American Christianity has a celebrity problem. It runs deeper than the well-publicized moral failures of high-profile leaders, however. In Celebrities for Jesus, Katelyn Beaty argues that celebrity is toxic for leaders and followers alike.
Her argument unfolds in three parts. Part 1 defines celebrity as “social power without proximity” and shows how it has long been part of American evangelicalism, predating the rise of megachurches. Part 2 identifies three temptations celebrity poses: “abusing power,” “chasing platforms,” and “creating personas.” Part 3 exhorts Christians to resist the temptations of celebrity and to practice “ordinary faithfulness.”
Let’s consider each part in turn.
Beaty opens by distinguishing fame from celebrity. “To be famous is to be known — or at least known of — by far more people than you can ever know,” she writes. People can become famous by accident (such as being born to well-known parents) or accomplishment (such as leading the struggle for civil rights).
Celebrity, on the other hand, is “a distinctively modern phenomenon fueled by mass media,” writes Beaty. Social media influencers are good examples. They don’t need famous names or notable achievements, just followers. Often, they get those by posting entertaining videos on TikTok. They are “known for [their] well-knownness,” as Daniel Boorstin put it.
Evangelical Christians have a long history of using mass media — which today includes social media — to advance the gospel. Think of Martin Luther’s use of the movable-type printing press, Amy Semple McPherson’s use of radio, and Billy Graham’s use of TV and film. We employ these media as tools for evangelism.
There’s even a biblical rationale for doing so. As the apostle Paul wrote, “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22, emphasis added). Mass media is simply a new means.
It is not a neutral means, however. The reality is that mass media creates the illusion of intimacy between leaders and followers, rather than the real thing. This is what Beaty worries about when she defines celebrity as “social power without proximity.” Unlike the pastor next door, whom we know, flaws and all, we only see a carefully curated image of a celebrity leader.
Celebrity tempts leaders in three ways:
First, to abuse power. Beaty defines power as “the innate human ability to steward the world to glorify God and bless creation and fellow image bearers.” It can be stewarded wisely. However, it can also be used by leaders “not to bless but to dominate.” The temptation of celebrity leaders is to use their power as social influencers to “exploit, crush, defeat, gaslight, ridicule and silence,” Beaty writes. “In their presence, others feel disempowered” (emphasis in original).
Most of the well-publicized scandals involving Christian leaders over the past few years have involved an abuse of power. Beaty highlights cases where leaders have used demeaning language, cultivated lavish lifestyles, and taken sexual advantage of followers. The organizations these Christian celebrities lead are supposed to hold them accountable, but too often, they become abusive toward followers in order to defend their leaders.
A second temptation for celebrity leaders is what Beaty calls “chasing platforms.” When used properly, media can be a platform for ministry. That’s the way evangelical Christians have always justified their usage. They are a means to an evangelistic end.
The problem is that over time, the means can become the end. Beaty is editorial director of Brazos Press, a Christian book publisher. She uses scandals in the Christian book trade to illustrate this problem.
Today, publishers want to make sure their books are profitable. So, one of the criteria they use to assess manuscripts is the authors’ social media. Recognizing this, some Christian celebrities have actually engaged third parties to purchase fake followers. Or their churches have bought numerous copies of their books to get them on The New York Timesbestseller list.
Worse, some celebrity leaders present material as their own which was actually ghost written or even plagiarized. The use of professional writers can be done ethically, especially when they are compensated fairly and named. It seems unethical to blame those writers when plagiarism is uncovered, however, but this is what often happens among celebrity Christian authors. Celebrities have become the platform, and they cannot appear flawed.
Finally, celebrity leaders are tempted to create a persona. “A persona is the self-presentation that all of us take on in various settings and roles,” writes Beaty. The more well known a Christian leader becomes, the more likely he or she is to create a public persona that is at odds with who they are in private. Why? Because they need to project an image that we will follow.
Here, Beaty broaches a problem that critiques of celebrity Christian leaders often overlook. It’s followers who create celebrities. Especially in an increasingly post-Christian culture where believers feel marginalized, it’s cool to have a celebrity who shares our faith.
But where does that leave our faith when a celebrity leader fails morally? Too many today are answering that question by deconstructing their faith or leaving Christianity entirely.
Beaty concludes Celebrities for Jesus by making the case for what she calls “ordinary faithfulness.” If celebrity is social power without proximity, ordinary faithfulness takes a different tack. Such faithfulness pares back our influence, such as it is, to an intimate level, where we can know and be known by others.
“In a time when large swaths of the American church have merely mimicked worldly concepts of power, going for bigger, louder, and glitzier, we have to return to the small, the quiet, the uncool, and the ordinary,” Beaty writes. And when you think about it, the most influential Christians in your life are probably people you know up close, not celebrities you admire from afar.
I recommend Celebrities for Jesus to Christian readers, especially pastors and other congregational leaders. Many books expose the moral failures of celebrity Christians, but this one rightly turns the focus inward. Do we strive for social power without intimacy? Do we need famous people to validate our faith? Those are the questions we need to ask ourselves continually.
Katelyn Beaty, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2022).
P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com by permission.