What is the real ‘X-Factor’?
The much-hyped television talent show, The X-Factor, has again gripped the British public. Why do people find it so compelling? Some probably watch in the hope of seeing musical talent with the X-Factor of the title: that authentic, indefinable star quality. Others are attracted by the carefully crafted and spectacular television production. Another attraction is Simon Cowell – ‘Mr X-Factor’ – the pop impresario behind the show and, of course, its chief beneficiary. Although theoretically just one of the four judges, he most often pronounces judgement and acts as a focus for the audience’s irritation or disagreement. A skilled self-publicist, he is well aware that although receiving abuse from an audience is not pleasant, hatred is just as marketable as love.
Why do so many people apply to The X-Factor, given the near certainty of rejection or ridicule? What is it that makes contestants risk everything in their attempts to win? I think The X-Factor claims to fulfil some of our deepest human needs. In an age when everybody is a nobody, it offers to make us somebody. In a culture dominated by criticism and judgement, it offers approval and affirmation. So rich is the show’s promise that religious imagery is used: what is offered is a ‘blessing’ or even ‘redemption’. In the opening credits a great X appears in the sky and descends in glory into London – we are about to see heaven pouring out its best on the chosen one. This is why the contestants are so motivated: everything in the world is at stake.
A moment's thought should tell us that the offered blessing or redemption is utterly inadequate. The rewards are very limited: one single act will win a recording contract. And it comes with no guarantee: while the judges and audience may have identified an X-Factor winner, the music-buying public may disagree. And next year there will be other contestants; the fame of an X-Factor winner may not last long.
The inadequacy of The X-Factor’s answer to human need is highlighted by Simon Cowell himself. He has extraordinary confidence, even arrogance, but has admitted to bouts of deep depression. He strikes me as more victim than villain and I wonder what price he has paid for his fame and fortune. As Jesus asked: ‘What does it profit a man if he gains the world but loses his soul?’ Simon Cowell and those yearning for their moment of fame may end up in the shadows. But there is a real ‘X-Factor’, although many only reach for the pale imitation.
Has anyone ever had the real ‘X-Factor’? As Christmas approaches, we are reminded that Jesus has billions of followers today despite having lived 2,000 years ago. Many have wondered what it is about Jesus that stirs the mind and heart. Napoleon Bonaparte put it well: ‘Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne and myself have founded great empires, but on what did those creations rest? Upon force. But Jesus founded his on love … Jesus Christ by some mysterious influence … draws the hearts of men towards him that thousands at a word would rush through fire and flood for him, not counting their lives dear to themselves … I know men, and Jesus Christ was more than a man.’
The Bible tells us that even before he was born, Jesus had the ‘X-factor’ to an unimaginable extent: ‘God … has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3). This describes everything the ‘X-Factor’ is about and more: glory, power, honour and authority.
Yet in coming to earth, Jesus gave all this away. Although nothing less than God, the circumstances of the first Christmas – the poverty and squalor of the stable – tell us that Jesus came as a helpless nobody. Furthermore, at the cross Jesus’ ‘X-Factor’ rating was zero: beaten, stripped, in agony, deserted and mocked, he lacked every trace of ‘star quality’. Jesus gave it all away so that we might have it.
In the cross we see God's answer to superficial and inadequate ways of ‘improving’ ourselves. However, the New Testament writers are unanimous about Jesus being given back the honour, glory and power that he put aside for us. In the Book of Revelation we see a vision of millions of angelic creatures worshipping Christ and saying, ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!’ (Revelation 5:12).
The desires that The X-Factor claims to answer are universal – we were made that way – but people are striving for authenticity and are tired of manufactured offerings. We all need to be affirmed as individuals, to be approved or forgiven and to know we are valuable. We all need hope and purpose. We all need to be loved. The X-Factor may seem to offer these things but it cannot keep its promises, even to those who win. In contrast, God's promises – eternal and infinite value, unconditional love, peace, joy and hope – are given freely to those who seek them. Jesus said, ‘I have come to bring life and life in abundance.’ This is the real ‘X-Factor’ and it is available to all.
So this year make the real X-Factor your Christmas number one.