A Pop-Star Pastor's Public Fall and the Christian Cult of Celebrity

By Jarrod McKenna 8-25-2008

It was only last month that Sydney newspaper The Herald Sun's Faithworks blog carried a post with this paragraph:

There is an amazing moment on the latest Hillsong DVD, This Is Our God, when Michael Guglielmucci, stricken with cancer, walks on stage with an oxygen tent to boldly sing his song "Healer." He doesn't know how long he has to live, but still proclaims the goodness of his God.

Earlier in the year, Mike's overtly Christian worship song "Healer," which he said was inspired by his struggle with a deadly form of cancer, debuted at number two on Australia's official music charts.

Tragically, last week another news source headline read: "Pop star pastor lied about cancer."

I feel a deep sadness for Mike and all affected. I continue to pray for him and those who are hurting in the wake of his pain. Mike was not just some fringe player on the Australian Christian scene. In Australia's prominent churches (including world-famous Hillsong), this passionate, talented, and broken 28-year-old was not just a hero but a superstar. Until he confessed to the lies about his terminal cancer and his addiction to pornography, all of which have come as a painful shock to those closest to him. ...

... While some might want to write Mike off as another right-wing, power-hungry prideful preacher using Christianity as a vehicle for his own fame with no concern for others unless they can help build their empire, this simply is not true of Mike.

One of my best mates is one of his closest friends, and though I've only met Mike a number of times, I always found him humble and sincere (if anything I found Mike a theologically naive victim of the culture of "Christian cool" that demands superstars, a dangerous position for any of us to be in). Who could know that the pressures of the crazed circus that is Christian celebrity was taking such a toll on Mike's soul and flaming unconfessed patterns of sin? Maybe like MLK, Mike doubted whether the ears below would hear his confession from the height of the pedestal we perched him on?

Recently Mike had made contact with me (through that strange social phenomenon "Facebook"), interested in and wanting to support EPYC (Empowering Peacemakers in Your Community), wanting to have his faith express itself in a gospel concern for the least of these, in caring for creation and in Christ-like nonviolence. Mike was sincerely seeking a deepening and different faith. "Different" in that it believes only in being Christ-like that we make a difference. Mike had started reading Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution. Our brother is far more complex than the cardboard-cutout that some are making him out to be. Maybe even as complex, messed up, and in need of God's transforming grace as you and I.

As you can imagine, the blogging world and talk-back radio in Australia have gone crazy over these tragic events. Many are picking up metaphorical rocks aimed at Mike to voice their anger, grief, betrayal, and disbelief. Many feel this will contribute to the cynicism Australians feel toward a Christianity that looks little like Christ. As one prominent pastor has blogged:

"It's his sin, not mine ... or yours." And not to project "his failure onto all and sundry."

But pastor, this is not something I can say "amen" to.

In no way do I want to take away from the pain Mike has caused, or his responsibility for his actions. But clamouring for our own integrity by scapegoating this obviously desperate and hurting (and unwell?) brother can't produce fruits that help us in our own transformation. To paraphrase Carl Jung, we will not become enlightened by replacing Mike with another unrealistic idol of light, but by making the darkness in us, our church cultures, and our world, conscious.

Thankfully, people are voicing their anger, grief, betrayal, and disbelief in compassion for Mike and are asking questions such as, "What is the log in my own eye?"

I wonder if one of those logs is a communal sin in Christian circles where we create Christian celebrities (we are guilty of doing it to many who contribute to this blog as well, be it Jim Wallis, Brian McLaren, Tony Campolo, or Shane Claiborne), onto whom we project all our potential -- and, on the flipside, whom we crucify when they reveal brokenness.

Could it be true that in aid of being "relevant," our churches have become a mirror of the larger culture's infatuation with power, prestige, position, possessions, and prominence, instead of being "colonies of heaven" by embodying a different way?

Do we really want suffering servants who lead by washing feet and meeting the needs of the least of these without their left hand knowing what their right hand is doing? Do we really want wounded healers who humbly renounce "lording [power] over them"? Do we really want fellow confessing sinners who just like us need accountability in taking the exodus from death-dealing ways into God's gracious gift of new life?

Or is it possible we contribute to church cultures where we want pop-star pastors on pedestals to promote for our next conference? Is it possible we situate them at such heights it makes it near impossible for them to confess to the diversity of weakness we share?

Yes, we clearly want "anointed leaders" who can rub elbows with the rich and powerful. But are we really interested in the kind of anointing that God gives, that God gave to our Saviour, sent for the sick, those who suffer, the poor, the prisoners, the hurting, and even hypocrites? Do we really want our church mission statements to look like Jesus' mission statement (Luke 4:18-21)? Yes, we love prophets who can warm our hearts with promises that God will give us everything the world wants. But how do we respond to biblical prophecy that confronts us with our own darkness and asks us to repent? Maybe the honest truth is that we want "mighty men and women of God" and not humble followers of Jesus.

In a culture that values good PR over public confession, it wasn't until Mike voluntarily confessed to his fraud and failure -- yes, he wasn't forced to! -- that I think he's worthy of being considered an example. Now, and only now, is Mike maybe an example of the costly integrity that exposes self at the risk of losing all. The kind of integrity an alcoholic has in admitting they are an alcoholic. Yet this never removes the pain their alcoholism caused others. In the prophetic words of Tina Turner, "we don't need another hero." We need humble, confessing sinners willing to let God create a sign of God's dream for creation out of our broken lives.

I pray that this might be the first fruit of Mike and those he has hurt really being healed. I also pray for the healing of our church cultures that demand "successful heroes" other than the crucified failure that has saved us.

Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, because we all need your healing and integrity.

Jarrod McKennaJarrod McKenna is (another sinner with no stones to throw) seeking to live God's love. He's a co-founder of the Peace Tree Community, serving with the marginalised in one of the poorest areas in his city, and is the founder and creative director of Empowering Peacemakers (EPYC), for which he has received an Australian peace award in his work for peace and (eco)justice.

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