Evangelicalism has long been fraught with scandals, and in recent years, much of it has centered around megachurches and prominent pastors. Christian celebrities such as Carl Lentz, Bill Hybels, and the late Ravi Zacharias have all fallen from grace. Documentaries and podcasts have documented the abuses carried out by megachurch ministries like Mars Hill and Hillsong. It’s easy to assume that evangelical celebrities are running amok.
Author Katelyn Beaty argues in her new book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church, that the very concept of celebrity is hurting evangelicalism by enabling these abuses of power. By esteeming certain people far above others, evangelicals have made it difficult to hold their celebrities accountable.
Beaty is the editorial director of Brazos Press and the host of the Religion News Service podcast, “Saved by the City.” She has written for The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Religion & Politics. Kenneth E. Frantz interviewed Beaty over the phone about her new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: Your book is about Christian celebrity and the harm it has done to the church and how it has led to some recent scandals in evangelicalism. Would you mind talking about how you came to that topic and why you thought it was important to write about?
Katelyn Beaty: I currently work in Christian book publishing, but before that for several years, I worked at Christianity Today magazine, the flagship evangelical magazine founded by Billy Graham in 1956. While I was an editor there, our staff received several tips from sources who weren’t ready to go on record but were coming to us with really disturbing information about various famous Christian leaders, household names, people like Bill Hybels and Ravi Zacharias. As our reporters dug into those tips, the allegations were eventually proven to be credible. In the wake of those stories and seeing how hard it is for a lot of Christians to grapple with such abuses of power, I started to wonder if celebrity status was helping to shield these leaders from proper accountability and making them think that they could do and say whatever they wanted.
As someone on social media and in Christian book publishing, I have broader questions about our fixation on platform and who gets to teach and lead the church. It’s really baked into the American evangelical consumer mindset. But we don’t often have the language for it. It’s an insidious form of social power. I wanted to help other Christians be able to identify the dynamics of celebrity and, ultimately, to recapture a vision of Christian leadership and influence that was less rooted in platform and putting people on pedestals.
R&P: You define celebrity as power beyond your immediate proximity. Would you mind going into more depth on that definition and why that’s the definition you chose to go with?
KB: I do end up defining celebrity as social power without proximity. I distinguish celebrity from fame. Fame is a perennial dynamic in societies, the world over in different times and places. There are always people whose military accomplishments or family lineage or religious place of prominence have taken their work far beyond a particular time and place. Fame is something that comes to you unbidden as a result of doing either good things in the world or sometimes bad things in the world, but it’s not necessarily the thing that you’re after. It comes as a byproduct. Daniel Boorstin’s famous definition of celebrity is a person who is well-known for their well-knownness, and this is from 1962, so decades before social media.
Decades before social media could give us the tools to fashion ourselves as celebrities, Boorstin was really naming the artifice of celebrity, that it is something that you can cultivate to further a personal brand or image without necessarily accomplishing anything. You just have to project an image of being well-known or important. I focused on the definition of celebrity as social power without proximity because I think it helps Christians really understand how problematic it is. All of us are created to be in deep relationship, in close proximity to people who know and love us.
So often what happens when leaders attain a celebrity status is that they distance themselves from those close relationships that keep them grounded, humble, and rooted in a mundane life. Without that proximity, they can start to believe their own hype. That lack of proximity is where you see problems with abusing power and trying to get away with things or acting as if you’re above the norms and the rules.
R&P: You mentioned that you don’t have to really do anything to be famous. You also talk about how celebrity isn’t necessarily based on credentials, but more based more on charisma. Would you mind expanding on that a bit?
KB: I don’t think I put it that succinctly in the book, charisma over credentials. I think it’s a good way of articulating it because it helps to differentiate between institutional authority versus individual authority. We have seen the authority and staying power of institutions decline significantly over the last 50 years. In the demise of institutions, we’ve seen the ascendancy of individual authority.
Credentialing often comes from institutions, some larger body of expertise or training, or even other leaders offering you credibility. If you’re seeking individual authority, and to establish yourself that way, you don’t necessarily need a body of expertise, you don’t need to have rooted yourself in an institution’s ways and practices over years. You can post a video of yourself preaching a really dynamic sermon and see that people really like it and want to hear more from you. You can build a whole brand identity around your sermonizing and realize that some church out there will hire you because they want their church to grow, and people will flock to hear you preach.
The reason people will flock to hear you preach is because you’re a really good communicator. You have that charisma, that “it” factor that attracts and draws people and makes them hang on your every word. It’s incredibly powerful and can be very intoxicating. I think in some ways that’s the story of what happened with Hillsong New York. Carl Lentz, the former lead pastor, had attended seminary in Australia, at Hillsong’s training school. So, it’s not that he was completely absent of credentialing, but so much of why he was put into a position of authority is because he is an incredibly charismatic person. He is a great speaker. He’s very attractive; he’s friendly. He is friends with Hollywood celebrities. People came to the church because of him, because of him being onstage. We might think of that as an extreme case, but I think if you get down to the heart of it, a lot of those dynamics of charisma are central to a lot of your standard American evangelical churches.
