The suicide of a public figure almost invariably triggers a cringe-worthy season in the evangelical blogosphere. Time after time, Christian writers succumb to the temptation to wring a tragedy for its newsworthiness, then smash out a 700-word blog about it. At that point it almost doesn’t matter what the blog says. Meaning is irrelevant. The point of cranking out #content in the immediate aftermath of a celebrity suicide is that social media analytics make it more likely you’ll get clicks. On the one hand, this kind of base motivation is almost a relief, because in the majority of cases what goes into these hot takes is simply copy–perhaps a brief recitation of why this celebrity was a celebrity, a 1 paragraph personal appreciation, and then a quick tour of creation-fall-redemption, with a post script about the fleeting pleasures of fame and fortune. Perhaps banal, but all harmless, and most of it true.
On the other hand, though, there is often something pernicious in all this, even if unintended. And one particular example stands out.
Three years ago, Robin Williams’ suicide was a shocking cultural moment. For weeks social media reeled under the news, and Christians were no exception. Williams was beloved by many in my generation, and it seemed he was omnipresent in the movies and media we grew up loving (and then became nostalgic for). There’s no question that we would talk about his death, no dispute that the circumstances of it put the topic of depression and self-harm into our conversation. This was good, and normal.
What wasn’t normal, what still isn’t normal and what must never be taken as normal, is the way some Christian writers responded to it. Yet again, many Christian bloggers succumbed to the pull for easy “reflections” on Williams, and even worse, on depression and suicide. I saw blog after blog, article after article, about why Williams’ death was a “reminder” that only Jesus could satisfy us, that the fame and fortune and prescription drugs Williams took refuge in is never enough, and that self-hatred and suicide were the inevitable fate of those who missed the gospel. (“Like what you see? Please click share!”)
Let me explain briefly why Christians should never, ever write like this.
Three years after Robin Williams’ death, I am reading an editorial that his widow wrote in Neurology magazine. It’s a lengthy read, so I’ll summarize the most important part. Robin Williams suffered from an aggressive form of dementia known as “Lewy body dementia,” or LBD. While this is not an uncommon disease, doctors who studied Williams’ brain tissue after his death concluded that his was an uncommonly advanced case. From the article:
Not until the coroner’s report, 3 months after his death, would I learn that it was diffuse LBD that took him. All 4 of the doctors I met with afterwards and who had reviewed his records indicated his was one of the worst pathologies they had seen. He had about 40% loss of dopamine neurons and almost no neurons were free of Lewy bodies throughout the entire brain and brainstem.
Dopamine, you may recall, is the chemical created by the brain that helps us rest and feel at peace. Williams’ LBD literally robbed his brain of its ability to naturally rest and feel calm. This was not an effect of Williams’ being a Hollywood actor or not being “gospel-centered.” This was the effect of a brain illness.
Hear me: I’m not saying that spiritual issues are irrelevant when it comes depression and mental issues. I’m not saying there’s nothing distinctively Christian to say about Robin Williams or about other public figures, like Chester Bennington, who commit suicide. What I am saying is that cheaply thought, cheaply written responses to these events by definition betray the Christian commitment to the centrality of truth. As Christians, we believe in objective truth, and that means objective truth exists both in the soul and the body. We are not disembodied spirits whose only problems are sin and lostness. We are enfleshed creatures whose bodies, under the degenerative curse of a cosmos waiting for its redemption, can wage war against our spirits.
To ignore this, to draw straight lines from suicide and self-harm to theological cliches, is to foully disrespect the Bible. The Bible is not a PowerPoint slideshow in our hot takes. It doesn’t exist so that we can have answers to current events that come quick enough to get hot blog traffic. Turning the Scriptures into slogans devalues both the Bible and the people to whom we would proclaim it. Admitting our fallibility, our lack of comprehensive knowledge, and even our inability to perfectly apply the truths of Scripture doesn’t make for good platforming, but it does make for more honest, more effective, and more Christ-like people.
I realize there are intense debates amongst Christians about how to think and talk about issues of mental illness and the sufficiency of Scripture. That’s a discussion worth having. But wrestling with these deep questions is not the same as presuming to know how it all works, and cranking out Tweetable aphorisms that would make you look like an utter fool if someone with more knowledge read them. The Christian blogosphere can do better than that.