Book Review: Celebrities for Jesus, by Katelyn Beaty
Katelyn Beaty. Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church. Brazos Press, 2022. 208 pages.
A few years ago, I was working at an evangelical institution that hosted an annual conference. Because of my job, I was given mostly unrestricted access to the “green room.” A green room, if you may not know, refers to a small area where speakers and VIPs at large events can gather, prepare to go onstage, and mingle with one another away from the common spaces.
I will admit to being starstruck in the green room: rubbing elbows with writers, pastors, and journalists whose work I had long admired, and feeling a little extra important to be breathing the same oxygen as these important people. It wasn’t until afterward that I struggled with a sense of tension. Here I was, at a Christian event, with speeches and sermons urging thousands of attendees to be more like Jesus, and my clearest and most cherished impression was not the bigness or loveliness of Christ, but the fame of those I had been allowed to approach.
A GREEN ROOM CULTURE
Katelyn Beaty’s book Celebrities for Jesus brought me back to those memories of the green room. Beaty, an editor at Baker Books and former managing editor of Christianity Today, warns readers that the values of the green room are running roughshod over the values of faithfulness in much of evangelical culture.
Beaty distinguishes fame—which is often a natural result of a person’s exceptional accomplishments—from celebrity. “Many Christians have used their fame, passion, and tech-savvy for good kingdom purposes,” she writes, “sharing the gospel via mass media culture, whose global reach [the Apostle] Paul could only have dreamed.”
But other Christians have reached for the tool of celebrity and found that it isn’t really a tool at all. It has more power over the user than the user has over it. It turns out to be a wild animal—cunning, slippery, and insidious. And that wild animal is now tearing up the house of God from the inside out. (6-7)
Most of Celebrities for Jesus is devoted to a journalistic-style narration of some major downfalls of popular evangelical personalities. The scandals of Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, and Ravi Zacharias are relayed with specific attention to how each minister carefully accumulated wealth, power, and influence through their respective ministries. Beaty convincingly argues that with many abuse scandals or moral failures of Christian ministers, there is a long trail of self-deception and ego inflation that harms the church long before the whistleblower appears. Thus, according to Beaty, the dynamic of celebrity—which she defines interestingly as “power without proximity”—is intrinsically at odds with Christian faithfulness.
While this dynamic is visible in any Christian institution, Beaty writes with candor about how this can affect churches, especially large ones:
Beyond their size, their felt-needs approach, and emphasis on growth over depth, a defining feature of megachurches is how much attention revolves around the lead pastor. . . If the church “succeeds”—meaning it grows in buildings, budgets, and butts—then the church starts to believe that its success depends on the success of the pastor. The institution’s identity becomes enmeshed with the pastor’s; his public persona serves to draw fame and renown to the church. Having a celebrity pastor is seen as benefiting the church; all the better if you can get actual celebrities to start attending. Over time, a pernicious belief can set in: that the church wouldn’t go on without the lead pastor at the helm. Almost as if God depends on the celebrity pastor to accomplish God’s purposes. Almost as if the pastor is God himself. (46-47)
Over three middle chapters, Celebrities for Jesus zeroes in on three specific fault lines within celebrity Christian cultures: power, platform, and persona. Powerful Christian leaders can grow unaccountable to elders or support staff who are in awe of their talents and unwilling to say hard things; this can lead to situations where people are intimidated or even abused by the leader, with few or no consequences. The platform is an important part of Christian celebrity, as speaking gigs and book deals inflame egos and blur the line between the worth of a laborer’s work and the love of money (this chapter features an especially incisive discussion of some questionable practices within Christian publishing).
Beaty also discusses how pastors and other Christian leaders can cultivate a public persona that is untethered to reality and can foster narcissistic tendencies within people or cultures. All three of these chapters reflect on real stories of dysfunction from evangelical culture, and it is frankly bracing to see all of these case studies laid out so plainly.
APPLICATION FOR PASTORS
There is unfortunately only one chapter in Celebrities for Jesus devoted to constructing a positive vision of Christian ministry culture. I say “unfortunate” because it is one of the most encouraging, helpful sections of the book, in which Beaty calls Christians to ordinary faithfulness even in obscurity. Interacting with an idea from Andy Crouch, Beaty reflects:
It’s easier to have a fan than a friend. A fan will only reflect back to you your own simulated glory. A friend, on the other hand, will reflect back to you your true glory. Which is another way of saying they will remind you, if they are a good friend, of your belovedness in Christ, apart from praise or performance. (173)
Celebrities for Jesus is a convicting book. One question that it doesn’t quite lean in to address is how to practically build church and ministry cultures that resist the allure of celebrity. While no structure is impervious to temptation or sin, pastors and those aspiring to institutional leadership will probably want to know some biblical strategies for keeping unaccountable power, the pursuit of platform, or phony persona at bay. Interestingly, this is the same omission I noticed in Christianity Today’s podcast series The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, which was very good at deconstructing the toxicity of one leader and his culture, but not nearly as good at suggesting practical alternatives (one might be forgiven for thinking that the safest option would be not to do any ministry at all).
I’d like to suggest that both Tim Keller and John Piper offer two examples of decades-long ministry that led to large churches and prolific writing careers, without succumbing to the crazed hunger for power or fame.
To observe their example is to note that both pastors redirected vast amounts of money from their books or speaking deals back into the ministry. Both pastors established ministry organizations designed to outlive them, equipping others to lead and teach so that no one personality is indispensable. Both pastors have been faithful in their marriages. Both pastors have spoken about mistakes they’ve made and things they wished they could have done differently. Both pastors have embraced the sanctifying power of suffering, not just theologically but in their lives. And both pastors eventually stepped aside from the churches they were known for, not because of scandal or controversy but because it was time to do so.
I offer these two men not as celebrities to adore or sinless icons to venerate, but as examples of theologically orthodox pastors who, by God’s grace, have run their race well.
Books like Celebrities for Jesus are needed wake-up calls to the deceitfulness of riches (Mark 4:19) and the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus over any earthly gain (Phil. 3:8-9). We need to tell ourselves (and be told) that Christ did not establish his kingdom in the green room but on the cross. That is our fate as his sons and daughters: cross, then glory. All the fame and notoriety our flesh desires is not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to us.
For more on celebrity pastors, listen to the Pastors’ Talk episode on the topic.