There’s a scene in The Fellowship of the Ring in which Bilbo Baggins, the hero of the earlier book The Hobbit, has just received a small bit of counsel from his friend Gandalf the wizard. Gandalf tells Bilbo he needn’t attempt a task that would be challenging and quite likely deadly. And it makes Bilbo suspicious: “I have never known you to give me pleasant advice before,” he says. “As all your unpleasant advice has been good, I wonder if this advice is not bad.”
Though Bilbo turned out to be mistaken in this case, there is still a lesson in his words: There is such a thing as making a problem too easy. And there are times where that error can yield devastating consequences.
This thought came to mind while reading Katelyn Beaty’s book Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church. The book has much to admire. Beaty, a writer and former CT editor, is a keen observer of power dynamics within institutions and movements, for starters. She also is a good student of contemporary technological trends, with a well-developed understanding of how digital technology has transformed and exacerbated the problems of fame and celebrity both in the church and outside.
What’s more, I found her prudent counsel for how we might curb the worst excesses of celebrity to be wise and admirable. Her conversation partners in the final chapter are, if predictable, also wise: Henri Nouwen, Eugene Peterson, Andy Crouch, Dallas Willard.
Yet for all its merits, I found the book to be ultimately too moderate in its critique. While Celebrities for Jesus is a wise book, it is also, for a certain type of evangelical, a relatively pleasant book, if I can borrow from Bilbo. As Beaty profiles the many cases of egregious moral failure and abuse of power by Christian celebrities ranging from Mark Driscoll to Ravi Zacharias to Bill Hybels, she consistently tries to keep the fact of evangelical celebrity separate from the abuse of evangelical celebrity, holding out hope that we can have one without the other. Effectively, she holds out hope that you can have the huge online platform, get the massive six-figure book deal, enjoy the luxurious mansion, and be okay as long as you recognize the dangers of celebrity and don’t abuse your power.
In one passage she writes,
Christian leaders should always ask whether their spending signals modesty or opulence—especially to those they are ministering to. The point here is not that private jets are always evil (although, on the whole, I’d argue their problems far outweigh their temporary conveniences). Or that nice meals, second homes, and expensive clothes are always and everywhere wrong. The point here is that all these things in our time signify lavish displays of wealth. To keep the worldly lure of money in check, Christian leaders should cultivate financial modesty—and ask others to hold them accountable to it.
There is a tension between discussing problems inherent to celebrity and problems dealing with the abuse of celebrity. Teasing the two apart is seldom easy. Yet it seemed like much of the book’s rhetorical firepower was fixed on the latter rather than the former. Thus there are points where Beaty’s analysis suggests that we might avoid the pitfalls of celebrity if only the celebrities themselves would cut back on ostentation and excess, instead adopting healthier habits (and even pursuing a kind of obscurity).
But this doesn’t altogether work, as the passage above illustrates: If you have a private jet, you are being opulent. There is not a modest way of buying a private jet or, to use another example Beaty offers in that chapter, a $2,000 purse. By refusing to just say no to these displays, Beaty shrinks back from saying the hard thing and gives readers an out from the problem she’s highlighting. By pulling her punches in this way, Beaty tames the force of her critique.
Yet the fuller, more assertive version of Beaty’s critique is precisely what American evangelicals need to hear today.
Think, for instance, of the seeker-sensitive movement, which fueled the rise of Christian celebrities like Robert Schuller, Hybels, Driscoll, and Carl Lentz, giving birth to modern evangelical celebrity culture as we know it. One could easily read that movement as an attempt to make the gospel intelligible to modern America. This is a noble task; indeed, it is the missionary imperative to which every Christian community is called.
And yet this missionary task must be taken up in a certain way. There is a distinction to be made between pursuing intelligibility and allowing a more chameleonic loss of all distinctiveness. And too often the evangelical world has fallen into the latter while seeking the former. To take the “attractional” movement as but one example, it so elevated the task of evangelization that theology, Christian ethics, and the church’s liturgical life were all considered, to varying degrees, dispensable. Provided that people were getting “saved,” virtually anything became justifiable.
