Also by this author: Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church
Published by Brazos Press Goodreads
An award-winning writer shows how and why celebrity is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement, identifies many ways fame goes awry, shows us how we all unwittingly foster a celebrity culture, and offers a vision of faithfulness to the Messiah who was despised and rejected.
Growing up, I wanted to be Ravi Zacharias. I read all his books, listened to all of his radio programs, could quote his most quotable quotes, and made plans to one day attend his apologetics conference in Oxford. And…well…you know…
As I’ve continued to grow up, the more I’ve become convinced that Spider-Man’s uncle’s mantra “With great power comes great responsibility” should be followed—in the pastoral context—“to lay down that power and give it others.” I’ve sat in multicampus megachurches where a church of hundreds with multiple pastors suddenly gives way to the lowering of a gigantic screen as a literally larger-than-life figure appears on it to preach the message from the Main Campus. (Are there no qualified people among the dozen or so staff pastors at this campus to preach?) I’ve watched as many of those major figures have become embroiled in scandals, political, sexual, and personal or been exposed as domineering CEOs. As a reviewer, I’ve been asked to review books that are obviously ghostwritten, repackaged from previous books or other content, and sold on the premise of the celebrity pastor’s face and name in big letters on the cover. I’ve seen the obsession with celebrities who make a statement of faith—from Bieber to Kanye. And I’ve seen how it has hurt the church and how the energy and resources invested into creating and maintaining powerful platforms and public personas has created idols out of spiritual leaders.
And then Katelyn Beaty took all the feelings that I’ve had—and apparently shared with so many—and outlined them in a loving, compassionate, yet no-holds-barred critique of the evangelical church. Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church is exactly the kind of prophetic words the church needs right now. Like Amos before Amaziah, Beaty stands up to the religious establishment and preaches truth to power, revealing how their quest for power, wealth, and celebrity result in a hollow and empty religion.
Celebrities for Jesus is, in many ways, an offshoot of the work Beaty has done as a journalist. Many of the things she writes about in this book, she wrote about as a reporter or commentator as these events were developing. She has been steeped in the evangelical world for years—even serving as print managing editor at Christianity Today—and has been in a unique position to have observed and been close to many of the major figure in this book.
Beaty begins with a history of Christian celebrity, noting that evangelicalism is practically founded on it. D.L. Moody gave rise to Billy Sunday gave rise to Billy Graham and, through Graham, evangelicalism and the celebrity pastor as born. She ends with the claim that, with the rise of celebrity pastors, religious institutions began the serve the pastor instead of the other way around. Churches became platforms. The work of religious nonprofits becomes overshadowed by their leaders who use their platform to shout about anything and everything (ahem, Franklin Graham). And the idea of church as within a community to serve that community and be comprised of that community is lost.
The next section of the book surveys the world of megachurches, beginning with Bill Hybels and Willow Creek. Celebrities for Jesus takes readers through a history of the church, its rise and fall and its coverup of Hybel’s abuse. While Hybels and Willow Creek are an obvious example, Beaty could have picked from many more, showing that the problems of megachurches aren’t just in one church or one megapastor but may be in the very concept.
The second part of the book details how celebrity pastors often fall to temptations of abuse, financial exploitation, or fame. In particular, Beaty writes about the abuses within RZIM and how Ravi Zacharias used his cult of personality to hide and deflect sexual abuse. She writes about Mark Driscoll’s scheme to use church funds to buy his way onto the NYT bestseller’s list. She calls out the lavish lifestyles of pastors like Carl Lentz and the sexual abuse of Christian comedian John Crist. Then she writes about the culpability of the institutions that continued to give them microphones and platforms.
Nothing in Celebrities for Jesus is new. If you follow the news, you’ve probably heard of one or most of these. As someone connected to the evangelical Christian world as a pastor, this was a rehash of all the things I already knew. But what Beaty does is weave these stories into a narrative, showing how they aren’t just random. It’s not about one bad apple, it’s about a rotten tree that’s not producing good fruit. The conversation then moves to the culture at large and how evangelical culture has desperately grasped at any celebrity to makes some claim to faith. Rather than stand against the commodified culture, evangelicals have covered it with the veneer of Christianity. Beaty presents evidence that is overwhelming and abundant that evangelical culture has been a pursuit of its celebrity idols and not of Christ.
Celebrities for Jesus paints a bleak and unwelcome picture, but a picture we must look at because it is the truth. And we have the power to change it. Beaty concludes with a reflection on Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness. Following Henri Nouwen, she describes the three temptations Jesus faced as the temptation to be relevant, the temptation to be spectacular, and the temptation to be powerful. And with each, Jesus said no. Will we, she asks, do the same? Will evangelical culture give up its power? Will it grapple with its focus on celebrity? Will we follow the way of Jesus?