The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, December 11, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, December 11, 2020.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

A Socialist Featured in Vanity Fair Magazine? The Cult of Celebrity Is Tempting . . . Even If You’re a Socialist

One of the most common words in our cultural vocabulary is actually something that is fairly new, or at least it’s used in a fairly new way, that word would be “celebrity.”

If you go back in the history of our own culture, celebrity would mean that it’s someone who’s being celebrated. That is, someone who has an unusual accomplishment, and celebrity is attached to the celebration of such accomplishment. But more recently in popular culture, celebrity means just being famous and using that fame for one purpose or another to build a certain cult of celebrity.

Daniel Boorstin, who was for many years, the Librarian of Congress spoke of the pseudo-event, but he also spoke of the cult of celebrity in such a way as to describe them as “people who were famous only for being famous.”

Now, the interesting thing is that throughout most of human history, that wasn’t even really possible. When you’re looking at fame, you’re looking at this kind of attention. If you go back a few centuries, who would have been famous? Certain leaders in this society, most importantly monarchs, kings, queens, emperors, empresses, perhaps a duke or a duchess thrown in here, or perhaps someone involved in the church or other spheres of leadership. But those would be extremely few.

There was no way for a celebrity to break through. Celebrity in the modern sense, that sense of being famous for being famous, requires mass media and it requires massive communications technologies. It requires just about everything that now marks the 20th century and the 21st. And in the 21st century, add social media, and guess what? Your puppy can be a celebrity, and be so very quickly. A cult of celebrity can be built around just about anyone. But from a Christian worldview perspective, what’s most important is not just the existence of the cult of celebrity, but the temptations and the use of the cult of celebrity in the world around us.

Now, just in the last few days, there’ve been several interesting developments all along these lines. For one thing, you have the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. Now Vanity Fair’s December cover has on the cover AOC. And by the way, no name is necessary. The initials AOC are enough. Why? Because of the age of celebrity. We’re talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, United States member of Congress from the Bronx elected in the Democratic wave of 2018, and now pretty much the great celebrity symbol of the left wing of the Democratic Party. She, like Vermont Independent Senator Bernie Sanders, identifies as a Democratic Socialist. And so here you have someone who is a socialist who is on the front of Vanity Fair magazine.

Now wait just a minute. What is the very well-attired AOC doing on the cover of Vanity Fair? What does that tell us? Well, as you’re looking at Vanity Fair, the actual magazine, you’re looking at something that is an artifact of the celebrity culture. It exists to celebrate a certain level of the celebrity culture. By the time you make the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, you are inside the game. You’re in the inside circle of celebrity. Vanity Fair is extremely rare and expensive real estate in American popular culture. This is not the kind of magazine that mostly sells at the supermarket chain checkout. This is the kind of magazine that people leave on their coffee tables in all the right places, in Los Angeles and New York, and well, you get the point.

But of course, Christians thinking about Vanity Fair shouldn’t be thinking, first of all, about the magazine of the cultural elite, but rather the city that is the metaphor for worldly temptation in John Bunyan’s famous work, Pilgrim’s Progress. That book pictures the Christian life as a pilgrimage and Pilgrim represents every Christian and Pilgrim makes his way through Vanity Fair, but comes to understand that its allure is passing. Its temptations are powerful, and it is the responsibility of the Christian not to look to any kind of life living in Vanity Fair, but rather to seek the celestial city.

The fact that a magazine of the cultural elite would take the name Vanity Fair means that this is a magazine that is all about embracing those temptations, celebrating them even rather than resisting them. But what we’re talking about here is how the cult of celebrity works in our society right now. Here is exhibit A, Vanity Fair, December, 2020. The cover story, AOC, the title, “Her next four years.”

Well, that’s very interesting. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, member of Congress, a socialist who is presented on the cover of Vanity Fair behind the backdrop of countless roses wearing a stark white pantsuit. Let’s just say she doesn’t look like your average socialist.

