Paul L. Caron
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Sunday, September 18, 2022

Celebrities For Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, And Profits Are Hurting The Church

Katelyn Beaty (Editorial Director, Brazos Press), Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church (2022):

BeatyMany Christian leaders use their fame and influence to great effect. Whether that popularity resides at the local church level or represents national or international influence, many leaders have effectively said to their followers, "Follow me as I follow Christ." But fame that is cultivated for its own sake, without attendant spiritual maturity and accountability, has a shadow side that runs counter to the heart of the gospel. Celebrity--defined as social power without proximity--has led to abuses of power, the cultivation of persona, and a fixation on profits.

In light of the fall of famous Christian leaders in recent years, the time has come for the church to reexamine its relationship to celebrity. Award-winning journalist Katelyn Beaty explores the ways fame has reshaped the American church, explains how and why celebrity is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement, and identifies many ways fame has gone awry in recent years. She shows us how evangelical culture is uniquely attracted to celebrity gurus over and against institutions, and she offers a renewed vision of ordinary faithfulness, helping us all keep fame in its proper place.

With insight and empathy, Katelyn Beaty diagnoses the broken patterns of leadership we see in the church. This book shows us the isolation and loneliness and abuse that can come from, and contribute to, these expectations of celebrity. But this book is no mere jeremiad. It points the way forward to renewed visions of power, accountability, and humility.
Russell Moore, chair of public theology, Christianity Today

Christianity Today Book Review, Christian Celebrity Isn’t a Problem to Fix, But an Eye to Gouge Out:

There is such a thing as making a problem too easy. And there are times where that error can yield devastating consequences.

This thought came to mind while reading Katelyn Beaty’s book Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church. The book has much to admire. Beaty, a writer and former CT editor, is a keen observer of power dynamics within institutions and movements, for starters. She also is a good student of contemporary technological trends, with a well-developed understanding of how digital technology has transformed and exacerbated the problems of fame and celebrity both in the church and outside.

What’s more, I found her prudent counsel for how we might curb the worst excesses of celebrity to be wise and admirable. Her conversation partners in the final chapter are, if predictable, also wise: Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Andy Crouch, Dallas Willard.

Pulling punches
Yet for all its merits, I found the book to be ultimately too moderate in its critique. While Celebrities for Jesus is a wise book, it is also, for a certain type of evangelical, a relatively pleasant book. ... As Beaty profiles the many cases of egregious moral failure and abuse of power by Christian celebrities ranging from Mark Driscoll to Ravi Zacharias to Bill Hybels, she consistently tries to keep the fact of evangelical celebrity separate from the abuse of evangelical celebrity, holding out hope that we can have one without the other. Effectively, she holds out hope that you can have the huge online platform, get the massive six-figure book deal, enjoy the luxurious mansion, and be okay as long as you recognize the dangers of celebrity and don’t abuse your power.

In one passage she writes,

Christian leaders should always ask whether their spending signals modesty or opulence—especially to those they are ministering to. The point here is not that private jets are always evil (although, on the whole, I’d argue their problems far outweigh their temporary conveniences). Or that nice meals, second homes, and expensive clothes are always and everywhere wrong. The point here is that all these things in our time signify lavish displays of wealth. To keep the worldly lure of money in check, Christian leaders should cultivate financial modesty—and ask others to hold them accountable to it.

There is a tension between discussing problems inherent to celebrity and problems dealing with the abuse of celebrity. Teasing the two apart is seldom easy. Yet it seemed like much of the book’s rhetorical firepower was fixed on the latter rather than the former. Thus there are points where Beaty’s analysis suggests that we might avoid the pitfalls of celebrity if only the celebrities themselves would cut back on ostentation and excess, instead adopting healthier habits (and even pursuing a kind of obscurity).

But this doesn’t altogether work, as the passage above illustrates: If you have a private jet, you are being opulent. There is not a modest way of buying a private jet or, to use another example Beaty offers in that chapter, a $2,000 purse. By refusing to just say no to these displays, Beaty shrinks back from saying the hard thing and gives readers an out from the problem she’s highlighting. By pulling her punches in this way, Beaty tames the force of her critique.

Yet the fuller, more assertive version of Beaty’s critique is precisely what American evangelicals need to hear today. ...

When I survey the wreckage of evangelical celebrity, I don’t see any reason for moderation. The seeker-sensitive movement and its natural descendant, online church, is the evangelical version of the eye that we must gouge out and cast into the fire before it condemns our entire movement to those flames. Yet Beaty seems hesitant to go there. Even as she ends the book she writes, “To be sure, screens are not inherently evil, nor are large churches, social media platforms, or charismatic personalities.” ...

It’s possible I am wrong, of course, and that calling on Christian leaders to distance themselves from social media, break up their megachurches into smaller neighborhood parishes, and fully repudiate the lavish lifestyles of Hillsong preachers is asking too much. But when I survey the American church today, I see no reason to think celebrity of any sort should be preserved. And I see many reasons to think it’s leading us to hell.

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