The biggest oxymoron in Hollywood may well be this one: Bad publicity. In the television age, what they say about you no longer matters, as long as they are talking about you. Face time is what it’s all about. In the church, of course, we have drunk deeply of the same wisdom. We too bow before the one-eyed god, and so believe that it is the ticket to power.
Our job as Christians is to push our way into the limelight, and then light a candle for Jesus. Thus our football heroes “evangelize” the lost by bowing in the end zone, and our home run hitters point heavenward, each giving their “props” to the man upstairs.
We have descended a long way in our marketing of Jesus. We began by contextualizing Him on Broadway. When that was shown to be too highbrow, we packaged Him in pop songs. When that strategy didn’t change the world, we got even more desperate and decided to try tattoos and bracelets. Finally, however, we have reached our goal. Now we have them wearing our stuff. Which is why we not only wear Jesus-wear, but we rejoice when they do the same. That is, Christians “make a statement” by wearing their “This Blood’s For You” shirts, and we delight that Jesus has become a fashion statement among the hip. Twenty years ago, cross necklaces were all the rage. Now everyone has Jesus, if not in their heart, at least on top of it. His visage adorns the t-shirts of the fashionable. No one knows what it means, but everyone agrees that it’s a statement.
Before we break into celebration, however, we might want to consider first the distinction between the biblical doctrine of exaltation, and its pop-culture counterpart, or should I say, counterfeit. That Jesus has finally come into his Andy Warhol “fifteen minutes of fame” is not only not the good news, but is bad news. In the paradoxical realm of the kingdom of God, the smaller you are, the bigger you are. In the paradoxical realm of pop culture, the bigger you are, the smaller you are. The fastest track to obscurity and pitiful insignificance is fame. Soon Jesus will be so ten minutes ago.
Pop culture icons are both pop, and icons. That is, they, in order to become popular, must leave behind all their rough edges. Jesus, to be the next big thing, is reduced down to an image on a t-shirt. Left behind is the very meaning of the cross. But that t-shirt in turn becomes an icon, not because we would worship it, but because, like an icon, it serves some other purpose. Jesus-as-decoration may get Him some press, but it, in turn, turns Him into not just a means rather than an end, but the most petty of means. He becomes a fashion accessory. In a bizarre conflation of the second and third commandments, we take His image in vain.
Jesus’ exaltation, on the other hand, wasn’t front page news. As He stepped forth from the grave, there was no news’ crew there to meet Him. No one interrupted regularly scheduled programming to give us an update. People didn’t put out a special double issue to give adequate coverage of the event. In the forty days that separated His resurrection from His ascension, He did appear to hundreds of people, but never to thousands. Though there were plenty to attest to the reality of the resurrection, it never sold out the Jerusalem Amphitheater. He didn’t move from obscurity to fame, but from humiliation to exaltation. What changed wasn’t His standing in the ratings, but His standing before His Father. He sought, and received honor in the one right place, the one place that it couldn’t be seen.
There will come a day, of course, when these two will converge. At the end of His exaltation, He will be front page news. At that great day, people will either cry out for Jesus Himself, and not His image, to cover them, or people will cry out for the mountains to cover them. And when the judgment has ceased from the King, the people will judge for themselves. Each of them will cry out, begrudgingly or in great joy: “Jesus Christ is Lord.” The point isn’t that He will be universally recognized, something pop culture can get us close to, but that He will be universally honored, something that only comes from on high.
For now we must learn to tell the difference between letting His light shine before men, and casting our pearl before swine. We need to learn that Jesus doesn’t ennoble t-shirts, anymore than He would ennoble underwear. Instead t-shirts denigrate Jesus. We need to mourn for His popularity rather than celebrate it. And we will do this only as we seek what He sought, only as we cease to seek the approval of men. When we seek to live our lives in quiet obedience, then we will be exalted. That exaltation won’t come as a spot on Jay Leno’s couch, but as a mansion in heaven, something far more glorious, but far more out of sight.
Our path is the same as His — the simple path of humiliation. There is no way around it. If we would be lifted up, we must be brought low. If we would live, we must die. The only way to gain abundant life is to pick up our cross.
Pop culture, like a cathouse, isn’t something to be redeemed, but something to be destroyed. It isn’t something to be won, but something to be defeated. Christ will be exalted fully when all pretenders to His throne are brought low. And He will share His glory with none other.