This is not the kind of picture of socialism that you would have found back in the 19th century when the word first began to be used, much less than the 20th century. No, the pictures would have been something like Che, Che Guevara, famous for being on the t-shirts of rather diluted American college students. But that was a roughly and insurrectionist. But now the picture of socialism presented to the American people dressed up for the 21st century and for the modern democratic party. It’s AOC and her roses in her stark white pantsuit on the cover of Vanity Fair, a cover photo of a socialist.

As we get inside the magazine, the headline is, “Becoming AOC.” The subhead, “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on how she got here and where she’s headed.” The article’s by Michelle Ruiz, but what’s also interesting is that you have three other names on the credits, just on the left side of the page, Tyler Mitchell, the photographer, Carlos Nazario, the sittings editor, Nicole Chapoteau, the fashion director. Wait just a minute. That’s exactly what you expect from Vanity Fair, but that’s not what you expect of a socialist. This is a socialist that is now being featured with a fashion director, a sittings editor, and of course a photographer. Let’s just say this isn’t produced by a socialist economy.

AOC, by the way, has obviously cooperated with this feature because, after all, she poses in so many of these very expensive photographs wearing very intentional clothing indicating her sense of style. That’s also interesting. How does a sense of style actually come to be reconciled with the idea, the core ideas of socialism? But of course it is true, the AOC is promoting a form of socialism. It is socialism, but here you see how socialism is now writing on the celebrity culture in a way that could only be possible in our modern age. In this very strange time in which even a magazine as capitalist as Vanity Fair sees the reason to capitalize on a socialist with a cover story on AOC.

Actually the article is quite expectedly an example of hagiography. By the way, if you don’t know what that means, that is a traditional category of literature that is unembarrassed in celebrating the subject. It has often been associated with the Catholic cult of the saints. But now you’re talking about the cult of the socialist. The kind of thing celebrated about this celebrity are, speaking of AOC, that she has “demonstrated a special talent for triggering white male fragility on both ends of the political spectrum.”

We’re told that since her swearing in, in January of 2019, Ocasio-Cortez “became the de facto spokeswoman for the historically diverse 2018 midterm class, including a record 36 women and 24 people of color as freshmen in the House.” The article traces what can only honestly be described as her meteoric rise and politics back in 2016. That’s ancient history four years ago. We are told that a Ocasio-Cortez was “a volunteer organizer for Sanders,” that means Bernie Sanders, “in the Bronx. Three years later, she became the most crucial backer of his 2020 presidential campaign at a time when her support was also highly coveted by Elizabeth Warren.”

We’re also told in this article that it was the leftist group Justice Democrats that recruited AOC to run for Congress, “This is the story of a young Latina who’s trying to put food on the table for her family.” She speaks about her now deceased father, wistfully saying, “If he were around today, I think he would make fun of me incessantly, and he’d be the first one to call me a communist. But,” she says, “he would be in my corner too.”

Again, the photographs are many, and artistically they’re very good photographs and she is wearing what represents her own personal style. But the interesting thing is that, once again, here’s the incongruity. You have a socialist who supposed to be holding to socialist values, but nonetheless is being celebrated in these very expensive poses in a very expensive spread in a magazine that is intended to be attractive to the people who can afford the very expensive of everything.

The article actually says this, “AOC is perhaps the only member of Congress who moonlights as a beauty influencer.” The article continues, “Sharing her go-to red gloss—Stila’s Stay All Day Liquid in Beso—translated to a sales spike.” AOC went on to say, “Every time I go on TV, people ask for my lipstick.” But we are told, “Like Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s prickly dissent collar, Ocasio-Corte’s appearance is a study in meaning. The gold hoops and red lips she wore to her first swearing-in were a cosmetic bat signal to Latina culture and a nod to fellow Bronx native, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was told not to rock bright nails at her confirmation hearings.” Seriously.

Now the big issue here is the fact that it’s a socialist who’s being celebrated here in Vanity Fair magazine, and it’s a socialist who is a style influencer and a socialist who is actually trying to, well, basically sell stuff. Well, there is a good deal more to this article, but the point has been made. What we see here is that the cult of celebrity has turned to a political purpose. It is being turned here to transform a socialist celebrity into something of an icon of popular culture and AOC, or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has done this with tremendous success.

