Justin Bieber and the Question of Christian Celebrity (OP-ED)
In the Christian rap community, we have had years of discourse and often intense debate about how to label the artists who make the music behind our movement. The conversation of “Christian rapper” versus “Christian who raps” has taken a great deal of attention, but in a time after Kanye West’s Jesus is King and now Justin Bieber’s Freedom, we are faced with a new dilemma: what of Christian celebrities or celebrities who are Christian?
What do we do with the Kanye Wests, Justin Biebers, Chance the Rappers, and so many more who fit even less neatly in the arbitrary boxes of a genre we created? Must these individuals and others of high status conform to the patterns of making Christian music that we are comfortable with, or were we wrong to hold to those labels? How do we respond to artists who live a faith life that differs from the whole of their music? What is the real part of their lives, and really, are we meant to evaluate that from afar?
Christians who are skeptical of embracing projects like Bieber’s Freedom are often rightfully concerned with the standards of holiness the Christian lifestyle demands. Hearing artists sing in one instance about the goodness of their God and be undeniably vulgar on another project is understandably jarring. And truthfully, it is fair to raise questions about the status of one’s walk if they are making such decisions in succession.
Nonetheless, when having discussions about Christian ethics, the underlying tone always seems to be one of wrath rather than hope. In a previous article on Lil Nas X’s “Montero,” we suggested the first step in thinking about correction is to self-evaluate, searching for the log in our own eyes before pointing out the speck in our brother or sister’s (Matthew 7:1-5).
The same concept still applies in seeking to evaluate our famous siblings of the faith. We have to see our own intentions before correcting another because correction in love is one that hopes for restoration, not mere correction. What are we seeking in our correction, for our fellow Christians to grow closer to the Lord, or to the same behavioral patterns we live by?
Living a sincere Christian lifestyle comes with the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who works to transform us through a process of sanctification if we surrender to Him. The Spirit is He who moves us away from sin and the patterns of our flesh mark us as followers of Christ and teach us how to see the Lord in our world and in Scripture. The Holy Spirit is a transformative being, but this transformation is not fulfilled immediately, it is a process.
That is not to say no one experiences instantaneous changes upon committing to Christ. Testimonies about new Christians becoming free of addictions, trauma, and other strongholds happen and are legitimate, as are the experiences of those who are actively fighting to believe in their restoration.
Perhaps artists like Justin Bieber and other Christians with a celebrity status are in a period of sanctification where their previous patterns of making music are being battled back by the new creation. Perhaps they are learning and growing, trying to figure out how to integrate their faith into their music in a manner that is not performative or inauthentic. Perhaps they know what mainstream listeners are attracted to, and are afraid to dive wholeheartedly into being labeled Christian artists.
Or, perhaps critics are correct to be skeptical of big artists trying their hand at worship but having an explicit tag on their project’s cover. Marketing is a powerful tool, and Christian audiences represent a large niche that can boost even the biggest artist’s numbers, whether such a push is necessary or not.
So with such uncertainty, do we choose to support mainstream artists making Christian content? Such a decision is a matter of personal conviction, primarily. Just as Paul called for the Romans to refrain from eating foods their fellow believers thought unclean, we can part ways on the specifics of our conviction while refusing to be a stumbling block to our fellow believers. Better that there not be quarrel among ourselves as to whether or not an album or genre is fair game for listening than allowing such a temporal matter to cause damage in Christian fellowship.
There is no need for a “one size fits all” perspective on this matter, because it is not fundamental doctrine. Listening to and even celebrating the name of Jesus being sung in mainstream spaces will not affect salvation.
As for the celebrities themselves, the movement of our hearts should always be that they, like any other, would grow in their faith, not be pushed into a chasm of legalism. A celebrity is just another image-bearer whose talents have amassed them an audience, but they are no less human because of the attention they have earned. They are still prone to wandering. They will still make mistakes. They are still in need of grace, so may we embrace the nuance of correcting that which is wrong, and celebrating that which is truly good.
In Acts 18, two scenarios that appear applicable occur as Paul visits Corinth, finding his companions and fellow believers, Priscilla and Aquila. In Corinth, Paul, as he and other apostles often did, “reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to pursue both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4, ESV). Paul actively attempts to point both Jews, who had been raised in the Mosaic law and the messianic prophecies alongside Gentiles, who would have had much more limited experience with Hebrew beliefs and customs. Paul is inevitably rejected by the Jews and decides he will instead pursue preaching to the Gentiles.
Paul knew preaching the Gospel could not end because his people rejected him, instead he put the kingdom first, focusing ever forward on the mission of making disciples. Our Great Commission is to do just this for all nations, and Paul knew Judaism could not be a hindrance to the mission. Choosing to ostracize celebrity believers could lead them down a similar path. This is still not ideal, as Paul was rejected before transitioning his focus to the Gentiles.
Instead, the correction of Apollos by Priscilla and Aquila seems more pertinent. Apollos was a man well-studied in the Hebrew scriptures who was passionate or “fervent in spirit,” but did not have the fullness of the Gospel revealed to him in his preaching. Aquila and Priscilla saw the value in Apollos’s zeal, “…took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.”
Rather than simply calling out that which was wrong or incomplete in Apollos’s early teachings, Aquila and Priscilla maneuvered his fervor towards a fuller vision of the Gospel, developing one of the early church’s most important teachers in the process (Acts 18:24-28, ESV).
We can clearly see a heart for the Lord in the work of celebrities who release Christian-slanted music, thus following the profile of Aquila and Priscilla stands out as a particularly powerful course of action. We can help lead figures like Justin Bieber and similarly famous artists to a deeper faith that the Gospel might go even further. These individuals have a platform many of us will never come close to, a platform full of people who need the transformative work of the Gospel. May we desire that more than turning our noses to combined fame and faith.