*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 20th of September 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
It seems that the Robert Schuller episode from a few days ago piqued the curiosity of a few of you, and a number of you had your own Crystal Cathedral stories. Among those was a story, comment, and question from a long-time listener (and frequent mailbag contributor) Eric from Ohio.
In his email he told me about visiting the Crystal Cathedral as part of a leadership seminar- he told me about the secret code needed for Schuller’s office and the special chair that Billy Graham once sat in (Protestants have relics, too!). His story led to this question and reflection:
“I wonder how much of church history is driven by people glomming onto charismatic people or movements that are in some worldly way impressive. It seems rather contrary to Jesus' call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow.”
This took me back to a talk I heard many years ago from Dave Zahl of Mockingbird Ministries- Dave suggested that perhaps humans weren’t designed to be famous. Here on the show, we have an entire category, the “Dr. Gene Scott All-Stars” that remind us of the folly of greed, ego, and celebrity. But I want to go in a different direction with this today.
I’m fascinated by new quantitative studies based on collecting metadata from the internet, libraries, reference works, etc… in 2013 Computer Scientist Steven Skiena and google engineer Charles Ward published “Who’s Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank”. I went to the book to look up the top Christian leaders/theologians/pastors according to their rankings. This is not the “best” but rather “who gets referenced, or written about, the most?”
Number 1 on the list is Jesus. This makes sense. Number 2 is Napoleon and number 3 is Mohammed. Hitler is 7 and Aristotle is 8. Let’s look at the famous Christians on the list:
17 Martin Luther (one ahead of Joseph Stalin)
34 The Apostle Paul (one after Charles Dickens)
65 Saint Peter (one behind Voltaire)
72 Augustine of Hippo (beat by one by JFK)
90 Thomas Aquinas (below King Arthur)
99 John Calvin (second to last, above John Locke and below Grover Cleveland)
A few thoughts:
Obviously, name recognition helps. Luther, Paul, Peter, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin are hard to beat on that front.
While there are Calvinists, Augustinians, Thomists (for Thomas Aquinas), etc… “Lutheran” however is the only named denomination from the lot.
And yes, “Lutheran” was meant to be a pejorative. And yes, Luther did not want his followers to be called “Lutheran”… here’s the famous quote:
"I ask that my name be left silent and people not call themselves Lutheran, but rather Christians. Who is Luther? The doctrine is not mine. I have been crucified for no one. St. Paul in 1 Cor. 3:4-5 would not suffer that the Christians should call themselves of Paul or of Peter, but Christian. How should I, a poor stinking bag of worms, become so that the children of Christ are named with my unholy name? It should not be dear friends. Let us extinguish all factious names and be called Christians whose doctrine we have.”
Dear Lutherans: this does not mean you have to change your church’s name. It does not mean you are somehow hypocritical because you are called Lutheran. Language is a funny, changing, and dynamic thing and we need more nit-pickers like a hole in the head.
But how can this double back around to Eric’s question about whether “church history is driven by people glomming onto charismatic people or movements”.
The answer is: yes. My mind reels when I go through the 800 plus shows and think about all the movements and how often times at their core is the story of a charismatic leader.
So what do we do? Let me give you a dime-store word lesson to make the last point. “Charisma” comes from the Greek word “Charis”, meaning grace. It also gives us the word “charm”. Is the church leader pointing us to the ultimate “Charis” or grace of God or is it pointing us to the charms of the individual?
Is the celebrity pastor or theologian pointing beyond themselves or does it seem like a ruse to get you pointed to them, their ministry, and brand? This is of course a long and tricky conversation, but I think church history does have some utility here.
Thanks, Eric for asking the question and helping us to pause and consider the Christian celebrity. You can send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org
The last word for today is from 1 Corinthians:
4 Some of you say that you follow me, and others claim to follow Apollos. Isn’t that how ordinary people behave? 5 Apollos and I are merely servants who helped you to have faith. It was the Lord who made it all happen. 6 I planted the seeds, Apollos watered them, but God made them sprout and grow. 7 What matters isn’t those who planted or watered, but God who made the plants grow. 8 The one who plants is just as important as the one who waters. And each one will be paid for what they do. 9 Apollos and I work together for God, and you are God’s garden and God’s building.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 20th of September 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by the always gracious and charming Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.