Accidental (American) Idols: What We Can Learn From Whitney Houston

Some things you shouldn’t get too good at
Like smiling, crying and celebrity


Only 6 days ago, we discovered that Whitney Houston died in her guest room at the Beverly Hills Hotel in glitzy Beverly Hills, California. Details about her exact cause of death are sketchy, but we do know she was laying underwater in her bathtub when hotel personnel broke into her room. Ironically enough, at her final public appearance she sang “Jesus Loves Me.” Today, she’s in the presence of the man whom she sang about. Rest in peace, Whitney.

Whitney had it all: One of the greatest voices of all time. A life of luxury, the result of selling over 170 million records. Such overwhelming fame that her death caused a total restructuring of the next day’s Grammy awards television program. And, she reportedly had a faith in Christ and recently completed an appearance in a Christian oriented film.

Yet it wasn’t enough. Whitney struggled with addictive behaviors that ranged from alcoholism to cocaine abuse.

Accidental (American) Idols And The Cult Of Celebrity

With Lent beginning in five days, I want to explore the concept of accidental idols— practices and beliefs that may unintentionally stand in the way of us encountering God in a fuller way. Last week we looked at the fallacy of personal rights.

With Whitney Houston’s death staring us straight in the face, I thought I would offer another accidental idol that entices so many of us, including me.

The desire to be rich and famous.

The title of the hit TV show American Idol is by no means a misnomer. We all know the premise: an unknown but talented young man or woman sings before a panel of judges who awards the best performer with a juicy music contract. Former American Idols include Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Jennifer Hudson (who sang a moving tribute to Whitney the next day at the Grammy Awards).  American Idol is the embodiment of the American dream—talent, fame and the life of luxury.

That should guarantee happiness, right? Just ask Whitney.

Society emulates people like her. And if we lack her talent, we still seek her luxury and fame. Just look at people who are famous for being famous like Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, or the incomparable party crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi. Incidentally, Tareq is suing Michaele for divorce and $50 million after she left him for someone more famous than him (Journey guitarist Neal Schon).

The fact that we know these names proves that our culture has gone crazy.

Even Christians Bow Down To These Accidental Idols

And, I must confess, the Christian community is no different. We emulate famous Christian speakers, pastors, and personalities. Nearly a year ago, my colleague Eugene Scott and I attended a conference for church planters (we co-pastor The Neighborhood Church, which we planted three years ago). One after another, the conference organizers marched famous authors and megachurch planters in front of us, offering us secrets to building an enormously successful church. And what was the measure of success? Big and famous. By the end of the week, I fought feelings that I was a failure because our church attendance hadn’t even surpassed 100 every Sunday.

Believe me, I fall into that trap more often than I’d like to admit. The idea of multitudes of people hanging on my every word–and cashing in on that influence–sounds pretty enticing. And isn’t that how we so easily define success?

Jesus, on the other hand, operated from a different set of values than most of us.

Before launching his ministry, the Holy Spirit led him into the wilderness for forty days where he was tempted by Satan. Not surprisingly, he offered Jesus the American dream–power, influence, and the life of luxury:

The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, “I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.'”

Luke 4:5-8

Did you notice  Jesus’ response? The son of God, sent by God to save the world, didn’t seek to accomplish his purpose by being famous. Nor did he desire the life of luxury. It’s empty. Demonic.

The apostle Paul, who probably wouldn’t have been invited to my church planters’ conference a year ago, wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6).

Do you believe it? In my heart of hearts, I think I do.

Michael co-pastors The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado with Eugene Scott. When he was a child, he envisioned himself one day becoming a healing evangelist.


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8 responses to “Accidental (American) Idols: What We Can Learn From Whitney Houston

  1. Evan Roth

    Right on, Mike! Great blog today. We are all enticed by “worldly” success. Thanks for bringing us back to our Lord Jesus’ example.

  2. Georgie-ann

    Another tragic life, playing “off center” — something very out of kilter — with an unbalanced momentum that eventually winds up out of control and spinning not only “off key” but off the hinges, as well. At least an unbalanced washing machine, when attempting to go into spin but klunking instead, is programmed to eventually simply stop and wait for a readjustment of the load. It can’t readjust itself, but it waits for the “one” who can,…rather than burn out the motor, trying in vain to do the impossible, by simply repeating the only pattern it knows,…a pattern that won’t work,…ever,…

    But some things are more easily seen from the “outside” than from the “inside.” It’s easier to see and identify that “other” person who is out of control, than to BE that person. We don’t realize how much we NEED the wisdom and the instructions of the WISE MECHANIC to guide and “fix”/heal us. We are “wise in our own conceit.” To our great detriment. Like foolishly trying to drive a car “way too fast” around that narrow bend in the road,…it just doesn’t work well, even though “I think I should be able to do this.”

