Messiahs Pointing to the Door

Article by   March 2009
There are many differences between American and British culture.  Most obvious, perhaps, are the sports: baseball versus cricket; and football (where feet are rarely used) versus football (where feet, and the occasional head, are all that can be used); and even, once again, football (where pads are compulsory and no period of action lasts for more that 5 seconds) versus rugby, where pads are the despised accoutrements of pansies and where, unless you can actually run for more than five seconds, you are likely to get flattened.   The list of American idiosyncrasies could go on: the American penchant for men's shoes with tassels that, thankfully, has no counterpart in Britain; the post-colonial idea that a sausage on a lollipop stick is edible; and the constitutional right to eat cheese delivered from an aerosol can without government interference.  Freedom is surely a wonderful thing.

Joking aside, there is one other aspect of American culture which is perhaps most obvious at this particular moment in time: the cult of the individual celebrity.  Now, 'celebs' and the vacuous hoo-hah that surrounds them seem to be a cultural universal, one that scarcely distinguishes America from Britain; but a closer examination reveals that there are significant differences between the way celebrity functions in the two cultures that are instructive.

Take sport, for example.  One of the things that is most striking to a British expat about American sports is the focus on the individual superstar.  In Britain, by and large, team sports focus on the team; rarely does the team become merely an adjunct to the individual.  Two exceptions in the world of football come to mind: Georgie Best in the late 60s and 70s; and David Beckham in the 90s and the present.  These men did develop something akin to cult followings; but, beside them, one is hard pressed to think of anyone else who ever emerged from the sport in a way that made them bigger than the teams for which they played, or made them the focal point or fundamental identity mark of a team.  The same is even more true in rugby: I support Gloucester and England with a passion; but my focus is always on the whole, not any one of the individual parts. Players come; players go; I'm hard pressed to remember names from the team three years ago.  None rises to the level of celebrity that makes them the essence of the team at any given point.

American sport is very different.  In Philadelphia, football is all about Donovan McNabb, and the fortunes of the team are intimately connected to him as a person.  When the Eagles play the Cowboys, yes, it is Eagles versus Cowboys but, even more so, it is McNabb versus his old team mate and now rival, Terrell Owens.  And this is replicated across sports: Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Shaq, AI, A-Rod, etc, etc.  The cult of the individual personality, as opposed to the cult of the institution, seems deeply ingrained in the American sporting world.

The same is true in politics.  It has been fascinating over recent months listening to the rhetoric surrounding the election of President Obama.  It reminded me of nothing so much as the Labour Party election victory in Britain in 1997.  For those too young to remember, Britain had elected a Conservative government since 1979 - from '79 to '90 under Mrs. Thatcher, then from '90 to '97 under John Major.  When Tony Blair's Labour Party swept the Tories away, it ended nearly two decades of Tory political domination, and of Labour's internal disarray.  Of course, 18 years in power had made the Tories into a corrupt and complacent political gang; and the popular sigh of relief that they had finally been shown the door was palpable.  People talked on the news about a new dawn, about a feeling of hope across the nation, about a fresh start, about the potential for a bright new future.  Of course, `new' Labour soon showed themselves to be as sleazy and corrupt as the 'old' Tories, but that's not my point: the point is that the language of hope and expectation was focused on an institution, the Labour Party, rather than on Tony Blair as an individual.

The election of Obama has generated similar rhetoric in the US.  Like the Labour Party, he replaces a morally discredited and deeply unpopular executive; people want a change from the old ways of doing things; Obama is likeable and articulate; it is inevitable that he is receiving much good press and popular acclaim in his early days in office; and, like the Labour Party, it is certain that he will disappoint on many fronts.  What is different from Britain in '97, however, is that the rhetoric of hope is focused upon him as an individual rather than upon the Democratic Party as an institution.  He may not be a king; but the language used about him would seem to indicate he, as an individual, is regarded as embodying the nation, as carrying the nation's hopes, as the one with whom we will all stand or fall, and as the one who will be able to deliver.  American presidential elections are ultimately, and inevitably, about individual personalities; that is not the case in Britain: have you ever wondered why Winston Churchill lost the 1945 General Election between VE and VJ Day, the moment of his greatest personal triumph?

Numerous thoughts come to mind at this point.  First, the Obama rhetoric, like the `W' rhetoric before it, is quintessentially American.  A nation built on the frontier, on wide open spaces, on the rugged individual forging ahead against the odds, is still apparently wedded to the `great man theory of history.'  But history does not work like that.  As any student who has managed to stay awake during any of my classes at Westminster would tell you: social and economic conditions apply.  No man is great enough to single-handedly change the great social and economic forces that drive history along.   It is simply absurd to think that an individual, be it George W. Bush or Barack Obama, can make that much difference.  That is not how history works: to repeat, social and economic conditions still apply, even in a nation that believes all you need is the political equivalent of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood to run the problems - moral, economic, social - out of Dodge. Obama is doomed to fail on at least some of the things that are being expected from him because he stands under, not above, these macro-historical forces.  This should be a sobering thought for his supporters and an encouraging thought for his detractors: the former should make their expectations of his positive contribution more realistic; the latter should not overestimate the damage he can do.

Second, this should make us sit up and think about the power of politics and particularly individual politicians.  To invest so much in an individual betrays a profoundly Pelagian understanding of reality.   As new Labour ultimately proved more corrupt (and arrived in Sleazeville more quickly) than the Thatcher-Major governments, so Obama is a fallen man, surrounded by fallen men and women.  We should not expect too much from them: politics is messy and dirty at the best of times; the best we can hope for is that they might prove less messy and dirty than some of their predecessors.  

Third, as well as being Pelagian, the rhetoric of American politics is too often Manichean: a battle between good and evil, with clear moral monopolies being attributed to different sides by their various supporters and detractors.  Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann are great examples of Manichean thinkers, albeit with very unmanichean senses of humour.   Would that life were as simple as these men make it out to be, that political thinking and decision making was a `slam dunk' as Americans might say, or a simple `kick between the posts' to use a more British idiom; that political differences provided a simple way of reading moral differences, because the `goodies' all think one way and the `baddies' all think the other.  But politics isn't simple: it's a dirty, pragmatic business that involves practical compromises left, right, and centre (if there is any centre remaining!).  This is not to say that our laws and our policies and our platforms should not represent high aspirations; but it is to say that the reality is always somewhat more complex than ideal aspirations allow; and an acknowledgment of that fact is an important part of the political thinking and action itself.

Finally, we need to move beyond the messiah complex that is perhaps now part of the essence of the American presidential process, where so much significance is, at least at a popular cultural level, invested in one individual. Indeed, it is amazing that a country which is typically very suspicious of the government as a corporate institution is willing to put so much trust in a single person.  In Britain, it is virtually the opposite: often a blind trust in institutions but a deep distrust of individual politicians.  

When I listen to the hopes and aspirations of people relative to President Obama, my mind not only goes back to the '97 elections in Britain but also to The Who's great rock opera Tommy. Towards the end, in the song, `I'm Free,' Roger Daltrey sings `We've been here many times before, messiahs pointing to the door, but no-one had the guts to leave the temple.'  Well, we have been here many times before.  Many political messiahs have come and gone; and, as the great British Parliamentarian Enoch Powell once commented: all political careers end in failure.  Perhaps not so much in America, where term limits means that a leader cannot do the heavyweight boxing champ thing and go on too long until he gets his one-way ticket to Palookaville; but even given this, the most successful American politician can only achieve a fraction of what they want and inevitably make compromises and dirty their hands along the way.

And, of course, as in politics, so in religion.   The American political process, as I argued above, is simply the most dramatic example of the `great man theory of history' which pervades American society.  I had often wondered why certain British figures - Jim Packer, N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath etc., were much bigger this side of the Atlantic than back home in their native country.  Was it just the accent?  Surely it couldn't be the dentistry.....?  Maybe the dress sense? No.  It is all to do with the way America is a personality/celebrity oriented culture in a way that Britain, while she may well be catching up, has historically not been.   The American church reflects the culture: ministries built around individuals, around big shots, churches that focus on god-like guru figures, all of them pointing to one door.  I have lost count of the conversations I have had with church people anxious to tell of who they heard at this conference, of which person they corresponded with, of how this opinion or that opinion would not sit well with this demi-god and is therefore of little value; and, of course, of how anyone who disagrees with, or criticizes, this chosen hero must, of necessity be morally depraved and wicked.  People want the gods to do their thinking for them.  All of the Pelagian, Manichean celebrity malarkey of the American political process is alive and well in the church as well.  The question is: when it comes to churches and ministries built around messiahs who are supposed to point not to themselves but to the true door, who is going to have the guts to leave the temple?


Carl Trueman is the Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.


The following recommended resources can be purchased through the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals:
Minority Report by Carl Trueman
Culture Shift by Albert Mohler


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