Summary: A discussion about how the rise of independent celebrity authors, pastors, speakers, musicians, and churches is a problem, not just because of abuse and a lack of accountability, but also because our culture is more focused on celebrities for their own sake.
In some ways, Celebrities for Jesus is a book that I am not sure why it needed to be written. I say this not because it isn’t worth reading or because it isn’t a good book, but because much of the main point should be self-evident. I think we should know that as churches are more focused on the size and celebrity of their pastors, this will create a harmful culture, even if there is no overt abuse or harm. It should be clear that when a church is centered around a well-known leader, the church is not primarily about Jesus but about the leader. (Or the will of the leader is assumed to be the will of Jesus.)
In my life, I have been exposed to many megachurch leaders. Like many, I have read many books and watched many sermons by those leaders. But I have also been involved in small closed-door meetings with some megachurch pastors. And honestly most of those in the meetings are no longer in leadership. A few retired without scandal. But many, including James MacDonald and Bill Hybels, who are both profiled in the book, had significant scandals, and that scandal felt to me like it was just a matter of time from when I met them in the early 2000s. I also spent years as a member of a mega church without significant scandal, and in deciding to leave that church, the issue of celebrity was involved because it felt to me that the church was making decisions to continue to center the pastor in ways that made me concerned for the long term future of the church.
Despite my somewhat facetious question about why the book was written, it is helpful to think about what has shifted. Part of the early book is about the difference between fame and celebrity. I am oversimplifying here, but fame is about being well-known for a position, talent, or product (being a good writer, speaker, or musician). But as Beaty describes it, celebrity is a shift from being famous for what you have done to being known for being known. Celebrity, especially with the rise of social media and mass media, means we have a false “illusion of intimacy while drawing our attention away from the true intimacy available within a physical community.” Said more simply, Beaty says that the summary of the problem of celebrity is “social power without proximity.” Not only do celebrities influence us without us actually knowing them as a whole person, but in some sense, we do not want to know them as a whole person because to know someone as a whole person would break the illusion of intimacy and perfection that we have of celebrities.
Celebrities for Jesus, after giving the illustration of Bill Hybels as a quintessential celebrity Christian, extends to illustrate that there are three particular temptations of celebrity that are dangerous not just to the average Christian but also to the celebrity Christians themselves. Those are power, platform, and persona. Americans do not really like talking about power, but power exists, and Christians need to understand power so that it can be welded well and under appropriate accountability. (This is where Andy Crouch’s work has been helpful.) It is difficult to hold celebrities accountable because the very nature of celebrity is that it overwhelms and is more important than organizations that should be structured in a way to hold them accountable. I think there have often been assumptions that celebrity Christians were just resistant to accountability, but I think Beaty shifts the focus to how the very nature of celebrity makes accountability almost impossible, even if both the organization and the celebrity want it to happen well.
Platform and Persona are also well-known problems that she deals with well, but the era and culture make it more problematic than in other times and cultures. Platform, becoming a brand, and then having demands to fulfill because of the nature of the algorithms and expectations will lead to a particular type of person, and even with that particular type of person, burnout is pretty much inevitable. The temptation to take shortcuts, buy followers, use ghostwriters, or plagiarize is common because our tools have expectations beyond what a human individual can fulfill. And that is part of the problem because institutions are not celebrities; people are celebrities, which leads to the “Persona” problem. Created, whole people have limitations. There is a difference between privacy, hiding, and secrecy. Normal people deserve privacy; not everything is for public consumption. But a persona can lead people to hide their whole selves or to encourage a type of secrecy that is harmful in the long term. Real people need to be able to repent, be forgiven, and be accepted as humans with natural limitations. But celebrity encourages putting people on pedestals, which asks of them more than anyone can be (while simultaneously limiting them by asking them only to be what you want from them.)
Because Beaty works with words, initially as the youngest managing editor at Christianity Today (and I think the first woman) and now as an acquisitions editor at Brazos, many of her examples involve publishing. We know that ghostwriting is a problem in Christian publishing. It is a form of lying when it happens without any credit or acknowledgment. And we know that people buy books because of celebrity even when they are not great books. In a limited marketplace, many good writers will have a harder time getting published and noticed because so many default to the known.
There are suggestions at the end of the book for handling things better, both from the perspective of the average Christian and for the potential celebrity Christian. Those suggestions are good, but I think that part of the problem will be spiritual formation that leans toward maturity over image and youth. The very nature of youth culture is that we give people platforms they are unequipped to handle. And then we blame them for not handling the celebrity well (which we should not burden them within the first place.) Some of this is just a problem of the age, which we cannot fully push back against. But part of the message here is that there is value in pushing back and paying attention even if we cannot solve the problem completely.