We all love a celebrity conversion story. We can't help ourselves. The moment anyone is prepared to claim that a famous name has discovered Jesus, we leap on it as if it were cast-iron evidence of the Second Coming.
In fact it's worse than that: we jump on the merest hint of such a decision. If a rock star mentions the respect he has for his local priest, or an actor says in an interview that he and his wife were praying their child would recover from a serious illness, we leap on the barest facts and contort them to fit a conversion narrative.
Once the stories are written, they spread like wildfire. Christians love sharing them, they suggest that a celebrity – held up by our culture on a pedestal of value and influence – has affirmed our worldview, and somehow that makes it more true. It's like a sign that we're winning when one of them comes over to our side. So when those stories, strung together and often partly fabricated, appear on our news feeds, we don't just read them, we quickly share them with our friends, partly as an act of evangelism, and partly as a way of celebrating a prized addition to Team Church.
Recent examples include a flurry of stories around Shia Laboeuf, who played a Christian character in the war movie Fury, and Tom Hanks, whose wife clearly has a devout faith, of which he is supportive. Jurassic World actor Chris Pratt said that he and his wife prayed together when their child was sick, but while all of these stories might hint at a deep, personal commitment on each man's part to the Christian faith, the writers who told them certainly didn't know that for a fact. It's a leap; they've put two and two together, and made seven.
The latest examples, and perhaps the most blatantly contrived of all, surround British comedian-turned-international megastar, James Corden. Surfing off the success of his Late, Late Show and its Carpool offspring, a Relevant magazine article called 'The Prayer that Changed James Corden's Life' went bananas on social media last week. It tells the story of how Corden's parents comforted him during a rock bottom period. The pair are both committed Christians, so naturally as a part of this deeply personal moment, Corden's father told his son that he was going to say a prayer. What happens next is beautiful; they're all in tears; Corden reports that "every tear that left my eyes made me feel a little lighter." And so Relevant extrapolate that out to suggest that it's the prayer – rather than the image of a boy truly realising the unconditional love of his parents – that's the catalyst that sets his life on its now stellar trajectory.
It's tenuous, but perhaps not surprising in a culture where we're so comfortable with stealing reflected glory. It gets much worse though. Days after the original story, another site wrote a story which took this episode and extrapolated it further to turn it into a full-blown Road to Damascus conversion. Without any reference whatsoever to Corden making a profession of faith, it includes the lines "despite his success, Corden remains humble as a reflection of his Christian faith", and even more ridiculously, "when the devil tried to detour Corden's gift of entertaining with traumatic temptations, Corden's devout Christian faith empowered him to persevere." This is nothing short of an abuse of the facts presented.
This is all very problematic for a number of reasons. The first is that it isn't true, and the idea that perpetuating someone else's half-truths will somehow be blessed and used by God is profoundly misguided. It's also pretty dangerous to hold up people who are either new Christians or merely sympathetic as heroes of the faith just because of their profile; that can backfire pretty badly, as Mel Gibson has proved.
But perhaps the biggest problem with these stories is that they take the personal, private faith journey of an individual, and turn them into public property just because the person is in the public eye. Now, if a Christian performer like Bono wants to deliberately do that and actually share their faith in media and from the stage, then of course they've given us permission to share it further. But in cases like these, over-eager writers – propelled by the dual desire to encourage the church and grab those all important clicks – are making claims about real people, based on speculation and quotes out of context, and essentially appropriating them for their own ends. The second article, which I'm deliberately not linking to, ends with a suggestion that readers should "share this article to show the world James Corden's inspiring testimony!"
We often lose sight of the fact that they're writing about real people. With his family influences, the redemptive nature of his career journey and his own background in church, there's every chance that James Corden could be on his own journey toward Christian faith or spirituality. But the writers of these articles certainly don't know that; in fact they don't know much about him at all save for what they've read elsewhere.
The great irony is that if James Corden were ever to happen upon these stories, they'd almost certainly make him less sympathetic to the Christian faith, which they would represent as misleading and shallow. And that is what they are – so why do we keep on sharing them?
Of course we're allowed to be happy when people of influence talk about their Christian beliefs, and of course we should feel free to share their words on social media. But in that context, we need to be more responsible, and that goes both for the writers of Internet clickbait, and the millions who read and share it. Before you share someone else's Good News, take a moment to be sure that it really is theirs to share.