And by the way, in a free market economy, she has every right to market these things. Her own style, to become a brand of her own. But the point is it’s incongruous with her worldview as someone who’s supposed to be a democratic socialist. There is no inherent sense in a socialist becoming a style influencer, but hey, welcome to the year 2020, about to be 2021. Just imagine what’s in store in Vanity Fair next year.

Part II

Celebrity Culture Leveraged to Bring About Moral Change: Harry Styles Wears a Dress on the Cover of Vogue Magazine

But the second issue when it comes to the cult of celebrity is how it is being used to change morality, and in particular, to serve the interest of the moral revolutionaries, especially on the LGBTQ revolutionary continuum. But of those letters, it’s the “T,” of course. We come back to this again and again, it’s the “T” that now demands the most attention, right down to the cover of Vogue magazine.

Now just think about Vogue magazine. Now, perhaps you’re not all that familiar with the magazine. I admit, I’ve never had a copy of Vogue magazine in my studio before, but I hold it in my hands right now. The cover photograph of Vogue magazine, the point is, it’s not a woman in this woman’s fashion magazine. It’s a man and the man is named Harry Styles. The cover story is, “Harry Styles makes his own rules.” The quote for him is, “Anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself.”

Now let’s just stop there for just a moment. A little reminder of something key to the Christian worldview. The Christian worldview tells us that as human beings, one of our main jobs is limiting ourselves. That’s actually a fair summary of much biblical exhortation, limit yourself. Just think about the biblical texts, Old and New Testament. It doesn’t say that the purpose of life is to find yourself, define yourself, and express yourself. And Harry styles is no doubt expressing himself, at least in one very graphic way. He is wearing a tuxedo jacket over what can only be described as a smocked dress, even as he wears multicolored rings and is blowing up a balloon.

If you can’t picture it, you’re healthy. If you want to see it, it’s right there on the cover of Vogue magazine. A man in a dress blowing up a balloon wearing multicolored rings, and we are told that anytime you’re putting barriers up in your life, you’re limiting yourself. You heard it from Harry Styles.

Inside the article, you see how this moral revolution works in words as well as images. The culture celebrity, once again. One celebrity, actress, Olivia Wilde, speaking of another celebrity, Harry Styles says, “To me he’s very modern and I hope that this brand of confidence as a male that Harry has, truly devoid of any traces of toxic masculinity, is indicative of his generation and therefore the future of the world. I think he is in many ways championing that, spearheading that. It’s really powerful and kind of extraordinary to see someone in his position redefining what it can mean to be a man with confidence.”

Another observer said, “He’s really in touch with his feminine side because it’s something natural and he’s a big inspiration to a younger generation about how you can be in a totally free playground when you feel comfortable. I think that he’s a revolutionary.”

Well, I’ll just tell you, I think he’s a self-promoting nut. If you want to go down in history is the man who wore a dress on the cover of Vogue magazine, I guess you can count that as some kind of bizarre accomplishment. But the point is, yes, it’s bizarre. And just about everyone even quoted in the article says, “Oh yeah, it’s bizarre, but there’s good bizarre and bad bizarre. This is good bizarre, because it is refuting toxic masculinity.”

Now let’s just think about this for a moment. That’s one of those terms as being bandied about all over the place. Now, is there something that could be described as a toxic masculinity? Yes, that would be masculinity outside any kind of biblical or natural parameters. But that’s not how this word is being used and you know it. Toxic masculinity here means, well, any form of definitive masculinity. Anything that says that there is, let’s just use that word refuted on the cover, limit. There are limits to who we are, and that limitation is right there in the opening chapter of scripture, where God made us in his image, male and female. There it is, limiting, two, there’s that gender binary.

Where in the world did that come from? Well, it comes from God’s design. Where did it show up? It shows up in the very structure of creation, from Genesis one onwards, and it still shows up by the way. And here’s a point I want Chris to understand, it still shows up because when you do put a man in a smocked dress in a tuxedo jacket blowing up a balloon wearing multicolored rings on the cover of Vanity Fair magazine, you’re doing so intending to shock.

