fit for thy honor and “profitable to the Lord for every good work.”
In other words, Augustine thought Victorinus was a “big win”—if not for God, then at least for the church. What I find interesting is Augustine’s justification. He feels free to celebrate the conversion of this celebrity not because he is famous, but because he is influential. The distinction is important. Sometimes I suspect that the reason we rejoice when celebrities convert (or we find out that a certain celebrity is a Christian. These are different issues, I know, but it’s tempting to talk about them together) is because we hope their identification with the faith will validate us in some way. It’s as if celebrity Christians have a certain PR value.
Perhaps there should be a special celebration when a notable person becomes a Christian, if we suspect they will use their special influence for the kingdom’s sake. I think of Anne Rice, for example. For years she used her considerable writing talents to undermine the Christian faith. Since her conversion, she has put those talents in the Lord’s service by writing powerful novels about the life of Christ. Maybe she is our Victorinus.
For the record, I’m not sure I agree with Augustine on this point. Just because a person is influential before their conversion doesn’t mean they will continue to be afterward. More importantly, history is full of people who were veritable nobodies before they met the Living Savior and yet became invaluable servants in the Lord’s service. Take the apostles, for example. Before they met Jesus, they were fisherman. Afterward, they became messengers of the gospel, propagators of the world’s largest religion. Maybe instead of rejoicing specially for the influential who begin to use their power for good, we should reserve special celebration for those whom God calls out of obscurity to be his special messengers.
Either way, I’m curious to hear what y’all think about celebrity conversions. Any thoughts? Let’s hear them.