R&P: You also talk about how things like money and media forms aren’t neutral. People talk about them as morally neutral tools, but you suggest that they’re not.
KB: Looking at the tools of media, I’m not the first to point this out. Who said the medium is the message? Marshall McLuhan, the communication theorist, was writing about this over 50 years ago. That’s another way of saying, the means by which you communicate content, you are telling your viewers or listeners something about the message. Billy Graham is a great example of an evangelical leader who is an early adopter of the tools of mass media. He wanted to harness the power of radio and television, recognizing their potential to reach millions of people. He earnestly embraced those tools to preach the gospel to as many people as possible in his earthly lifetime.
Neil Postman in his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, critiques Billy Graham directly and calls him naive for this sunny, cheery, positive embrace of the tools of mass media without stepping back and thinking: How does hearing the gospel, receiving the gospel over radio waves, change how I understand the gospel itself? Is the fact that I’m receiving it through this medium that is primarily meant for entertainment consumption changing the way that I understand what it means to be a follower of Christ?
I do think that evangelicals have inherited a pragmatic and even progressive understanding of media and have generally been early adopters of media for their potential to reach a lot of people. But there needs to be more reflection, at the very least, on how the tools of mass media are not only shaping how people hear the gospel but how people understand Christian discipleship. If you’re just hearing the gospel over the radio waves or TV, but you have no connection to a local church, it’s easy for you to walk away thinking that Christianity is just about a personal individual relationship between me, Jesus, and Billy Graham, or whichever evangelist is speaking. I think that’s a wrong understanding of what Christianity is about.
R&P: Why did you find it particularly important to write a book about how these issues affect Christianity and the church as opposed to the broader space?
KB: I wanted to write about the church primarily because I think the church should be different from the rest of the world. If followers of Jesus are merely mimicking the trends that we see in the world of mainstream entertainment, politics, higher education, or sports, then we’ve lost the plot. I think we’re in a moment, at least in the American church, where we’ve really seen the bad fruit that comes from simply mimicking these other realms and their approach to celebrity. We’re seeing what happens when we put people on pedestals and grant them a God-like spiritual authority, or when we confuse charisma with calling. In the wake of so many celebrity pastor scandals, I think we’re at a time where we need to examine the roots that have led to such bad fruit.
R&P: You talk a lot about abuse of power in your book, and there’s also another discourse talking about abuse of power and masculinity, with works like The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill and also in the work of Kristin Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr. Do you see your work on celebrity intersecting with their work on toxic masculinity in the church?
KB: I do. At least in the world of large churches in the United States, those churches tend to overwhelmingly center themselves around the persona of a white male egotistical leader. I do see the connection to Barr and Du Mez’s observations. Mark Driscoll and the story of Mars Hill is such a perfect distillation of what Du Mez has been describing. It reflects not only un-Christian understandings of what it means to be a male leader in the church; it’s also an un-Christian understanding of what it means to be a prominent pastor.
I don’t think you can tell the Mars Hill story without looking at both dynamics of toxic masculinity and toxic celebrity power. Part of that is just the ways that Mark received moral and spiritual cover from large national Christian networks of other prominent leaders and theologians who could vouch for him. The extension of his celebrity status through the book publishing deals that he received deceptively amplified the appearance of his celebrity status. I don’t think that you can tell that story or similar stories without looking at both dynamics of masculinity gone wrong as well as celebrity gone wrong.
R&P: You have book deals and a reasonable amount of success writing. The reason you’re able to write a book about celebrity, some might claim, is because you have celebrity to stand on. Would you care to speak to that?
KB: There is certainly a tension at play in writing a book that conveys a message critiquing celebrity culture, while also trying to promote the book and get people to learn about it via my curated platforms. One way that I would hope to distinguish what I’m trying to do is that I am pointing people to a set of ideas, reflections, analyses, and theological frameworks rather to myself as a public figure.
What I am offering is not “The Katelyn Show.” It’s, “Here are some thoughts and ideas that might help or assist you as you think about the church, the world, and contemporary Christian living.” I want that to continue to be the focus. That it is not about me. The whole reason that you build a platform, so to speak, is to get up on a platform and share an idea or thought—not to be the center of attention. I think there is a way to preserve the medium of writing, and book-writing in particular, as an important means of conveying information. It’s really a matter of not letting the author and the author’s name become the main event. It’s about the ideas and the message rather than the person.
R&P: You have talked about how evangelicals favor pragmatism over building virtue. What would it look like to do the reverse?
KB: When we’re thinking of church leadership, some of this probably starts in seminary—and how people preparing for ministry are thinking about how to measure ministry success and offering countercultural models of success that aren’t based in numbers. Here, it feels like the American church can learn a lot from our brothers and sisters in the majority world where Christians are living under immense pressures and stress in some cases, and there is such a potency to their witness that has nothing to do with appearing successful to their neighbors.
Do we believe in the power of that kind of gospel witness? Do we actually believe that matters as much as growing our church by a percentage in so many years? Just making space for alternate non-Western models of church life and Christian witness. So much of this book is about reminding readers about the power of ordinary faithfulness and choosing to accept that vision of the Christian life as worthy.