‘Celebs for Jesus’ by Katelyn Beaty
Sometime in 2016, while on a much needed vacation from the hard work of small town church ministry, I collapsed by the pool with one eye on the kids and the other on Facebook. , more revelations about Tullian Tchividjian’s downfall and removal from Coral Ridge flashed on my screen. He was not guilty of a single case. He had engaged in a pattern of predatory “pastoral” behavior. I was sad, but like most Christians at the time, I was not surprised.
Journalist and editor Katelyn Beaty, in her book Celebrities for Jesus: How Celebrities, Platforms and Profits Harm the Church, tackles a universally recognized problem. The eternal “stardom” trap seems to only grow. Nobody wants to admit the desire for acclaim or the disappointment of having been duped by a quack, but nobody, especially in an online world, seems to know how to stop either. Since Tullian Tchividjian, there have been Carl Lentz, Ravi Zacharias, Bill Hybels, it’s too depressing to continue. Why are there so many?
What is a celebrity?
Fame is not the same as fame, which is known due to accomplishments (think Steve Jobs) or an accident of birth (Prince Charles). We most often think of celebrities, like the Kardashians, as Daniel Boorstin defined the term, as being known for notoriety. Beaty adds an additional criterion to this. “For the purposes of this book,” writes Beaty, “I would like to offer a definition of celebrity as social power without closeness” (17).
Celebrities for Jesus: How Celebrities, Platforms and Profits Harm the Church
Celebrities for Jesus: How Celebrities, Platforms and Profits Harm the Church
Brazos Press. 208 pages.
In light of the fall of famous Christian leaders in recent years, the time has come for the Church to re-examine its relationship with celebrity. Award-winning journalist Katelyn Beaty explores the ways fame has reshaped the American church, explains how and why fame is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement, and identifies many of the ways fame has gone awry in recent years. She shows us how evangelical culture is particularly drawn to famous gurus over institutions, and she offers a renewed view of ordinary faithfulness, helping us all to keep fame in its place.
Brazos Press. 208 pages.
Within American Christianity, Beaty argues, the phenomenon arose when individual preachers made a name for themselves beyond their ecclesiastical contexts. Sensible evangelist Billy Sunday, for example, transcended denominational structures not as Billy Sunday, the devoted local pastor, but for his talent for drawing a crowd.
Nobody wants to admit the desire for acclaim or the disappointment of having been duped by a charlatan, but nobody seems to know how to stop either.
Beaty traces the rise of famous evangelists such as Sunday, as well as Dwight Moody, Mordecai Ham and Billy Graham, to the evangelical stardom that ultimately paved the way for the disasters of Willow Creek, Ravi Zacharias and Mark Driscoll. His investigation is useful, even if it is sometimes too neat and orderly. Can we really blame Graham for Driscoll? Yet his story is insightful. Sunday, for example, joked that “going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you an automobile” (27). His point was that sinners should put their personal faith in Jesus, but the hidden implication was that one could be a Christian outside of local church membership.
Later, Billy Graham, while emphasizing the participation of the local church in his crusades, nevertheless communicated (intentionally or not) that the bigger the crowd and the more people saved, the more glory there is. for God. In all of this, writes Beaty, “the famous itinerant preacher had replaced the local church as the link between Jesus and sinners” (29).
Why hasn’t this happened in other times? Beaty argues that “stardom is a uniquely modern phenomenon” (12). But is it only modern? One could argue that fame has been linked to evangelism since the Great Awakening in the ministries of John Wesley and George Whitefield – and one could go back further to the 16th century with reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin. But Beaty helpfully shows that while Wesley and Whitefield had to overcome hardship and inconvenience to save the lost, it was the last few decades, with the shift from television to YouTube in barely a generation, that raised that danger to new heights. unprecedented heights. True empires, like Brandan Robertson’s, are now sprouting up overnight on TikTok, flourishing regardless of whether they demonstrate orthodox teaching or sexual purity. In the blink of an eye, the urgent call to save the lost is sold for personal authenticity.
Who knows you?