And yes, it does shock. It only shocks because, guess what? There still are those categories of male and female, and if they didn’t make sense, this wouldn’t be shocking. But they’re using the shock to try to embarrass people about being shocked, and that’s how this aspect of the culture of celebrity works. You have a cult of people who basically say, “Look, we’re transgressing the rules. We’re outside the bounds. This is shocking. Buy Vanity Fair magazine to see the well-styled socialist. Buy Vogue magazine to see the man in a smocked dress.” But what’s really happening is breaking down the idea that there are any clear boundaries, there are any legitimate limits to any kind of self-expression.

Once again, he has clearly cooperated with this feature. Like AOC in Vanity Fair, there is an extraordinarily expensive photo shoot here, probably far more expensive than Vanity Fair. And yes, I’ll just say in many of the photographs, it’s pretty grotesque. But the point is, this is intended to say, “We should celebrate this.” But we are now told through the social signaling, the moral signaling that is coming from Vogue magazine is, “This is supposed to be something you like. This is supposed to be a lifestyle to which you aspire. This is supposed to be something that doesn’t shock you, but if it didn’t shock you, we couldn’t sell our magazine. So we wanted to shock you. We just want you to feel embarrassed about being shocked.”

But of course these celebrity magazines are all about drawing attention to oneself. And in one sense, that’s somewhat inevitable if you’re successful getting a message out, but measure the message and the culture celebrity that builds up around it.

Part III

Powerful and Influential, Yet Dangerous and Deadly: The Cult of Celebrity in the Fall of a Preacher

But that then takes me to something that is even more important for Christians to think about, and that is a front page article that appeared recently in the New York Times. Not about a Democratic Socialist elected to Congress in Vanity Fair, not about a celebrity wearing a smocked dress as a man at Vogue magazine, but rather a headline in the New York Times, “Megachurch’s celebrity pastor fell into temptations of fame.”

Ruth Graham is the reporter behind the article and she is talking about Carl Lentz, until recently the pastor of the New York City branch of what’s described in the article as the global megachurch, Hillsong. Ruth Graham writes, “In the summer of 2017, the singer Justin Bieber abruptly canceled the remainder of a concert tour that had taken him across six continents in 16 months. Mr. Bieber cited fatigue, his fans fretted, but on the tabloid website, MTZ, a more hopeful narrative quickly emerged. The 23-year-old singer left the tour because he rededicated his life to Christ thanks to a pastor named Carl Lentz, leader of the New York City branch of the global Hillsong megachurch. The pastor and the pop star were inseparable,” the gossip site reported. Two days later, the site reported that, “Mr. Bieber saw Mr. Lentz as a second father.”

We’re then told that Hillsong and its pastor, that New York pastor, became a fixture on TMZ, “Always in flattering items, citing unnamed sources. One article reported that at Hillsong Justin worships in total peace, and at least he’s treated like a regular person.” By the way, if everybody a camera on you, you’re not being treated as a regular person.

In another quote, TMZ said, “It got our hands on some video of Mr. Lentz dunking a basketball in what appeared to be a near empty gym. If that doesn’t get you to church, nothing will,” the site concluded. But then “the association with Mr. Bieber catapulted, Mr. Lentz, 42, into a new stratosphere of fame in which he became not just a friend to celebrities, but a celebrity himself. He was interviewed by Oprah Winfrey and showed up on Courtney Kardashian’s Instagram. He mixed with a jet setting group of other hip pastors.”

Later, “But as Mr Lentz’s profile rose, many congregants felt the focus on fame and cultural power that had helped the church grow was overwhelming its spiritual mission. Last month, it all came crashing down for Mr. Lentz in a scandal that has cast a shadow on one of the most influential megachurches in America.”

The article then recites what happened on November the 4th, just a matter of barely a month ago. Brian Houston, the founder of Hillsong in Australia, announced that Carl Lentz had been fired, citing what Houston described as “leadership issues and breaches of trust. Plus a recent revelation of moral failures.” We’re then told, “The day after the announcement, Mr. Lentz confessed on Instagram,” where he has almost 700,000 followers, “I was unfaithful in my marriage, the most important relationship in my life.”

