December 15, 2011
Christian Saints vs. Cultural Celebrities
The deaths of Steve Jobs and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth reveal the church’s captivity to cultural values.
Earlier this year, on October 5th, an influential and visionary leader died. His life forever changed the American experience, and his legacy will be felt for generations to come. An ability to see a future many thought impossible marked his work even as he inspired others to dream of that future. “No” was an unacceptable answer for this man; the status quo was meant to be shattered. Countless people see the world and its possibilities in profoundly different ways because of his passion and drive.
In a strange twist, October 5th was also the day Steve Jobs died.
The first man, the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, was pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabaman, and an early leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. Shuttlesworth was a catalyst at seemingly every stage of the movement for racial equality: forming the influential Southern Christian Leadership Conference, participating in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, joining the Freedom Rides during the summer of 1961, and pushing for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For his efforts, at least three attempts were made on his life. When his home was bombed in 1956, the young pastor boldly claimed, “God made me dynamite proof.”
How many people in your church have heard of Fred Shuttlesworth? Too few, surely. How many sermons, in the Sundays following his death, cited his as a life worth imitating? Not many, I’m afraid. In contrast, I have a hunch that the life and death of Steve Jobs was fodder for countless sermon illustrations in the days following his death. This, I believe, is a missed opportunity. Whatever their many accomplishments may be, our culture’s heroes—and Jobs was that and more to many—should not always be our heroes.
At least two factors make it difficult to spot saints like Fred Shuttlesworth in a world that celebrates—or, as Skye has pointed out worships—Steve Jobs. First, the huge disparity in media coverage devoted to these men’s deaths meant the civil rights pioneer and pastor was barely a footnote to the entrepreneur and CEO. This shouldn’t surprise us. Steve Jobs is the archetype of the American dream: an adopted child who grew up in humble surroundings; a non-conformist who went his own way; a self-made man with fabulous wealth; an optimistic prophet whose technological wizardry promised solutions to our greatest problems. Shuttlesworth, on the other hand, was an 89-year-old pastor—a pastor!—whose day had long passed. Even at the height of his influence, far more people were opposed or indifferent to his message than agreed with him when he said things like, “We intend to kill segregation or be killed by it.”
A second reason many Christians overlook saints like Shuttlesworth for superstars like Jobs has to do with a desire to relate with a wider American culture. Whether the desire comes from our insecurities about fitting in or from sincerely wanting to connect with our neighbors, it leads us to favor cultural icons over Christian saints. This commitment to cultural relevancy can also be seen in our worship, preaching, and outreach.
Relevancy is not always bad. We are culturally bound creatures who, whether we try to or not, will speak and act from the cultures that have formed us. But there is a considerable difference between acknowledging our culture and favoring its values and spokespeople as evidence of our ministry effectiveness. And yet, in our desire to be relatable, this is what we have done. As a result we have forgotten the radical witness of faithful saints like Shuttlesworth, satisfying ourselves instead with the knowledge that ours is a church that gets it. Just don’t press us too hard to define it.
Despite the strong appeal of elevating the likes of Steve Jobs, it is worth our effort to remember and recount the lives of those, like Fred Shuttlesworth, who maintained their Christian witness in spite of fierce opposition. This is essential, because many Christians today suffer from memory loss. We have too few examples at hand of costly discipleship, and so we struggle to imagine our radical allegiance to Jesus. Associating ourselves with society’s symbols of prestige may increase our relevancy but it does nothing to fire our Christian imagination. Ours is a time that needs the example of a man who once challenged his followers, “You have to be prepared to die before you can begin to live.”
There’s a final challenge to acknowledging and learning from the saints our world overlooks: they would be content to be disregarded. It falls to us—especially those of us with a microphone on Sundays—to make sure their names and stories live on. Each generation needs to be introduced to those whose lives testified to a God who changes lives. This cloud of witnesses does more than cheer us towards the finish line. Their perseverance, forgiveness, courage, grace, and holiness are a living testimony to the Christ who changed—and changes—everything.