The Cult of Personality

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The Cult of Personality

We like our heroes — and we like them to be better than average.

From comic and cartoon characters to entertainers and sporting heroes — we like them to be super heroes; people to look up to and perhaps even model or copy.

Sporting heroes and personalities have been with us almost since the beginning of time. Big strong men have always been regarded as heroes by the general population. Take Goliath of Gath — he was the tall super-hero who was the champion of the Philistines.

Centuries later the Greeks and the Romans had their champions in the arenas showing their prowess, skills and strengths as soldiers, fighters and athletes. The crowds acknowledged their heroes with cheers, laurel wreath crowns, and much more. The ladies, especially, seemed to have liked their big strong heroes, through the centuries.

The 2004 Olympic Games will reveal some new heroes (and perhaps some already well-known ones), and the excitement will be all the bigger for them being in the country of the origin of the Games. Around the world thousands will be following the progress of the Olympic Games through the various media — completely unknown to the early athletes. Many will be cheering on their own national heroes and the jubilation will be at the highest in small countries when their athletic heroes win medals.

Athletes will receive heroes’ welcomes when they return to their home countries after the Games — and especially if they bring home Olympic Medals.

There are other sorts of heroes as well — and so many who want to be heroes, or special ’personalities’.

In recent years it has become a multi-million dollar marketing industry, promoting programmes such as ’American Idol’, ’Australian Idol’ and similar shows. The crowds go mad over their pop-idols, and even some of the ’would-be’ pop-idols — or as they are now often described, the ’wannabees’.

Those who ’make it to the top’ usually do so at the expense of others. Many of the ’wannabees’ often suffer nasty put downs and public humiliation in their attempts to become ’personalities’.

Consider a basic, English dictionary definition of the word ’cult’: ’A system of religious worship; devotion or homage to a person or a thing.’ Think about how we elevate individuals in various prominent areas of life and society, and how quickly people are put on pedestals and held up as heroes with deep devotion, homage and personal identification. Think of Aussie homes where football and cricket become constant topics of conversation, and are religiously watched and followed on radio and television. Think of many of the personally unrelated and unknown (except vicariously through the media) footballers and cricketers who are almost regarded as family members — heroes who ’belong’ to the fans and admirers. Think of how easily so many have become involved in the cult of personality.

However, hero or idol status is a fickle and often fleeting thing. Athletes and other sporting personalities can’t keep up the pace, get older, and get dumped. Pop idols are soon replaced with a ’prettier’ face, ’sexier’ figure, or more dynamic performance. Many hero personalities often fall prey to the hype that generally surrounds them and develop inflated opinions of themselves, and then crash — often through some scandal.

In the last few years the scandals of sexual abuse, drug abuse, bribery and financial corruption have brought down popular and prominent personalities in sport (including the Olympic Games), in entertainment, in business, and elsewhere.

For Christians their one true hero should be Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately Christians often elevate leaders, pastors, preachers, priests, bishops and others to hero and celebrity status — usually with disastrous results for both those who have been so elevated and those who have done the elevating or who have allowed their leaders to be elevated.

The higher the pedestals on which leaders are placed, the higher up they are elevated, the rarer and headier the atmosphere. Few are able to remain humble and balanced with such heady power.

Throughout the centuries the Church’s credibility has been damaged when the cult of personality has moved people’s focus off Jesus Christ and onto some guru ’wannabee’.

Paul of Samosata sought to be ’Mr. Personality Plus’.

He was a Christian who rose to prominence as a leader in the Third Century. In the secular world of what is now Syria, Queen Zenobia was the famous queen of Palmyra. Somehow Paul of Samosata befriended her and came under her protection. He worked for her as a sort of civil court treasurer. At a church level he became Bishop or Patriarch of Antioch — in spite of the protestations of others. It seems that Zenobia was able to exercise enough power and influence to promote Paul to the position.

Over the years he developed heretical doctrines, including a form of dynamic monarchianism (also related to the doctrine of adoptionism) which taught that Jesus was born a man who became the Christ by God’s power at a later date (similar to the notions taught by today’s Jehovah’s Witnesses). Several councils were called to try and deal with the heretical bishop and he was even excommunicated in 269 AD. It wasn’t until Palmyra and Queen Zenobia were overthrown by the Romans in 272 AD that the excommunication was able to be effective — even then he refused to leave his ’Bishop’s house’. He refused to acknowledge any power or authority — he believed he was answerable only to God and not to any man. He was finally removed by the civil authorities.

His unacceptable doctrines were not the only charges levelled against him.

He was a very wealthy man who arrogantly showed off his wealth. There were accusations that some of his wealth was gained in ways inappropriate for a Christian leader — including arbitrating in disputes between Christians and then charging both parties hefty fees. He wore the finest and most expensive of clothing; had a highly elevated pulpit built for him in the church; encouraged people to applaud him and wave their handkerchiefs, insulting those who didn’t; it seems he particularly encouraged the adulation of women and had them singing songs of praise to him (instead of to Christ) in the church; furthermore, he did nothing to stop his adoring fans from declaring him to be an angel from heaven!

Had he lived today he probably would have been in company with some of the disgraced TV-evangelists!

At the height of the Jimmy and Tammy Bakker PTL (Praise the Lord) TV ministry scandal in the late 1980s, PTL staff member, Richard Dortch, acknowledged in an interview:

’A television camera can change a preacher quicker than anything else. Those who sit on the sidelines can notice the changes in people once they get in front of a camera. It turns a good man into a potentate. It is so easy to get swept away by popularity: Everybody loves you, cars are waiting for you, and you go to the head of the line. That is the devastation of the camera. It has made us less than God has wanted us to become.’

(Christianity Today, 18 March 1988, pp.46-47)

The pages of history have repeatedly shown that when Christians become part of a cult of personality, other than in a deep devotion and commitment to Jesus Christ, trouble develops fairly quickly.

Power games; manipulation and control of others; put-downs and public humiliation of those who dare to question or oppose; financial corruption and other expressions of greed; sexual impropriety and abuse; power groups, division and splits in the local congregation and even in denominations — all equalling broken lives, plus a lot of pain and hurt for many good, rank and file, believers.

And all this, in great contrast to the leadership style and approach of the One Great Personality - Jesus Christ. He was humble, the Suffering Servant, the Great Shepherd who rescues the one lost sheep and gives his life for his followers AND his enemies. Though equal with the Father, yet ready and willing to submit himself fully — even willing to be as a lowly slave and wash his disciples feet (with no big ceremony, entourage, or TV cameras to ’catch the action’).

BEWARE the cult of personality — keep your focus firmly on Jesus.

(From TACL Vol 25 #4 July/Aug 2004)