The New York Times goes on to say that Houston had described a discovery of more than one affair, “They were significant.” But then comes this line, and this is what’s really important as we consider the collision of megachurch celebrity and the cult of celebrity, “Even in the contemporary era of megachurches, Hillsong stands apart. Founded in Australia under a different name in the 1980s, its great innovation was to offer urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.”

Now let me be clear. This is not a criticism of megachurches per se, that is really large churches. This is a criticism of a certain kind of cult of celebrity that comes along, we should note, with a very minimal and problematic theology that comes combined in a certain mixture of the cult of celebrity and prosperity theology in a movement like Hillsong.

Now let’s just try to think theologically for a moment. Here we see that the New York Times describes this church or movement of churches innovation as, “Offering urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.” Well, maybe what we actually need in church is something that does clash with the rest of our lives. If our church is designed so that it doesn’t clash with the rest of our lives, we better be very worried about our church.

Speaking of Carl Lentz, tragically enough, Ben Sixsmith, writing at The Spectator says that this former pastor had “turned himself into a brand.” It turns out that he had also become, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, something of a fashion influencer. Now let me just state this again. There’s something fundamentally wrong with either one of these pictures.

The New York Times has actually given a lot of attention to Hillsong over the years. Back in 2014, it had another front page article. This one was entitled, “Megachurch with a beat lures a young flock.” The reporter in that story had turned to me for an analysis of Hillsong and I pointed out that it is basically a very hip Metro version of prosperity theology. It’s basically what you see among prosperity preachers just turned into a cult of celebrity that fits the culture of a city like New York or other places where Hillsong is found.

Hillsong holds to a very minimal theology. It’s perhaps more famous actually for its music than for its doctrine, and that’s because it produces a lot more music than it does a firm doctrine. And even on an issue like say same-sex marriage, the church is rather quiet. More or less saying, “We have a policy, but we don’t talk about it out loud.” Well, if you don’t talk about it out loud, here’s an announcement for you. You don’t have a policy.

But all of that basically to say, as we come to an end, that the cult of celebrity in any arena is dangerous. Vanity Fair, dangerous, just ask John Bunyan. And there is nonetheless the temptation that comes to turn just about anything into a celebrity moment or anyone into an influencer of style or fashion or whatever. But the Christian church has to keep its wits about itself, and in so doing it has to recognize why the cult of celebrity is so powerful, but also why the cult of celebrity is so dangerous.

If people are primarily talking about you because you hang around with celebrities and if you become a brand because you hang around with celebrities and if your main mode is the cult of celebrity, then maybe your actual socialism, at least as you live it in private is suspect. If it turns to Christianity, the stakes are just a lot higher. Just consider the scandal related to this former prosperity preacher in New York City. Consider how the cult of celebrity almost assuredly played into that scandal.

Part IV

So Much for Folk Resistance: Bob Dylan Sells His Music Catalog for $300 Million Dollars

But then we come to a final story that brings all of this full circle, and this one’s about Bob Dylan, one of the most iconic fixtures of American folk culture, going back to the 1960s and beyond. Bob Dylan built his reputation against the man, against the mass consumer culture, against the political powers that be. But why is he in the headlines now? It is because he has sold his music catalog for a reported $300 million.

Now again, I have to say as someone who believes in the right to private property, Bob Dylan has the right to sell his music catalog for $300 million if he can. But you really can’t do that, even as you try to maintain some reputation as one who stands outside of the system. Mr. Dylan, you are the system. One authority the music industry looking at this sale said, “This sale represents what is likely the largest single writer deal in the history of popular music.”

So, Bob Dylan, the outsider folk musician just made $300 million selling his music catalog. That makes for a very rich resistor of capitalist economics, but he was never really clear about how resistant he intended to be. But to quote Bob Dylan himself as we bring all of this to an end today, “The times, they are a changing.”

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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