The Problematic Facade of Celebrity
A Feature Review of
Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms and Profits are Hurting the Church
Hardback: Brazos Press, 2022
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]
Reviewed by Julie Lane-Gay
I’m a longtime fan of basketball superstar, Steph Curry. His three-pointers are the best. When I first heard he was a Christian I had that inner “Yes!” moment—but five seconds later, my cheer plummeted. What if Steph was the next Christian celebrity to be found guilty of sexual abuse, or pay-offs? I found myself worried for him, and selfishly, bummed that I now had to steel myself for disappointment.
Katelyn Beaty’s new book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms and Profits are Hurting the Church delves into these worries, unpacking why Christians love celebrities, and why famous believers—not only preachers and pastors, but athletes, musicians, and business tycoons—seem so prone to fall. A journalist by profession (she’s the former Managing Editor of Christianity Today), Beaty works as the Acquisitions Editor for a large Christian publisher, and she offers a thoughtful, researched and well-synthesized analysis of the phenomenon. She writes clearly, and better yet, shows no desire to strengthen her own platform by delineating the fall of others. Beaty writes out of discouragement, out of a love for Christ and His church.
Defining celebrity as “fame’s shinier, slightly obnoxious cousin,” or more precisely as “social power without proximity”(17) (keep the latter definition in mind), Beaty explains that, “celebrity is just one more tool Christians have used to reach people for Christ”(6) and, thankfully, some have used it solely as a tool. But, alas, “celebrity turns out to be a wild animal—cunning, slippery and insidious”(7). It quickly becomes a locomotive for evermore power, fame and money.
Beaty begins with a look at the history of Christian preachers—Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham, followed by megachurch pastors, Robert Schuller, Jerry Falwell, Bill Hybels, and Mark Driscoll. While she points out that almost all of these men began their ministries with good intentions, and Graham (and others) finished their lives without scandal or disgrace, rampant success seems to diminish accountability and transparency.
Beaty traces how celebrity feeds on mass media, turning “icons into idols,” how quickly it distracts us all from community, and from ourselves. As one sociologist that she quotes says, “celebrity is methadone for our soul,” and if celebrity is our methadone, radio, television and the Internet are its dealers. Mega-pastors and megachurches may bring thousands to hear the gospel (and offer food banks, child care and mental health support) that smaller churches could ever hope to reach, but they tend to quickly mimic profitable corporations rather than humble charities.
The central chapters focus on the abuses of “power, platform and persona.” Beaty’s exposition on the theology of power is outstanding—scriptural, careful, and wise (while only five pages long, this alone is worth the price of the book). She poignantly asks, “How could someone who preached the gospel publicly be capable of such harm behind closed doors?” (69) Platforms, one’s presence (and following) on social media such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, have become how we measure people. We no longer look at their work or the integrity of their lifestyle; we gauge how many followers they have.
Personas, the curated social image of ourselves that media enables us to broadcast, are as dangerous as platforms, to the follower who finds themselves envious, and perhaps even more to the celebrity who finds their true selves unwanted. “The feelings of love that it [persona] offers, over time, crowd out the actual love that requires proximity…. that can only come through vulnerability with other people for the long haul” (121). Beaty sympathizes that the “path away from persona and toward the true self is the path of humility. And humility usually requires some form of humiliation—stripping away the stories we tell ourselves to reveal a more vulnerable creature” (132).
Turning to institutions, Beaty exposes how organizations behind these celebrities have been as prone to the abuses of fame and influence as individuals, and how they are equally resistant to correction. Acknowledging sin within organizations can mean support diminishes and jobs are eliminated. Beaty writes of one megachurch in which the leadership “enabled the pastor’s frequent bullying—either because they benefited from proximity to his power or because they were afraid to become his next target” (79). It appears that both people and organizations often have to be forced (frequently by journalists) into addressing wrongs.
To her credit, Beaty spot lights her own industry of Christian publishing. She laments that while Christians, and their organizations also begin with good intentions, contracts increasingly are based on individuals’ fame and platform following, that “discipleship is outsourced to gurus.”
The problems lie not just with pastors. When celebrities Bob Dylan and more recently, Kanye West and Justin Bieber committed themselves to Christ, it cheered many Christians, hopeful they were gaining a respected voice in a culture that is increasingly hostile to faith. Such conversions tend to make us feel validated. Beaty writes, “Instead of critiquing celebrity culture and the prevailing power of individuals over institutions in our time, we’ve simply adapted it, hoping to find a celebrity icon in our likeness” (150).
Near the end of her analysis, Beaty looks at the seeker-sensitive movement that began in the 70’s, an attempt to share the gospel but also to make church “cool,” to offer good coffee and warm doughnuts in worship, to use cinematography and production to make worship ceremonies feel more like nightclubs. She notes that we wanted to be “in the world, but not of it,” to verify that we were now offering something vastly better than stodgy hymns and lectures on sin. But as Beaty wisely asks, “What makes Christians think that faith is about being cool?” (157)
If readers want solutions to these problems (and I will call them “sins”), Beaty refuses to offer simple ones. She laments, “If we are looking to address celebrity with a solution that can be packaged, sold and implemented across various channels…. we are back to where we started” (164). She repeatedly commends accountability and transparency as crucial safeguards, but is quick to acknowledge that these attributes are also vulnerable to abuse. “There is no program for addressing the problem of celebrity,” she writes. “There is only a person. And he, thankfully, knew exactly what it was like to wrestle with the temptations of worldly powers” (165).
In many respects, keeping our eyes on Him is always the solution, but I would argue Beaty loses courage in her final chapter. We can choose to worship in smaller churches where we are less entertained. Such a choice allows for more personal connections, and more opportunities to be accountable to one another. We can choose not to be a part of making celebrities doomed to loneliness and temptations. If we hold positions of leadership, we can hand over the management of our social media platform to people we respect (and love us enough to tell the truth); we can even stay off it. If we are elders or on boards of leadership, we can ensure that we attend to those who voice concerns.
We can pray for our pastors, for each other, for Steph.
Julie Lane-Gay is a writer and editor in Vancouver, British Columbia. She is an avid gardener and trained horticulturist, who writes for garden magazines in the US and Canada. She is also the Senior Editor of of CRUX, Regent College's journal of thought and opinion and a Catechist at her Anglican church. She has the world's best dog, Finley the Border Collie.