Christian Discipleship in the Age of the Superfan

JCFan“Jesus wants disciples; he doesn’t need a fan club.”

That line came from a Catholic priest, Father Greg Boyle, who has spent much of his life working with gang members in Los Angeles. Father Boyle was speaking to a packed auditorium at Newman University, where we had invited him to lecture on his book, Tattoos on the Heart. He said this in response to a question from the audience. The question was, “why don’t you teach these young men to be good Catholics?”

Father Boyle didn’t elaborate. He let us work out the implications ourselves, but they were pretty clear. It is the fan club member, not the disciple, who worries about who is (and who is not) a “good Catholic” (or a “good Christian,” or a “good Mormon”). These are not the sorts of questions that disciples ask because they are not the sorts of problems that disciples worry about.

That so many people do worry about these problems suggests that Jesus’s fans outnumber his disciples by a substantial number. No surprise there. Fan clubs are easy to start, and participation costs very little.  To be a member in good standing, one need only express—as frequently and in as many media as possible—one’s undying love and devotion. Such clubs exist to provide a place for like-minded fans to meet together and like stuff. Members judge each other by the quantity and quality of their affection. Facebook is a must, and #hashtags help a lot. But Goneril and Regan only please; Cordelia need not apply.

It is the Jesus fan, not the disciple, who gets mad about things like “The War on Christmas™.” Fans become incensed if they can’t display their adoration in public, which is, after all, the whole point of fandom. The Decalogue on the court house lawn, the Nativity scene in the public park–the superfan choses to die on these hills, while the disciple barely notices them. Superfans find the object of their fandom so compelling that they can’t imagine a rational person not thinking as they do. Those who disagree must be deficient: crazy, stupid, or evil. Otherwise, they would be fans too.

Disciples don’t have time to concern themselves with the purity of anybody else’s affections; they have quite enough to do making sure that their own actions reflect their belief. And it is just not important for them to know who is in the club and who is not–or who best loves God and the prophets. Disciples have very clear instructions on how to treat other people, and these instructions read the same for everybody.

Christian discipleship means taking Christ at his word and believing that the Kingdom of God is real and obtainable–not something we can find, but something we can make. This is the essence of what Christ tells us so often in the Kingdom Parables: the Kingdom of God is beautiful, like a pearl of great price; valuable, like a treasure hidden in a field; fragile, like a mustard seed; and nourishing, like a banquet.

But we can only have the Kingdom of God if we are willing to sacrifice everything that is not the Kingdom of God to achieve it. This means giving our time and treasure, of course, but the main thing we are called upon to sacrifice is our natural humanity–our tribal instincts, our self-centeredness, our aggression, and our love of temporal things. The surest measure of discipleship is the willingness to put away natural humanity and seek to become saints through the Atonement of Christ.

This is where fandom and discipleship differ the most, and this is why the two approaches to the Gospel are ultimately incompatible. Being a fan does not require us to be more loving or less judgmental, and it never asks us to work hard at anything other than self-promotion. It revels in the basest and most spiritually destructive aspects of human nature, asking only that our tribal instincts and violent behavior be placed in the service of the club. Like all tribal units, fan clubs exist to create and enforce boundaries. Terms like “worthiness” (when talking about somebody other than oneself), “member in good standing,” and “apostasy,” all derive from the vocabulary of fandom, which has a strong interest in determining whose expressions of love are sufficiently pure.

In the end, of course, the cost of fandom is much greater than the cost of discipleship. We cannot have both, and when we give up the hard tasks of Christian discipleship and settle instead for the work of Team Jesus (or Team Mormon, or Team Prophet, or whatever) we make the critical mistake of giving up the Kingdom of God for something that it is not.

Comments

  1. N. W. Clerk says:

    “Disciples don’t have time to concern themselves with the purity of anybody else’s affections”

    So disciples don’t have time to divide others into Disciples and Superfans?

  2. it's a series of tubes says:

    Zing!

    Also, I really like this post, but I think it went significantly astray in the next-to-last paragraph.

  3. Well said. Just as long it doesn’t lead to “Team Disciple!”

  4. A Happy Hubby says:

    @ NW Clerk
    I do think there is a difference in
    (a) describing two ends of a spectrum that differ greatly on their motivation
    vs.
    (b) taking the time to try and define who is or is not good enough to be part of my tribe or they need to be officially removed

    I can see the difference. If someone decided they don’t feel that the church is true. A superfan would be angry at them and not want to associate with them because they are not being one of the group and showing solidarity. A disciple would love them and love them all the same and even feel empathy for the pain that drove them to no longer believe.

