Tyson Fury will remain as one of the candidates for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award. The broadcaster announced that the award represents an “individual’s sporting achievement” rather than their “personal beliefs”. This seems to deliberately miss the point of a competition to identify Britain’s “sports personalities” instead of just trying to work out whether a gold medal is better than a world title, and praise the most successful person in the field. However, it’s understandable that the BBC might want to distance themselves from apparently endorsing Fury’s “personal beliefs”, even in such a disingenuous way.
Fury, the heavyweight boxing champion, has made a great point in the media of his Christian faith. He has claimed that he can read more people in one night than “a million churches”, and that God is working through him. He has also claimed that “a woman’s place” is “in the kitchen and on her back”, that women can sometimes “need” a punch, and that homosexuality is comparable to paedophilia.
These comments might come as some embarrassment to Christian groups who have been swift to claim Fury in the past as “one of us”. Premier Christianity even went as far as listing the boxer as one of their “33 under 33” “young Christian leaders” who are “influencing” people in their various spheres. This caused a certain amount of controversy amongst readers and other Christian who did not feel that Fury provided a useful role model. Even before he described women as intended to sexually service men.
But the embarrassment over Tuson Fury should go deeper than the cringe when a badly-vetted political candidate says something unpleasant before a by-election. It’s not that Christian groups should do better research on the people they identify as “Christian celebrities”. Instead, they should be thinking seriously about why they want to package people as “Christian celebrities”, and what “influencer” can possibly mean in Christian terms.
“Influence” is a slightly troubling term when applied to the relationships between Christians. In older English, it refers to the effects which stars and planets exert upon people and events on the earth. (Our word for the illness “influenza” derives from an Italian term meaning “a malign influence from the stars”, a handy term for doctors who weren’t really clear what was going on but hoped it would pass in time.)
When it’s used in the Renaissance about people – such as monarchs or beautiful aristocratic women – it implies that they are up above the world, shedding rays of “influence” down upon the ordinary people. The “aetherial” world which they take part in is distinct from the “sublunary” world where the rest of us live. It elevates them to astrological status, implying that they inhabit a wholly different world where their actions can shape and change the lives of lesser beings.
I’m not suggesting mainstream Christians publications endorse astrology, but I would like to point out how comfortably the older usage of “influence” fits the celebrity system in the modern media. And how uncomfortable it should make Christians. Certainly reading books, listening to sermons and attending worship events where gifted speakers appear can have a powerful ”influence” on the lives of individual Christians. I’m sure a lot of people can think back to particular moments where they were moved emotionally and spiritually by the words of someone they had never met.
But this cannot be our model for the way Christian ministry supports and shapes each others’ lives. We do not believe that there are people who exist on a different spiritual plane to others. From the adepts of the secret “wisdom” of ancient Gnostic systems, to the “perfecti” of the medieval Cathars, orthodox Christianity has repeatedly rejected the idea of some Christians being qualitatively distinct from others. We do not divide the world into the special dispensers of “influence” and the creatures whose lives are “influenced” in their lower sphere.
At least, we try not to. After all, we have inherited a theology which centres around a God who redeemed and saved by participating in our humanity. Not an ethereal being who walked amongst us disguised as a person, but a Christ who was fully human. We have inherited a way of worship which offers us the chance to participate in the body of that Christ. Some of us understand that “body of Christ” as being present in the Eucharist, and others understand it as better represented by the church’s common life in the Spirit. Either way, it’s not a vision of the world which fits with “influence” from the “stars”. In either sense.
I’ve bothered with this rather pedantic point about the etymology of “influence” because I think it’s still strongly present in the way we talk and think about people in the public eye. It’s not that I think Premier Christianity, and other Christian organizations, are using the term in an old-fashioned way. On the contrary, their “influence” seems strikingly modern. I’d like to suggest that Tyson Fury’s appalling comments aren’t an aberration in this system, but that they’re a clue to the problem with the entire concept of “Christian celebrity”. Let’s stop thinking that “influence” from the “stars” is compatible with what we’ve been called to do.