In March of 1933, on the occasion of his inauguration, Franklin Roosevelt offered a moving speech with a determination to take on the crisis of the Great Depression. In his speech, America was presented with an appeal pertaining to the powers of the President. At a time of significant crisis he declares:
It is to be hoped that the normal balance of executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.
If I’ve lost or bored you already. Stay with me.
FDR found himself before a people who expected him to do nothing short of saving them from their bewildering plight. They looked up at the elected President with hopeful anticipation. Eleanor remarked of the inauguration that it was “very, very solemn and a little terrifying because when Franklin got to the part of his speech when he said it might become necessary for him to assume powers ordinarily granted to a President in war-time [quoted above], he received his biggest demonstration.” You see, with stress at an all time high, a national banking crisis that had crippled the nation, and great difficulties at hand, the people were willing to grant extraordinary power and authority. People looked up for a great remedy, someone who could meet their needs, someone to trust in to deliver.*
Where am I going with this, you ask? The church, of course.
I have noticed a widespread phenomenon in today’s Christian culture, one that is certainly not unique to believers. I speak of what I think of as “celebrity Christians.” They may be pastors, teachers, speakers, musicians, worship leaders, or even pop culture icons who profess their faith. They are everywhere, and we love them. I talk to Christians all the time, well-meaning Jesus followers, who are enamored with the teachings or ideals of a particular public Christian figure. Some contemporary voice who has a clear-cut answer for everything they need one for. Your favorites may have already flooded to mind. But this reality offers us some interesting questions.
I think as Christians, we often find ourselves in a similar plight as our history lesson above. No, not a depression – but a crisis. A crisis of faith, no less. We have deeply troubling questions, unsettling circumstances, and mysterious realities for which we want clarity. Simply put: We want answers. And so, we look up. We look up for someone who surely has them. This pastor or that new trendy author. Sometimes its smooth and pleasing to the ear, and so the best sounding message garners the greatest following. Other times its radical or trend-rejecting, and thus receives the dissenting majority as adherents. We ascribe to someone such power and authority, hoping our trust in them will offer some semblance of peace in our chaos of questions.
As one author, in a secular handbook to leadership, has pertinently noted,
We attribute charisma to people who voice our pains and provide us with promise. Sometimes in our depression we do so without critical thought… We too in times of disorientation seem inclined to endow our authorities with idealized gifts. As long as they serve this need, we imagine them larger than life. We do not realize that the source of their charisma is our own yearning. … Mismanaged, however, dependency on authority can generate a mindless following… Looking upward, people lose touch with their communities, markets, and personal resources. [emphasis added]
Rather than sort out a faith that can seem disorienting, people have this strange propensity to satisfy their yearning for answers by believing whoever they can find that will answer them all. The sad reality is, this is so often he or she who sounds the best, tells them what they want to hear, or makes some drastic claim to having found the way to live as a Christian or to exist as a church. No doubt, there are voices among us, past and present, who speak with an almost prophetic significance to our contemporary situation, but this yearning that we have for answers must not be satisfied with blind following.
I don’t really aim to critique charismatic leaders in today’s church, though they too must be ever weary of who they call people to follow (Jesus, anyone?). My fear is that the troubling realities of faith, those questions for which we simply do not have the answer, will be pushed under a rug of popular following. For those who have come down decidedly and stubbornly about a question that has many possible answers, I worry. For those who aren’t willing to engage in the conversation, so as to be constantly seeking, questioning, and refining, I am saddened.
No celebrity Christian can claim to offer the last word on all our struggles, so its time we stopped pretending as if they do. We must always attempt to look deeper, ask bigger, and think more intently about what popular Christian leaders feed us, so as to recognize that there are pitfalls to many and gaping holes in others. There are many who offer us powerful expressions of the faith, and we need those who put words to what we previously had none for, but we must be constantly aware of our tendency to ascribe far too much authority to those who offer what we hope to hear – what we would like the truth to be.
We need to be ever aware that if Christians have anyone who deserves a healthy following, his name is Jesus and his message is one with which we must wrestle for a lifetime.
*Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers. Harvard, 1994.