    Vanity. A completely useless “illusion.” But such a commonplace trap:

    Ecclesiastes 5:10 “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; Nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity.”

    Ecclesiastes 6:9 “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.”

    Hosea 12:11 “Though Gilead has IDOLS— Surely they are vanity … .”

    Ecclesiastes 12:8 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “All is vanity.”

    Solomon, too, “had it all” and this is what he had to say about it: it is all Vanity.

    What IS “the Power of the World?” What does satan have to offer that IS “his” to give, if not illusion, grandiosity, pride, and vain imaginations?,…pumped-up, twisted and distorted “idols” and “messages” to capture our attention, our minds, our hearts, our ignorance, and our wannabe lusts, (among others)? And surely the admixture of drugs and $$ into the whole scene only increases the tantalizing seductive “effects” — greater illusions which only promise greater emptiness and negatives when exposed.

    I have a question: Isn’t it just so obvious that Hollywood is glorifying Eve? Fallen woman? Her appearance. Her “desires?” Her mentality? Her “raison d’etre” to “be admired” for (mainly) physical attributes, to “seduce” others into her orbit, and keep them there? But THIS “Eve” is ALWAYS eternally “young and beautiful.” Eve IS about power — make no mistake about it! (“I’m Ev’ry Woman!”) And this Eve IS a lie. The “message” IS a lie. No individual earthly Eve can handle the eternal aspects of this delusion, and will age-out, fade and fail, sooner or later,…and the greater the initial presumptions and illusions/delusions, the greater will be the inevitable “fall” (from “grace”).

    Lies and illusions “sell” big-time. They “gather momentum.” They thrive on the “feeding frenzy.” This IS the Power of the World. And it is about as soul and spirit nourishing as eating cardboard for breakfast every day — really even worse, because it’s poisonous. So what is left when the illusory bubbles burst? Do we have a good parachute? Will we have time to let go (debrief) of satan and grab on to God before we crash land? Who knows? Who can have these answers? But it should be a sobering consideration, at least.

    Galatians 5:19-21
    19 “Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery … 20 IDOLATRY, SORCERY, … selfish ambitions, … 21 … and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will NOT inherit the kingdom of God.”

    Revelation 18:23 “The light of a lamp shall not shine in you anymore, … for by your SORCERY all the nations were deceived.”

    Sorcery, as I learned from bible studies, involved the use of drugs. Probably “mind-altering” ones. This is enough of a “red flag” for me. ‘Nuff said. In this day and age (and situation) of such prevalent and obvious drug usage, let each man/woman be wise and judge for him/herself whether drug usage is “pleasing to God” and will advance their cause in the Kingdom of God.

    We’ve all been sold many a “bill of goods” concerning so much of the influences prevalent in our modern times. Satan has always had the power-to-hoodwink and to capture and divert attention, throughout the centuries,…but technological advances in the industry of illusion-producing capabilities have morphed strong, only adding to the available dynamics he can use to “prey” on us. And we pay lotsa $$, and spend lotsa time, to see “his” stuff. How much is “too much?” I don’t know.

    I’m fairly sure that these “young idols” (with the “looks and talent”) easily become not much more than “pawns” in the hands of the industry “giants,” who only have use for them while they are “useful” to them as their money-making human-puppets. That’s it,…THE bottomline. Usually a sad story,…and a not-God story. We too easily confuse earthly “success and popularity” with Godly success. And THAT just “ain’t necessarily so” at all.

    I’m going to “plug” the Saints (probably especially the Catholic ones, as they are so well documented for us): Studying “the lives of the Saints” is very eye-opening (and very inspiring!). They definitely provide us with examples and alternatives to the “Eve” (fallen woman/goddess) mode of living life. They would never want to be considered “an idol” in and of themselves — (by drawing attention or admiration to themselves in a power grab as the be-all and end-all of human attainment, or even as “little gods”) — but rather put the the focus clearly on God, the absolute “love of their lives,” Whom they have “lived to serve.” Again, I could certainly elaborate on this theme as well,…but ’nuff said. We have so many choices “set before us.” The choice and decisions are ours to make. What are we going to do? What/Who are we going to live for?

    • Thanks Georgie-ann. I hadn’t thought about how our society glorifies Eve. I appreciate your comments!

      • Georgie-ann

        It’s amazing how much is “right there plain as day” under our noses, but we really don’t “see it for what it really is.” We’re well-programmed not to, believe me! Gullible, naive, trusting, unsuspecting, — (how bad could it really be, anyway?), — we swallow the labels and descriptions and plausible-sounding reasons, arguments and justifications as presented, without thinking deeper or looking a little bit closer. Sometimes, we project our own nature and understanding onto a situation, and impute better motives to the “players” than are really there,…and certainly “mixed motives” are commonplace everywhere!