    I don’t think the value of the proposition is to look at others and decide which they are – it should be for each of us to look within ourselves and what our motivation is.

  5. Thanks for this post. Tribal competition is just so alluring, especially for a religion like ours that looks forward to the day when we “win” everything. It’s easy to get caught up in that stuff and lose sight of our much more important mission of bringing ourselves and others to Christ…and without that, we don’t get to win any kind of “victory” anyway.

  6. “So disciples don’t have time to divide others into Disciples and Superfans?”

    ^^^^^^^^^This^^^^^^^^^

    The disciples versus fans thing is a false dichotomy. I get that there are more important things than religion in the public square….but I don’t think the person who wants a nativity scene to remain on the courthouse lawn is necessarily not a disciple. Disciples can differ on that issue.

    I certainly agree that we should not divide ourselves based on the perceived strength of each other’s testimonies. But dividing people based on our perception of their degree of fandom versus discipleship is just as silly.

  7. I didn’t read anywhere in the OP where the author is implying that we should divide people “based on our perception of their degree of fandom versus discipleship.” From what I understood, the point of the post is to examine ourselves and rid the behaviors that fall farther the to superfan end of the spectrum. It’s natural for all of us to feel like we are giving Christ our all because we are constantly thinking and talking about the gospel, but we have to ask ourselves if we are doing it the right way. It’s not about putting other people in a certain place on the spectrum, it’s about figuring out where we are on the spectrum.

  8. “I don’t think the person who wants a nativity scene to remain on the courthouse lawn is necessarily not a disciple.”

    You might be right. What is sure, however, is that the person in question would be putting his America-centric policy preferences before discipleship.

  9. “What is sure, however, is that the person in question would be putting his America-centric policy preferences before discipleship.”

    How is wanting a nativity scene to remain on a courthouse lawn, in and of itself, sacrificing discipleship?

  10. it's a series of tubes says:

    What is sure, however, is that the person in question would be putting his America-centric policy preferences before discipleship

    Bollocks. Conclusory – either provide reasoned support, or the statement is deemed withdrawn :)

  11. Excellent post (excellent thoughts and exposition of them). I have long been sick and tired of the tribal, superfan-like emphases on prescribed and proscribed behaviors in the church–as contrasted with rational and thoughtful understanding that the underlying principles are paramount, not the rules, and lists, and programs, and hierarchy, and “one true church” chant.

    One thing you said was particularly enlightening: “Fans … display their adoration in public, which is, after all, the whole point of fandom.”

  12. Amen. Excellent post. IMO, fandom also contributes to absolutely insipid music for worship, aka “praise band” stuff. The lyrics are all “we sing your praises” or some variation, and little else. While I think hymn singing is a high form of worship, there should be more to it than that.

  13. Emily, I’m sure you are not talking about classics like this one, are you?

  14. Marc and ISOT, surely discipleship entails something a little more…universal than a proxy skirmish in the American culture wars?

  15. Peter LLC,

    Sure, but that doesn’t have anything to do with what I said. My point was that policy preferences do not necessarily rule out discipleship. We can disagree on policy but still all follow Christ.

    So I still don’t understand your response that wanting a nativity scene to remain on a courthouse lawn was “putting policy preferences before discipleship.” People on both sides of that issue could be disciples depending on their obedience to Christ, love for fellow men, etc.

    But maybe I am just a close minded American :)

  16. I’m still trying to figure out how a mustard seed is fragile. Any non-super fans care to guide my way?

  17. I used to be a disciple of Jesus before he got so mainstream.

  18. Love this. And I love Father Boyle

  19. JA Benson says:

    I love this so much! Thank you!

  20. Yet Another John says:

    I don’t think it’s an ‘either or’ thing. I think a “true” disciple would look past the attempt to categorize followers of Jesus in this way and the superfan would probably not even think that it applied to him or her. One thing I’ve learned in 60+ years and one of the reasons that I very rarely comment on LDS blogs is that whenever I point a finger (no matter how well-intentioned) there are always three pointing back at me.

