Escaping fame’s false promises
Review of "Celebrities for Jesus" by Katelyn Beaty.
To prepare for Reign of Christ Sunday – a day to celebrate Jesus’ universal sovereignty – my Bible study group focused on Luke 23:33-45. Jesus’ crucifixion was a heavy passage to ponder at this time in the church year, on the cusp of Advent’s slow lean into the light of his birth. And yet, what a compelling reminder that we follow a king willing to give up his power. How shocking this submission must have been to those who witnessed the scene – including the two criminals dying beside him.
It’s only speculation, of course, but it’s not hard for me to imagine the kind of king expected by the criminal who sneeringly called for Jesus to prove his sovereignty by coming down. Perhaps he envisioned a leader who was wealthy, strong, and flashy – someone already famous for his status or at least able to achieve fame by avoiding crucifixion. A surrendering Messiah can’t have seemed like a successful one.
In today’s world, where even followers of Christ cling to the trappings of celebrity and fame, Jesus’ posture of utterly humble surrender is still arresting, if not shocking. We prefer to worship the elevated. As Katelyn Beaty notes in her astutely relevant new book Celebrities for Jesus, “We put celebrities on pedestals, from which they influence, inspire, entertain and exhort us.”
Beaty believes that this fixation on Christian celebrity is hurting our ability to represent and proclaim who Christ actually is. With convincing candour, her book invites us as Christians to recognize – and honestly reckon with – fame as a pervasive tool that our leaders often use with damaging results. She leavens the heavy subject matter with humorous commentary about Christian culture, well-earned from her years as an award-winning writer, editor, and journalist.
For the purposes of her book, Beaty helpfully defines celebrity as “social power without proximity.” There’s a power differential, yet – particularly in our digital age of mass media – an “illusion of intimacy.” She acknowledges that fame is not inherently sinful; it can be used in virtuous ways by those seeking to bear God’s image by creating culture and pursuing truth and justice. Problems emerge, however, when “immense social power” is employed by individuals and groups without accountability and proximity.
Some might expect a book on this subject to swiftly dive into a long list of famous fallen Christian leaders (a list that continues to grow at an alarming rate). However, Beaty wisely outlines the historical context of celebrity in the Church and also includes famous Christians who may have contributed to the idolization of celebrity without scandalous falls from grace.
In her thorough portrait of Billy Graham, for example, she writes that “Even as he resisted celebrity, his approach fuelled the dynamics of celebrity that now pervade evangelism.” Such dynamics include the emphasis on charismatic individuals rather than institutions, the elevation of mass influence over personal connection, and the lack of leadership accountability.
The dynamics likewise appear as Beaty reflects on fallen famous Christian leaders, such as Bill Hybels, Ravi Zacharias, and Mark Driscoll. Similar patterns enabled them to commit deplorable abuse and cause immense, lasting harm, including: demands for secrecy, controlling and narcissistic behavior, and fomenting a culture of fear at times. Their celebrity statuses and professional successes were manifested in lavish lifestyles and slick ministries.
A reader will come away with no shortage of warning signs and red flags to watch for when considering a celebrity Christian’s potential for damage. However, Beaty emphasizes that there’s cultural, individual, and institutional complicity in such behavior.
She suggests that it is critical, then, for all Christians to ask: “How have we contributed to the problem of celebrity pastors, often without realizing it?” Fame can make celebrities seem beyond reproach or feed so comfortably into our own egos or desires (even virtuous ones) that we dim our critical eye, especially our public judgment.
Similar risks can arise with embracing other famous “brand ambassadors” of Christian faith – such as Beaty’s examples of Kanye, Bob Dylan, and Justin Bieber – in our attempts at relevance or authority by association. A focus on “parasocial relationships” with public figures over in-personal relationships can crowd out intimate relationships in our lives, too.
Beaty does not promise a simple step-by-step solution to the problem of Christian celebrity. Instead, she asks us to reorient ourselves to the characteristics of Jesus’ approach to ministry, such as his own emphasis on “ordinary faithfulness” and “embodied relationships.” She grounds her suggestions in her own authentic personal relationships with the very people who “make Christ real” to her: parents, friends, colleagues, and leaders with a faith “forged over the long haul, in mundane acts, choices, and postures of the heart.”
Focusing on the people we truly know rather than those we connect to only through a mediated online presence or distanced persona may not seem revolutionary. And yet, it is a potent method of returning to the reality of a Messiah who maintained a very public ministry while reaching out to outcasts and cherishing his intimate friends.
Throughout Celebrities, Beaty points to Jesus as the opposite of an egotistical leader consumed by infamy for infamy’s sake, pointing out that, “As an antidote to the temptation to worldly power, Jesus frequently chose obscurity.” He only gained his sovereignty after “he obeyed the mysterious, upside-down ways of God” by dying a lowly death.
After reflecting such insights, it stands out to me that, in Luke 23, Jesus even sought an embodied relationship on the cross by conversing with an obscure, penitent criminal instead of turning away to suffer in silence.
Again, it is only speculation, but I can’t imagine that the criminal was reaching out to Jesus in appreciation of his fame, or as a means of gaining fame. Their conversation was not broadcast, even if, paradoxically, it has become famous. “Jesus, remember me,” pleads this man, “when you come into your Kingdom.” To which Jesus promises him paradise.
Today, this sovereign King, astonishingly, continues to remember and love every person, no matter how many accolades received or followers amassed.
Celebrities for Jesus is a rigorously thoughtful and urgently needed admonition to recognize celebrity as a spiritually dangerous tool and an invitation follow in Christ’s example of setting it aside as a determination of worth or success.
Any reader, whether preoccupied with celebrity or just regular external validation, will benefit from its call to escape fame’s false promises in favour of genuine ways to faithfully proclaim Christ.
Thanks for the review which alerts us to the dangers of associative-faith-heroes (and points us to the book!).