        Our vantage point is usually somewhat skewed, — (and this, often with somewhat unconscious cooperation on our part — it just “seems to be easier” to go along with almost everything, while simply ignoring some of the irritating stuff, and to just take the “so-called good with the bad” and not buck things ~ “the status quo” ~ too much), — and our attention is then very successfully diverted into non-issues, (or “Fantasy Land”), while that “disguised elephant in the room” is very very literally “stealing the show,” while we’re right there “on (self-appointed) stand-by.”

        “Brainwashing” was a very hot topic when “cults” were in the news big-time, awhile back,…Jim Jones, Guyana & “the (infamous) Kool-Aid” incident, being one of the biggest well-noted atrocities. But they were recognizable in many different forms — usually there was a “lingo” and a “philosophy” characteristic of establishing their right and reason to exist,…AND to even claim “superiority.”

        This is one of the devil’s most basic MOs. It’s certainly a fairly sophisticated type and way of promoting a “false religion,” or simply a false idea! Well, we certainly have a lot of those around now, as well as a lot of other mainstreamed “false stuff,”… but everyone seems “to be bending over backwards” to see just how non-confrontational, considerate, sensitive, and compassionate and TOLERANT they can be,…and also kind of willfully “blind.”

        And we must admit, in some cases, the “fallen parts” of our own nature, are actually somewhat subliminally attracted to the lies as presented,…”Hey!, look here!,…Ain’t this just great??!!,…wowsville!!,…so VERY groovy!!!”

        And the more’s the pity,…

        I’m convinced that we can only begin to “see”/recognize the (rather appalling) truth of the nature of these prevailing lies very slowly — (it’s fairly hard stuff “to bear” and “to digest” straight on, all at once) — looking at the bald-faced cruelty and outright loveless, manipulative ability of “the enemy” to con, to use and to throw away the unsuspecting, (often in the guise of doing just the opposite!), is a very bitter experience at best, and most of us just “do not want to go there.” Trust me, a rock has more love than the devil will ever have! The devil is actually a completely “anti-love” machine,…a love-subtraction device,…especially if he hasn’t gotten “a fix” lately. And, no matter how many fixes he does “score,” he is literally viciously insatiable, and there is NO pleasing him,…no way, no how,…and that’s why he is always getting mad and being eternally vengeful,…

        But the more we really do “see and understand” whatsa-goin-on-here, the freer we will be/become from the subliminal influences. This is really true.

        John 8:32 “And you will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.”

        John 14:6 “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except by (through) Me.'”

        We can actually learn to “cut our losses” from the devil’s influences and also “our unwitting ties” to his provocative and deceptive ways:

        An appropriate Story with a moral:

        “Come into my web!” said the Spider to the Fly.

        Correct Answer: “NO WAY!!!!”

        And the Fly lived “Happily Everafter!”

        And the Spider starved to death,…and Nobody cried about it.

        The End

        Psalm 146:8 “The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; The LORD raises those who are bowed down; The LORD loves the righteous.”

  3. Georgie-ann

    Matthew 7:24-27
    24 “Therefore whoever hears these sayings of Mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on the rock: 25 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it did not fall, for it was founded on the rock.
    26 “But everyone who hears these sayings of Mine, and does not do them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand: 27 and the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house; and it fell. And great was its fall.”

    Psalm 37:16 “A little that a righteous man has, is better than the riches of many wicked.”

    Spiritual “riches” include wisdom and integrity, honesty and fairness, self-respect and respect for God and others, compassion and understanding, balance, self-control and moderation in the affairs of the emotions and the senses, ability to serve, ability for self-discipline, and ability to bridle “the wild, passionate beast” within, to “just say no” to the “wrong things” ~ (thank you, Nancy Reagan!) ~ and undoubtedly a lot of other even greater things that can grow and almost-tangibly abide within us, as a result of having a firm foundation built on a framework of accepting personal responsibility, valuing good judgment and being in willing obedience to God and His Word. Character. Integrity. Priceless, in truth.

    Restraining “the wild beast” appears to be a consummately boring option at first, to the supremely self-indulgent — which unfortunately has become a major default setting, (and mode for perpetuating generalized immaturity), for our entertainment/consumer-oriented culture “gone wild.” “Our (spin) Masters” keep us “on edge” and always a little off-balance, so they can manipulate and control our momentum and direction, without having to overcome the inertia of the “contented and satisfied,” those who really “know who they are and what they want in life.” Imagine how difficult it is to control and manipulate people who really know “who they are in God/in Christ!”

    There is simply no comparison between the inner poverty and the “painful soul-aching emptiness” of the addicted, and those who have “invested out” all their substance into worthless causes, — (i.e., “sold their personal souls” to externals, including ungodly relationships and idolizing “the World” with its “glamor, fame, showbiz, wealth and hoop-la”), — and the internal peace and joy, and the sense of permanence and fulfillment, that reside within “the serious and sincere believer” — who would willingly give/sacrifice/surrender “all” that the flesh has to “offer,” for the even the simplest blessings of Christ. There is no satisfactory imitation or substitute for the “real” spiritual content and substance and meaning of life.

