Book Review: Celebrities for Jesus
It would be perfectly reasonable if you were to expect to open up the pages of Katelyn Beaty's "Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church" and experience a brutal takedown of the high powered, power-seeking, and celebrity-driven culture that seems to have crept its way into evangelical churches nationwide.
After all, one need only visit social media for a few minutes to experience the wide chasm that can exist between Christians and it seems like we're inundated with a mass marketing and commercialization of faith, church, and Christianity as a whole.
However, Katelyn Beaty is a journalist and "Celebrities for Jesus" reads like exactly what it is - an incredibly well-researched and remarkably insightful and compassionate exploration of the ways that fame has reshaped the American church, how and why celebrity is woven into the tapestry of the evangelical movement, and a precise, no-holds-barred examination of how all of this has gone awry in a myriad of ways including the allowance of spiritual "gurus" of sorts to hold sway over the actual faith community.
Remarkably, while Beaty isn't hesitant at all to name names, she names names in a way that offers grace and instead of condemnation simply guides us, her readers, toward a return to a more ordinary faithfulness acknowledging gifts without allowing them to build someone into celebrity status and without turning our faith away from Christ and toward the personas, platforms, and profit-seekers who are ultimately hurting the church.
Beaty structures "Celebrities for Jesus" into three sections.
"Big Ideas" for God provides us the framework for Beaty's literary discussion including a working definition for celebrity as "social power without proximity." She then provides a historical perspective of the first evangelical celebrities and moves into a discussion of megachurches and mega-pastors. She provides a working definition of megachurch as a church with at least 2,000 members and notes that there are approximately 1,750 nationwide.
For the record, while mine is rather non-traditional I will note that only in the past year have I joined what could be considered a megachurch. It's a rarity for me having primarily attended smaller churches, church plants, and or served as an interim pastor myself in smaller churches.
The second section of "Celebrities for Jesus" is entitled "Three Temptations" and explores the abuse of power and the chasing of personas and platforms. For me, this was like a segue from an extensive and thorough history lesson into remarkably passionate and precise discourse. While I struggled in a few pages as Beaty widened the lens to explore celebrity culture in society and at large, I still found this section riveting primarily because Beaty writes it with such clarity but also with such remarkable compassion.
Finally, section three finds Beaty moving into hope by examining the basic idea that "The Way Up is Down," a theologically-based call to return to a simpler faith, an ordinary faith, and a Christianity where pastors are content to be, well, pastors.
Beaty examines both familiar and unfamiliar names. Beaty looks at celebrity culture in the church through a critical lens including multiple current and familiar cases. Yet, again, what's refreshing is just how remarkably gracious she is throughout the entire experience without compromising her journalistic integrity.
Speaking of which, perhaps the most powerful part of "Celebrities for Jesus" is her own examination of the faith-based publishing world of which, by the way, she is actually part of not just as a writer but having worked within the industry for years and as an employee of the publisher of this very book. In other words, she doesn't let herself off the hook.
This refreshing humility provides a model for self-examination and it was a self-examination that I began not long after having read the final pages of "Celebrities for Jesus." As I reflected, I began to realize the areas why I'd bought into a toxic faith culture and I began to realize the ways I'd contributed to a toxic faith culture. I also began to have a deeper appreciation for those Christian writers, singers, and actors I've encountered who at least seemed to be trying to work against it in a myriad of ways. I reflected, for example, on those writers who reached out to me genuinely (and not to sell books) after an amputation in late 2019 and how their encouragement helped me maintain faith during a particularly challenging time in my life.
Christ taught us that our lives are to be lived for others and that we are to surrender ourselves toward loving one another, a basic tenet of faith that often gets flipped when the idea of celebrity enters our churches and our faith. While she doesn't necessarily speak out truly "against" megachurches, she presents valid concerns that far too often this culture lends itself toward creating a central figurehead that becomes the public face or "celebrity" of that church. I thought to myself, for example, of the churches I know here in Indianapolis where there are multiple campuses yet they all gather on Sundays to watch a single pastor on video.
That's just weird to me.
I wish I had read a book like "Celebrities for Jesus" in seminary. It seems like the overwhelming emphasis these days is on planting and growing and marketing and building and "How can we get more people?" Far too often, that growth and outreach creates toxicity (though, as well, a non-hospitable, closed church or cliquish church can do the same).
Unsurprisingly, "Celebrities for Jesus" often reminded me of the works and writings of Kate Bowler, another writer I deeply respect and also a research-based writer.
I'm not sure what I expected from "Celebrities for Jesus," but I'm absolutely sure I got so much more and I'll be chewing on this book for quite some time. Beaty is also author of " A Woman's Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World" and co-host of the "Saved by the City" podcast - both of which I'll be checking out in the near future!
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic