October 21, 2017

Showbiz Sin versus Churchbiz Sin

The Age of Look-The-Other-Way has been replaced by The Age of the Exposé, and it is catching out the previously hidden sins of public people.  This is as true for Churchbiz sin as it is for Showbiz sin.

And it’s proof that Churchbiz has often protected and promoted its celebrities as much as Showbiz does. There is something about the 21st century world of Churchbiz that apes the world of Showbiz, only with less sophistication. That in some sense, however unspoken, there are two rules at work  in either sphere; one for the proletariat and one for the celebrity.


Hence it’s been sobering and instructive to read recent exposés and explanations of the sexual sins of two giants of theology in the twentieth century, Karl Barth and John Howard Yoder,.  In many senses the public moral demise of these two men echoes the likes of Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood currently playing out in lurid technicolor, although neither man is still here to run the red carpet gauntlet of public shame that is besetting the Hollywood ex-mogul.  Spare a thought for Weinstein, he’s a dead man walking, and at a spritely 65 he could be up for a long, torturous and lonely walk.

And it’s not surprising that things have been exposed for these two men, because they’ve been caught out by the times.  History is no longer being written by the cultural winners, but being blogged by the one-time cultural losers, and people are ducking for cover. The sense that their theology or their artistic merit over-rode their known peccadilloes; that the good they did outweighed the bad, or at least would not give the bad a fair hearing, has fallen behind the social and political times.

Many a victim is now being heard for the first time. Never mind the church, think the BBC, Hollywood, English football leagues.  Think English celebrity Jimmy Savile. Think Australian celebrity Rolf Harris. Think US celebrity Bill Cosby. Think Australian painter, posthumously exposed as a pedophile, Donald Friend . 

Many of these men in Showbiz and Churchbiz, and it is inevitably men, must have known a storm was brewing for them. The only question was whether it would hit landfall during their lifetime or after it. Most, I suspect, were assuming after.  Which in some senses I can understand for the secular culture makers, but not for the theological culture makers, given their eschatological frame.  Yet that merely shows how self-deceived the human heart is.

I confess to knowing Barth more as a secondary source, and have read a number of Yoder’s books without being highly attached to his work, yet both men cast huge theological shadows. hence I came away from reading of these revelations feeling more than a little subdued about Barth’s ongoing and unrepentant adulterous relationship with his secretary, and Yoder’s long list of sexual power plays.

What Showbiz men have in common with Barth and Yoder, is the sense somehow that at the height of their powers and abilities they must have assumed the rules did not apply to them. Or perhaps that what they delivered to the public in terms of learning or entertainment or artistic merit more than compensated for their private vices.  As if the balance of the scales was tipped strongly in their favour due to the good work and that it would take a lot to tip it the other way, if anything could do it at all.

What is most salutary in most all of these exposés is that the exposé is generally not met with a “My goodness, how could that happen?”, but a degree of resignation, in which many people knew something and chose, for convenience sake, to look the other way, comforting themselves that their private disapproval was enough.  And then the inevitable rush to clear oneself of associated guilt with lines that commence with “I had no idea he meant THAT when he said THAT!”  

Hence in reading about Donald Friend and his sexual proclivities while living and painting on the Indonesian island of Bali in the 1970s, the sense is that the cultural movers and shakers who frequented his house saw the young boys who lived there and decided not to know. That despite hearing Friend’s own admission that one day people would “come down here and kill me” never put two and two together, despite all of their newly minted secular intellect and sophistication

And it’s the same with Jimmy Savile who baldly stated a few years before his death that when he died “my reputation will take a dive.”  Perhaps it’s because no one wanted their own entertainment career to take a dive that they never questioned that too hard (honourable exceptions Louise Theroux and Johnny Rotten), not even those at the BBC, an organisation fabled for making it its business to ask hard questions.

Churchbiz is, sadly, often the same, not asking the questions early enough or hard enough, often in fear of not being believed and thereby being shunned, or perhaps the deeper fear of being believed yet shunned all the same.  That has been known to happen.

The unpacking of the Barth and Yoder stories also shows a similar pattern to that of the entertainers. Perhaps the sorriest explanation I have heard regarding Yoder’s behaviour was when one of those within the Mennonite movement charged with unpacking it all said that they were so in love with “their beautiful theology” that they had been blind to what was happening. Or turned a blind eye to it, if we’re being less than charitable.

What was most indicting of both Yoder and Barth was not simply their sin, but how their theologically rich frameworks failed to head them off from what, in the end was tawdry, seedy and not at all original when it comes to men with power, whether that be within the larger, glamorous world of Showbiz or within the more confined, but glamorous in its own way, world of Churchbiz.

And perhaps that’s what both men succumbed to, the whole “biz” of the business – the glamour which accompanies it.  Just as Weinstein could be the darling of the liberal Hollywood set and produce stellar movies with great opportunities for strong women characters, yet still be a sexual predator, so too these men could provide theologies of nonviolence ((Yoder) and non-subjectivism (Barth), yet Yoder could treat women with violence and Barth could excuse his behaviour on the basis that because it felt right then God could not disapprove of it completely.

It’s a warning to us is it not, that no level of sophistication in terms of theological acumen can place you out of the reach of sin’s and it’s hardening deceitfulness?  We may not be at the level of Barth or Yoder, but B, C and D list Christian celebrities need to take note.

And it’s not only about sexual abuse.  If the very public demise of Mark Driscoll has shown us anything, it’s that spiritual abuse seems to be the flavour of the month in our independent evangelical crowd.  Once again the pattern is the same.  A lot of nod-nod, wink-wink goes on among those close to the celebrity from those who have skin in the game that they do not wish to lose.  But once it all comes down everyone rushes to absolve themselves by announcing that they knew “something” was wrong, just not what that something was.  The next move is to excoriate the fallen Churchbiz celebrity before exploring ways to be part of the solution to the problem that they were part of in the first place.  And perhaps a book deal.

Perhaps the most encouraging difference between Showbiz and Churchbiz in this Age of Exposé is how quickly the secular entertainment industry is to expunge all public record of acknowledgement of the perpetrator, and how slow the Christian theological world has been to do the same, if to do it at all.

At first glance that seems counter-intuitive. Surely the demands of the gospel require a higher response – a book burning perhaps.  But the decision by many not to photoshop Barth and Yoder from the theological picture shows a higher response, a more far-reaching and reflective one than the knee-jerk reaction of Showbiz.  It shows a steely determination to look sin in the eye and name it for what it is.  And I’ve appreciated that in discussions with some within the Mennonite movement here in Australia.

The secular self-righteous of Showbiz gasp “I can’t imagine how such a horrible thing could happen!” and then busily scrub all remembrance of the sinner from the landscape. I am moving into the suburb of Bassendean in Perth in a few months time, once the celebrated home suburb of the iconic Rolf Harris. Well iconoclasm is alive and well in Bassendean.  Every mention of Rolf, every plaque, every painting he painted has been removed from that place. Meanwhile artist Donald Friend’s work has disappeared from every art gallery across the world, and when his work does sell at auction it is at prices from thirty years ago and to anonymous bidders.

Here’s what comforts me about Barth’s and Yoder’s work still being read and critiqued. It’s proof that many of those who still utilise their works are prone to taking sin seriously. They are under no illusions as to that deceitful hardening that sin has.

There’s a sober self-assessment present that says “Actually I can imagine how such a horrible thing happened, and I can imagine that left to my own sinful devices I could make it happen too.”  

If all you feel about Barth and Yoder is the Showbiz revulsion and horror at their sin, and not sobered by the dark possibilities of your own heart, then you may be in more danger of repeating theirs, or taking your own to its logical Churchbiz conclusion.





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