And yet what exactly is salvation if not an encounter with God that transforms us by calling us to a life of discipleship and, relative to many of our peers, strangeness? This indifference to discipleship is perhaps why so many churchgoers—as many as a quarter to a third, according to estimates I’ve heard from pastors—stopped going to church once COVID-19 disrupted their churchgoing habit. It shouldn’t surprise us that the attractional movement appears to be paving the way for more wholesale capitulations to culture, as seen in the political capture common among both conservative and progressive evangelicals today, to say nothing of the graveyard of scandal-plagued churches and discredited leaders.
When I survey the wreckage of evangelical celebrity, I don’t see any reason for moderation. The seeker-sensitive movement and its natural descendant, online church, is the evangelical version of the eye that we must gouge out and cast into the fire before it condemns our entire movement to those flames. Yet Beaty seems hesitant to go there. Even as she ends the book she writes, “To be sure, screens are not inherently evil, nor are large churches, social media platforms, or charismatic personalities.”
But this is, again, too pleasant a thing to say to contemporary evangelicals. I don’t know of anyone arguing that screens are inherently evil, but I know of many people who seem understandably concerned about the ubiquity of screens in public worship. They’re worried, quite reasonably, that in a screen-addled society, we’re further eroding our ability to catechize and disciple Christians in an actually different, actually Christian way of life.
Moreover, given the utter failure of discipleship and catechesis that has marked evangelicalism for so long and is now so obvious, I see little reason to defend large churches or large social media platforms either. Large churches can centralize resources in enormously helpful ways, but then so can a well-run denomination. And a well-run denomination made up of hundreds of small churches will have greater immunity to celebrity problems, as well as being better set up for aiding people in Christian discipleship. If your church is larger than 500 people, it’s probably time to do a plant. If you’re spending enough time on social media to build a large platform, it’s probably time to leave.
Kill the lizard
The counsel Beaty offers, in short, seems to be that celebrity is basically intractable, and evangelicals just need to do a better job relating to it. And if that is the solution, then Beaty has written perhaps the best possible version of that book, with its realistic and sober-minded conclusions and its close discussion of the goods of friendship, obscurity, and a hidden life.
But when I consider the state of evangelicalism—and particularly the way that both the evangelical Right and Left have basically given up discipling their people against the established grains defined by Fox News, TikTok, Instagram, and a therapeutic culture more generally—I can’t help concluding that Beaty’s final chapter falls short in assessing how celebrity has deformed our churches and communities.
There is something about it which calls to mind a scene in C. S. Lewis’s novel The Great Divorce. In it, a ghost enters the outskirts of heaven with a small lizard on his shoulder, the lizard (basically) representing some past sin that keeps him from God. For several pages, the ghost and an angel debate whether killing the lizard is necessary. The ghost struggles to give the angel permission to kill it, but when he finally does, both he and the lizard are transformed into something so beautiful they look almost celestial. The ghost’s fear had been misplaced: He thought killing the lizard would kill him, when in reality the lizard itself was killing him.
To relate this back to Celebrities for Jesus: There are problems in calling for a prudential application of wisdom rather than wholesale transformation. But there are also larger problems that can only be resolved, or escaped, through more radical forms of repudiation. And from my perspective, Christian celebrity looks like a lizard we should kill rather than continue carrying around, however cautiously or reluctantly.
It’s possible I am wrong, of course, and that calling on Christian leaders to distance themselves from social media, break up their megachurches into smaller neighborhood parishes, and fully repudiate the lavish lifestyles of Hillsong preachers is asking too much. But when I survey the American church today, I see no reason to think celebrity of any sort should be preserved. And I see many reasons to think it’s leading us to hell.
What’s funny is I’m not sure Beaty disagrees. But because she seems to vacillate between “celebrity is salvageable if we’re wise” and “celebrity is dangerous and corrosive of Christian community,” I’m left wondering.
Jake Meador is editor in chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of What Are Christians For?: Life Together at the End of the World.