Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church
By Katelyn Beaty.
Brazos Press, 2022.
Hardcover, 208 pages, $24.99.
Reviewed by James E. Hartley.
“The celebrity,” opined Daniel Boorstein, “is a person who is known for his well-knownness.” Sixty years later, Katelyn Beaty provides an incisive update in Celebrities for Jesus. If you want to know how far society has drifted away from cherishing what Russell Kirk called “the permanent things,” Beaty stands ready to fill in for Virgil.
Before entering the celebrity inferno, a taxonomic note is in order. What is the difference between Fame and Celebrity? Fame has always been with us; people did something particularly noteworthy and fame followed. Celebrity is different; to be a celebrity does not require any fame-worthy achievement. It is a peculiarly modern phenomenon, only possible in an age with mass media. “Celebrity is fame’s shinier, slightly obnoxious cousin.” It “feeds on mass media” and “turns icons into idols.” “We don’t always know why we’re supposed to know who someone is, just that we should.” Consider this test: “Much to my chagrin, I know more factoids about my favorite actors, musicians, and comedians, than I do about my flesh-and-blood neighbors. Mass media gives us the illusion of intimacy while drawing our attention away from the true intimacy available within a physical community, be it an apartment building, a book club, or a church.”
Seeing the effect of celebrity on the culture is hard because most of us live in a celebrity-infused society. It would be helpful to find a subculture which is immune to its influence. If any place was going to be the holdout in a celebrity-addled society, surely it would be the Christian church. Right? The implications of Beaty’s book run far beyond the documentation of how celebrity culture is destroying the church. If you want to know what has happened to the broader culture and politics by looking at what should have been the last holdout, Beaty’s book is an excellent post-mortem.
After a quick history of twentieth century evangelicalism and the rise of megachurches, Beaty turns to explaining how the cult of celebrity leads so many people astray. First, and far and away the most noticeable, are the abuses of power. Fueled by massive popularity, the celebrity evangelical leader quickly becomes extraordinarily powerful. How does this happen? Celebrity first deceives, then shields, and then isolates. You become a star and people cannot get enough of you, so you shield yourself from the press of your fans, and then become isolated. Before long, your lifestyle is luxurious and people become mere instruments to please you and make your life easier while you spread the Good News to the masses. Eventually, there is nobody left around you who is critical. Who would dare to check the power of God’s chosen instrument? When the edifice cracks and the abuses of power become obvious, the celebrity crashes to earth.
It does not take long, however, for another celebrity to arise. The temptation to become a celebrity is strong. It starts out innocently enough; you really do have a message you want to share with others and what better way to do that than to have a mass following? How does one become a celebrity? You build a platform. Imagine you want to publish a book. As Beaty, who works as an editor for a large Christian publisher, ruefully explains, “someone with a large social media following, who can’t write or doesn’t have much to say, will find plenty of publishers and agents who want to publish their book.” Take a look at the authors of the books published in the last few years at a Christian publisher, and you will be surprised at the percentage whose claim to fame is being the pastor of a megachurch. After all, a pastor in an extremely large church has thousands of guaranteed sales for any book, especially when the church itself buys copies to resell to the parishioners. Building a platform is entirely about cultivating celebrity, becoming a social media influencer.
To build your platform in order to spread your message, you must create a persona. At first there is the thrill when “the dynamics of fandom feed the need to feel seen, known, and loved.” Slowly the realization hits. When you are constantly in the presence of your fans, when every encounter you have is someone else’s one chance to interact with a celebrity, you can never turn off the public persona. Immersed in the crowd of adoring fans, the celebrity is overwhelmed with loneliness. It is no wonder that the aforementioned abuses of power occur. The cult of celebrity is a vicious downward spiral away from genuine human contact.
Beaty concludes by referring to Henri Nouwen’s observation that the temptations of Christ can be seen as the temptations to be relevant, to be spectacular, and to be powerful. Those are exactly the temptations facing someone who wants to be influential in the church. Why toil away in a small community when your influence will increase if you simply become more relevant, add some spectacle, and reap the rewards of power. It is all for a good cause, right?
We should not hasten to fault the celebrities for succumbing to these temptations. After all, there are no celebrities without fans. Indeed, it takes far more fans than celebrities for this relationship to work. It takes legions of fans to feed all the apparatus of celebrity, the publishing houses and social media platforms and magazines and podcasts. Why do we do this? What motivates the fans?
Beaty points to a widespread spiritual hunger, a desire for intimacy and connection to something larger than oneself. In the absence of deep attachments to the real people around you, celebrity provides the façade of intimacy. Real people constantly disappoint us, but week by week, my pastor stands on that stage and delivers an engaging, often humorous, sermon complete with some corny anecdotes or emotional tales from his life and suddenly we feel like we have a friend. That podcast we love feels like people sitting in our living room having a chat. We follow our celebrities on Instagram and we get real time updates on their lives. We need celebrities. They are often our best friends.
By the time Beaty is done documenting how deep celebrity culture has become interfused with the church, it is hard to see any cultural or political institution which is free from exactly this same phenomenon. Has celebrity culture brought us together? It has had exactly the opposite effect. “Instead of critiquing celebrity culture, and the prevailing power of individuals over institutions in our time, we’ve simply adopted it, hoping to find a celebrity icon in our likeness.” My celebrity can beat your celebrity.
Is there a way out of this problem? Note how quickly you thought that what we really need is a new anti-celebrity; someone who can combat the influence of all those celebrities by delivering a powerful message against celebrity culture to the masses. My anti-celebrity can beat all your celebrities.
The only way out is exactly that suggested by Beaty’s final chapter title: “The Obscure Messiah and Ordinary Faithfulness.” It is the same answer as that provided by Russell Kirk in The Conservative Mind as an explanation of why we need to (quoting Edmund Burke) “learn to love the little platoon we belong to.” “If conservatives cannot redeem the modern masses from the sterile modern mass-mind, then a miserable collectivism impoverishing body and soul impends over Britain and America—the collectivism that has submerged Eastern Europe and much of Asia and Africa, the collectivism (as Orwell wrote) of ‘the stream-lined men who think in slogans and talk in bullets.’”
The solution to celebrity culture is to find our little platoon and serve. Find a church where you know the people who are there well enough to engage in genuine conversation and know when they need help. Read a book or watch a movie and gather in person with your friends and tell them what you learned. Spend more time learning about your neighbors than you spend on the false intimacy you have with celebrities. We all hunger for these connections. The celebrity culture which infects politics, the culture at large, and even the church cannot be fought by finding a bigger and better celebrity. It can only be overcome by “ordinary faithfulness.”
James E. Hartley is Professor and Chair of Economics at Mount Holyoke College.
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