    Matthew 6:24 [ You Cannot Serve God and Riches ] “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”

    Mark 3:25 “And if a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand.”

    James 1:6-8
    6 ” … ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; 8 he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”

    This is an interesting Proverb, actually repeated twice in the Bible:

    Proverbs 25:24 “It is better to dwell in a corner of a housetop, Than in a house shared with a contentious woman.” … ( … and I would imagine “a contentious man” as well!)

    This says to me that to value one’s own peace, one’s own integrity, one’s own “space” before God and “in God,” is a better “choice” than to endure, and constantly try to placate, the wanton “voices” and lures and attacks of the ungodly against the virtuous. Being “righteous” — (not saying “perfect”!) — can be its own reward, but may entail “judgment calls” and appropriate sacrifices in order to “eschew evil.”

    The Bible never tells us that “we can have it all.”

    1 Peter 3:10-12
    10 “For he that will love life, and see good days, let him refrain his tongue from evil, and his lips that they speak no guile:

    11 “Let him eschew evil, and do good; let him seek peace, and ensue it.

    12 “For the eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and his ears are open unto their prayers … ”


  4. Mike: Timely and wise. Thanks. I did not feel deflated at that Exponential Conference but rather got angry. By their standards of choosing speakers, they would not have invited Jesus. The Christian cultures’ worship of celebrity and focus on consumerism is sad and disabling. We are not the people we could be because of those two deformations in our faith.

    And celebrity contributed to Whitney’s death, I suspect. And now it is continuing to make money from her tragic end. We do need a Savior.

    • Georgie-ann

      Eugene,…of course this has us all thinking. When we (around here) first encountered “the Word of Faith ministries” in the early 80s, it was explained to us that it was important for Christians to be more positive in their faith and “self image,”…that there was a false “woe is me” type of tradition prevailing that was too self-defeating, and needed correction, by a “better understanding” of the Word.

      Not having experienced that for myself, we pretty much “took their word for it,” and began to learn about their teaching and focus. Well, all around us and very quickly, the “celebs” began to emerge and their “positive earthly confessions and kingdoms” grew and grew and grew. There were very exciting elements to it, and eventually very disturbing ones as well. Personal arrogance and habitual over-indulgence sneaked in, mixing in — (unnoticed?,…unchallenged?) — with the message, and subtly but surely, began to foul the waters. “Success” appeared to have become heady stuff (and a goal in and of itself, thus distorting the message),…as is all too common with humankind.

      I tend to think that for people for whom the true spiritual character development side of Christianity didn’t already have a deep anchoring root and mature identity and focus strongly in place, that the temptation to use the huge energy of this “positive message” in a flashy, fleshly/earthly kingdom kind of a way was either all they could envision, or else just too great a temptation. Our fleshly lusts and desires can be both compelling and blinding, if not counter-acted with balanced spiritual wisdom and insight. Somebody’s got to say, “Whoa!” to those horses that just want to run headlong willy-nilly with all excitement and no discernment/spiritual guidance and judgment. Getting out ahead of God, is always a risky business. We don’t know ourselves nearly as well as He does.

      Words of advice and caution from the elder Apostle Paul to Timothy:

      2 Timothy 2:14-26
      14 “Remind them of these things, charging them before the Lord not to strive about words … to the ruin of the hearers. 15 Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth. 16 But shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. 17 And their message will spread like cancer. … 19 Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: “The Lord knows those who are His,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” …

      21 ” … be a vessel for honor, sanctified and useful for the Master, prepared for every good work. 22 Flee also youthful lusts; but pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. … 24 And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, 25 in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, 26 and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.”

      Ephesians 2:3-10 (excerpts)
      3 ” … we also all once lived in the lust of our flesh, doing the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, …

      4 “but God, BEING RICH IN MERCY, for his great love wherewith he loved us,

      5 ” … made us alive together with Christ …

      8 ” … for by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God …

      10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God afore prepared that we should walk in them. ”

      Ephesians 6:10-13
      10 “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might. … 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but … against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.”

      Salvation is a great and precious and true gift, but also not to be taken for granted, or treated lightly. God is a great and merciful God. He is understanding and fair, righteous and forgiving. We can always trust God. Less so, ourselves. And certainly not, the devil. This is the ongoing drama that we all face everyday, in “working out” our lives (and Salvation) before Him. Who needs the movies? As they say, “the truth is often stranger than fiction,” and sometimes even more dramatic. Buyer beware. Our lives, and how we have lived them, will become our offering back to God. Amen and Peace.

      Philippians 2:10-13
      10 ” … at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
      12 “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; 13 for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure.”

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