I’ll never forget the day evangelist Ravi Zacharias stopped by my office at a Christian publishing house many years ago. He had been told I had become a Christian at one of his rallies, and he wanted to meet me, even though it meant quite a hike to the hinterlands of the building. I was honored that such a luminary would make a point of meeting ordinary me, an entry level marketing writer. I, like countless other Christians, had put him up on a high pedestal, a perch so lofty that when he fell (Zacharias committed egregious acts of sexual misconduct, revealed after his death), the crash reverberated through me personally and the American church far and wide.
After reading Celebrities for Jesus, I know why his fall hit me so hard. I, like so many in the evangelical realm, had bought into the idea of the Christian celebrity. I admired people I had never met, like Zacharias, Christian music artists, and authors, never knowing that sometimes this fascination could border on idolatry, because, Beaty notes, “of the human toll it takes.” And when I did meet him, I felt special for spending time in his glowy orbit.
I am not alone in this desire to laud fame and want to be near it. According to Beaty, a meticulous journalist, celebrity is woven into the fabric of the evangelical movement—and has been since the days of D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham, who has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
As Beaty points out, celebrity is “social power without proximity.”
“Christians have reached for the tool of celebrity and found that it isn’t really a tool at all,” she writes. “It has more power over the user than the user has over it.”
Some Christians have used fame to noble ends, but others, such as fallen megachurch pastors Bill Hybels, Mark Driscoll, among others, appear to have drunk their own Kool-Aid, unwittingly (or not) falling for the adulation and almost complete lack of accountability. “A pastor,” Beaty notes, should be “a shepherd of souls, and to shepherd a soul, you have to know that soul.”
Though Beaty published this book with Baker Publishing Group, her employer, she handles the chapter on the Christian publishing industry deftly and honestly, critiquing the pervasive—and deceptive—practice of ghostwriting and the industry’s obsession with numbers and “platform.”
Back to the pedestal: Evangelicals love it when a “secular” star appears to convert to “our side,” because we often feed on a story of “persecution and cultural embattlement.” Everyone is against us, the narratives goes, so a high profile conversion gives believers a big, glossy win. When Ye (formerly Kanye West) put out his first “Christian” album, “Jesus is King,” Christians flocked to his fandom. They also put really weird demands on him, which is often the case when we exalt people we don’t actually know. Even Focus on the Family jumped on the Ye bandwagon, praising his album and hoping that the artist’s then-wife Kim Kardashian would also start dressing more modestly. Such is the convoluted logic at work in the world of celebrities for Jesus! Yet how can it be anything but convoluted when we were never designed to be famous in this world, never mind idolize those who are?
As helpful and healthy as it is to examine one’s interest in celebrity and the nature of fame itself, the most important insights come at the end of the book, when Beaty gracefully offers a vision of Christian life that looks very little like the celeb culture she has so thoroughly evaluated. For the church and each reader, we are “better off abandoning the fixation on cultural credibility,” she writes. Instead, we can pursue day-to-day faithfulness and a return to “the small, the quiet, the uncool and the ordinary.” (Brazos Press)