  21. Marc, of course disciples can do different things and still be disciples. For example, you might make a quesadilla for lunch while I warm up a leftover pork chop. As long as it’s just lunch, I suspect we have no problems. But lobbying for leftover pork chops as the one true lunch and passing off the effort as discipleship? I dunno.

  22. Lobbying? One true church? I think we are having two different conversations. Or you read an incredible amount into my statement that wasn’t there.

    But if you prefer lunch analogies that don’t seem relevant to the discussion, I really like tacos.

  23. Ha ha, “one true lunch.” I think I’ve found my new cause.

  24. “Lobbying? One true church?”

    If a “person who wants a nativity scene to remain on the courthouse lawn” isn’t a lobbyist, what then?

    If you’d rather not read incredible amounts into statements that weren’t there, please don’t get tripped up over the one true lunch comment. The point I regret to have obscured with distasteful metaphors is simple: of course disciples can disagree about policy and remain disciples. But I maintain that taking a position in a partisan policy debate is as much an expression of discipleship as, say, having something for lunch. In other words, not at all.

  25. This was such a valuable and accurate post, Michael — thank you so much for putting it out there for our contemplation!

    Two points really resonated with me:

    – “Christian discipleship means taking Christ at his word and believing that the Kingdom of God is real and obtainable–not something we can find, but something we can make. This is the essence of what Christ tells us so often in the Kingdom Parables: the Kingdom of God is beautiful, like a pearl of great price; valuable, like a treasure hidden in a field; fragile, like a mustard seed; and nourishing, like a banquet.”

    – “Being a fan does not require us to be more loving or less judgmental, and it never asks us to work hard at anything other than self-promotion. It revels in the basest and most spiritually destructive aspects of human nature, asking only that our tribal instincts and violent behavior be placed in the service of the club.”

    Those are both so true and helpful. The Kingdom is fragile because it can crumble as our own devotion or discipleship wanes. (Real discipleship, not proxy fighting in the contrived culture wars.) And fandom, as you have observed, truly “revels in the basest and most spiritually destructive aspects of human nature, asking only that our tribal instincts and violent behavior be placed in the service of the club.”

    Whereas true discipleship requires us to lay aside those spiritually destructive aspects of human nature (tribal instincts and violent behavior) — laying aside the natural man by turning the other cheek or by baking two cakes — we are encouraged to employ those very aspects of human nature when we are enlisted as partisans expected to subordinate religion to political preferences, viewing the utility of religion in its ability to support political priors in a very temporally, geographically specific culture war.

  26. “I maintain that taking a position in a partisan policy debate is as much an expression of discipleship as, say, having something for lunch. In other words, not at all.”

    On this point I agree. But it cuts both ways. Wanting a nativity scene to remain in a public space, thinking there is a war on Christmas, or most other political or policy preferences are not signs of discipleship any more than non-discipleship.

    Let’s define discipleship on obedience to Christ’s commandments and let Him be the judge. Otherwise we continue to create silly tribes like apostate vs. TBM, conservative Mormon vs. liberal Mormon (see http://ldsmag.com/article-1-13499/), pro marriage equality versus pro traditional marriage, or disciple versus superfan.

  27. Just one quick clarification here that I probably should have put in the post. I think it is just as tribal and fannish (albeit in different directions) to die on the hill of trying to get nativity scenes off of city hall lawns. As an abstract political belief, I don’t find one opinion about such things “fannish” and the other “discipleish”. I just find these debates to be diversions from what actually matters. As long as people involve themselves in these debates the way they would, say, a crossword puzzle, then I think that either position is fine. The danger, though, is that we will spend a lot of time and energy engaged in this kind of work and convince ourselves that it has something to do with building the Kingdom of God.

  28. ChristianKimball says:

    I like the disciple vs fan distinction. It is useful. Also intentionally biased. That is, disciple is good, fan is not.
    One problem with the distinction is that it sounds like or brings to mind a different distinction, which divides along the lines of religious activity in public forums. There is a view that the United States (in particular) should be a Christian nation. That Christian values and principles should be enshrined in law and put forward on the town square. Some (me) call this view “Christianist”, although admittedly that term is often seen as derogatory. I do not subscribe to a Christianist point of view. In fact I think it is wrong-headed. However, it is a serious position that–in the hands of proponents–does seem to be a version of building the Kingdom of God. I do not find it so easily or casually dismissed, however much I personally argue against it.