My pastor isn’t famous, but he has written a book. Occasionally, as I’m chatting with a visitor after a worship service, I learn that they have come for the express purpose of hearing him speak, which makes me a little queasy. I feel pride in his gifts, since they certainly have fed me, but also a deep discomfort with anything that elevates the preacher over the gospel they are preaching.
In her book Celebrities for Jesus, writer and editor Katelyn Beaty turns her journalist’s eye to these dynamics of fame. Beaty, who was the youngest and first female managing editor of Christianity Today, examines the persistent and growing culture of celebrity within the evangelical church, and articulates how this culture deforms Christians and hurts our witness to Christ. She distinguishes between fame, a morally neutral state of being known by more people than you know, and celebrity, with its focus on self-promotion and brand-building.
“The right kind of fame arises from a life well lived, not a brand well cultivated,” she writes.
Often, celebrity bestows unchecked social power upon someone, giving them immense influence devoid of personal proximity or systems of accountability. The history of evangelicalism is saturated in celebrity culture: from Billy Graham and revivalist ministries to Bill Hybels and the megachurch movement to modern social media influencers. Evangelical culture, Beaty writes, is constantly in search of brand ambassadors to make Jesus (and us) cool — we get excited about Kanye recording a gospel album, for instance, because that can finally get us the cred we need. Though Beaty focuses on the evangelical world, the dynamics she relates are familiar in any religious circle. The abuse allegations surrounding Susan Weed, in the herbalism world, and Jean Vanier, a founder of L’Arche, could be transposed to an evangelical context, though with a few key differences.
While this culture of celebrity is richly rewarded in the marketplace of book sales, conferences, and Instagram, in the background, the book describes how it also fosters secrecy and abuse of power. Here, Beaty’s own background as a journalist and book editor helps her lay out just how the culture of the powerful celebrity works in its many malformations. She explores in detail, for example, how Mars Hill Church spent roughly a quarter of a million dollars to manipulate bestseller lists and promote Mark and Grace Driscoll’s book on marriage. As a result, the church ended up with thousands of excess books and the Driscolls ended up with a big payday.
The outrages of celebrity culture have a material basis, with flashy sneakers and luxurious living, but Beaty’s analysis expands to include a deeper psychological and spiritual perspective on the problem. At the core, celebrity culture is all about love and the simulacra of love that we get from celebrities and celebrities get from us. Beaty writes as an insider with knowledge, sympathy, and a prophetic cry for change.
It is easy to look to the Christian celebrity themselves as the problem: The famous apologist Ravi Zacharias who abused massage therapists or the Christian comedian John Crist who seems untouchable despite accusations of him harassing and exploiting young women fans. But Beaty suggests that we are all implicated in the sins of Christian celebrity culture. We all “feed celebrity by turning to famous people to meet our own social and emotional needs,” she writes.
Since we are all complicit, we all have the responsibility to work toward repair. And thankfully, Beaty doesn’t leave us in despair but instead commends the way of Jesus to us. The devil tempted Jesus in the desert, offering him all the power and influence anyone could desire (Matthew 4:8-11). But Jesus set it all to the side in favor of a way that seems weak and obscure — the way of the cross.
We are called to an ordinary faithfulness. God doesn’t need our power — or the power of our favorite celeb. God is still doing great things through ordinary means.