The strength of Beaty’s work lies, for me, in his desire to scrutinize the church from the inside. She does not hesitate to criticize the Christian publishing industry of which she is a part, nor the addictive property of the construction of platforms. His tone is affectionate rather than lively. She constructs a powerful argument for why Christians should embrace the ordinary and obscure matters of Christian life. As she writes,
Fame is a worldly form of power and assessment of human worth. It is not a spiritually neutral tool that can be picked up and put down, even for divine purposes. The moment fame is embraced and adapted for otherwise noble purposes – to share the good news and to invite others into the rich life of the kingdom – it changes the plan. And it changes us. (170)
It is the hard pill that Christians in the United States have been told to swallow again and again as each scandal erupts. How subtly the desire for fame insinuates itself through envy and discontent. We ask what we should do about the problem as we scroll and scroll through Instagram hoping — praying — for a few more followers.
Power and identity
What should we do? Beaty offers two answers to the question. The first is that Christians should avoid power. Too many Christians, she argues, are preoccupied with reclaiming cultural power. She rejects what she calls cries of persecution from “white evangelicals” – the claim that Christians in the West are increasingly marginalized or silenced in the public sphere. Fear, rather than faith, apparently underlies this claim:
Even still, the last forty years have left many Christians with the feeling that they no longer sit at the head of cultural and political power. They are not even sure of having a place at the table. They certainly cannot assume that their neighbors (or their national leaders) treat the Christian faith as normative. Over time, believers may come to see victimhood as part of their identity. (150)
Refraining from mentioning the cultural ascendancy of the LGBT+ movement, for example, and its implications for Christians in the workplace, Beaty castigates evangelicals associated with the political right. But curiously, she doesn’t name any left-leaning Christian celebrities, those “evangelicals” willing to embrace a version of Jesus that aligns almost perfectly with the times.
I would have liked her to insist on her criticism. The temptation to compromise on the authority of the Bible and the nature of marriage and personhood is so strong precisely because it buys a place at the cultural table. Those who weigh historical Christianity on the scales against a more relevant gender ideology and find it lacking are following a perilous path. When right-wing Christians challenge them, they are often just as quick to claim victimhood as part of their identity.
Additionally, a richer discussion of power and its legitimate uses would help get to the bottom of the celebrity issue. For example, the ability to influence and educate by writing books is a form of social power. But if fame is, as Beaty defines it, social power without proximity, then should all Christian authors stop writing books that will influence and educate those outside their personal circles? Does the publication of this book make her a celebrity?
Christians serve an all-powerful God whose power is revealed in earthly weakness. Giving up power, especially coercive power, is often necessary. But power can also be used to further the cause of justice for the oppressed. We must be wary of the allure of “social power without proximity” without denying that it can sometimes be useful in advancing the mission of the Church in the world.
Did Jesus Choose Darkness?
Beaty’s second solution to the fame problem is the choice of obscurity over fame. Although wealth and, according to Beaty, power factor come into the equation, the basic need must be known. To be known to the crowds simply to be known is an alluring temptation, and many have chosen this over being surrounded by a holy, just, and merciful God. The remedy for this, Beaty rightly notes, is Jesus. Jesus, she says, was an obscure person from a distant city (166). His followers were strangers who ultimately shunned power. This, Beaty argues, must be the way forward.
Too many Christians are preoccupied with regaining cultural power.
His account of the ministry of Jesus and that of the apostles is, like his exposition of the phenomenon of Christian celebrity, too neat and orderly. Early Christians did not seek fame in a way that resembles the contemporary American ideal. It is obviously true. Jesus refused power according to worldly values and purposes. His life, death, and resurrection is a savvy critique of the celebrity category.
However, I wish Beaty had spent more time thinking about the implications of the life and teaching of Jesus. The dichotomy between obscurity and fame doesn’t tell the whole story. Jesus did not choose darkness as such. He claimed to be the Way, the Truth and the Life, carrying this message along one of the busiest trade routes of the first century. He was followed by “great crowds” (Matthew 4:25; 8:1; 15:30; cf. 19:2). His apostles preached Christ and crucified him in the great centers of culture and philosophy. They turned the world upside down with their preaching. The key is that they refused to shape the gospel in a way that, at the time, would have been culturally advantageous.
Ultimately, we must surrender all that has the power to degrade and corrupt our worship and obedience to a God who is not far away. He approaches. It serves us on the highways and byways of our cultural confusion. He has the power to redeem and deliver. Indeed, the main method of his deliverance is the proclamation of the gospel. This is our most essential task as his disciples. So the question is, what are we going to do with the power that God has put in our hands? Make it known? Or use our power for ourselves?