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A Review of
Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church
by Katelyn Beaty
(Brazos Press, 2022)
But influence may not mean wisdom. West rambled, changed subjects inexplicably, and was less than articulate about anything. We found that he was pro-life and that he “perform[s] for an audience of one, and that’s God.”1 Good for him. But his status as a successful entertainer and billionaire, even coupled with a newfound faith, did not approximate the knowledge, wisdom, and articulation of the thousands of largely unknown evangelical pastors in America.
Jesus warned, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).2 Popularity has its downside and celebrity its dangers, as editor and author Katelyn Beaty warns in her timely and insightful book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church (Brazos Press, 2022). In their zeal to “reach people” for Christ, Christians may cut corners, become proud, and even betray the deepest standards of the Christian life and gospel ministry. That, of course, is sadly common and has been a problem since the beginning of the church. In writing of the qualifications of an elder in church, Paul warns, “He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Timothy 3:6–7). The devil has quite an interest in bringing down Christian leaders and has no little success. As such, he must be unhappy with Celebrities for Jesus, since it exposes and answers the temptations of Christian celebrity in a celebrity-driven culture.
Fruit of Virtue. Beaty notes that fame has always existed and that the “right kind of fame arises from a life well lived, not a brand well cultivated. At its best, fame is a by-product of virtue, the effect rather than the goal of living a virtuous life” (p. 8). Rosa Parks became famous by simply refusing to give up her bus seat to a white person in Montgomery, Alabama, in December of 1955 — an act that reinvigorated the civil rights movement and lead to her renown. She said, “I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free and wanted other people to be also free” (9). And so she is.
Celebrity. Beaty defines celebrity as “social power without proximity” (17). Celebrities, Christian or otherwise, influence many through largely impersonal means, such as musical recordings, large speaking events, book sales, and other media venues. She adds, “To have immense social power and little proximity is a spiritually dangerous place for any of us to be” (19). By “proximity,” Beaty means personal interaction with those one influences. She also warns of Christian celebrities, such as Ravi Zacharias, Mark Driscoll, and Bill Hybels, whose success took them out of proximity with close and honest friends and other leaders who would hold them accountable to godly standards, resulting in abuses of power, and, for Hybels, and especially for Zacharias, gross sexual misconduct.
The great evangelist Billy Graham (1918–2018) became a celebrity early in his ministry, but took precautions to avoid the dangers of money, sex, and power. He wisely used the media available to him throughout his ministry and resisted hubris and scandal. He could appear on television shows chatting with Hollywood celebrities, advise presidents, and still stay true to the gospel.
The Billy Graham Rule. Beaty discusses the well-known “Billy Graham rule,” regarding his moral conduct (37–38). Graham would never meet alone with a woman who was not his wife, either in public or private. Of equal or greater importance was the principle that he would not control the salary or the finances of his ministry. This would be allocated to a governing body. In recent years, it was made known that Vice President Mike Pence adhered to the same practice regarding his marriage. Beaty criticizes this practice, since, she claims, it can deny women helpful access to influential men. She further finds its demeaning because it puts all women in the role of a potential seducer and because it may make men appear chaste who are not. However, her criticisms seem naïve, since well-known men (and women) need to avoid the appearance of impropriety as well as impropriety itself. I doubt that the Graham rule would deny women access to the wise counsel of men, since they could receive counsel in other than one-on-one settings. The more high-profile a leader is, the greater concern he or she should place on avoiding morally questionable situations, since some enemies of the gospel may be out to frame them. Such attempts have been made — and rightly failed — against Charles Colson and Josh McDowell. Sadly, the case against Ravi Zacharias was proven true, as Beaty discusses, and his work ended in disgrace and catastrophe. The multi-million-dollar ministry he founded was disbanded and dozens of apologists were left stranded.
Beaty refers to wise media theorists in her reflections on celebrity, since modern celebrity is impossible without media influence and savvy. As Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Image (1962), “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness….He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness” (13). Images are built up, brands are selected and curated, and audiences are courted, maintained, and increased. It can be more about market share than character, more about finances than about theology, more about popularity than integrity. Beaty also refers to Neil Postman’s 1985 classic, Amusing Ourselves to Death (Viking Penguin), to make the point in relation to Billy Graham’s use of television that, in her words, “the medium doesn’t just transmit a message; it changes the message. A medium designed for entertainment will transmute the gospel into a message of entertainment” (33).
Although Beaty does not speak to this, I have noticed that some apologists on social media are better at building an image and a platform than they are at apologetics itself. That is, they lack formal training, published books, and more, but they are skilled at developing an appealing platform. They are well known for creating a platform more than they are well known for their track record or for expertise. I recently told a young seminary graduate of mine not to develop any public platform until he had established himself in ministry and grown in maturity.
Ghost Writing. As an author of many books over many years, it was painful for me to read Beaty’s chapter, “Chasing Platforms,” which exposes ghost writing and plagiarism as common among Christian celebrity authors. The celebrity mindset may drive dishonesty in these matters. People want to read books written by well-known Christians, but these celebrities may not have or take the time to actually write the books. In some cases, they may be unable to. The answer is to hire a ghost writer to compose the book, which, nevertheless, sports the name of the celebrity and not the ghost writer. The point of being a ghost is to be invisible. The celebrity may get as much as $500,000 for signing a book contract and only pay the literary goblin a flat fee of $50,000 (106). Beaty opposes this practice unless (1) the ghost writer is mentioned as contributing to the book and (2) the ghost writer is fairly compensated. But this confuses matters, since ghost writing means to conceal the identity of the real writer. If credit is given as a co-author or in the preface to the book, the ghost is outed and no longer functions as a ghost.
Under the Law. Beaty rightly condemns this practice but does not go far enough. Consider ghost writing according to the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–18), which summarize God’s moral law.
First, to release a book under a person’s name who did not write this book is to bear false witness, thus breaking the Ninth Commandment. It is an outright lie, no matter how common it is. The buying public is deceived and exploited thereby.
Second, this ruse is also theft, thus breaking the Eighth Commandment. The pseudo-author is stealing credit from the real author. This is true even when the ghost writer consents to it, since property is taken for less than what it is worth. The fake author is also defrauding those who purchase the book, since they think he or she is the real author.
Third, such a lie reveals covetousness, since the celebrity wants credit for something he or she did not create. The non-author covets being an author and writing a book. The Tenth Commandment is broken (as it always is when breaking any of the other nine commandments).
I know of a Christian celebrity in the counseling ministry who is the supposed author of over one hundred books. But, in reality, he has written almost none of them. In this case, the person’s name appears on the book with the true author’s name. But it is still a lie, since the celebrity author has written none of the book and, in some cases, has not even read the whole book! But this is a financial exchange. The lesser known but true author cashes in on the celebrity of the pseudo author.
Shouted from the Rooftops. Beaty reveals that the ghosts are everywhere. I will add that a thorough exorcism is needed. The haunted publishing houses need to be de-spooked. Some celebrities will go as far as having their ghosts write endorsements and forewords to books, sometimes without reading the books or even the endorsements and forewords (105). Where is the fear of God in this (Proverbs 1:9; Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)? God is not mocked and will reveal everything in the end. As Paul warned Timothy (and us all): “The sins of some are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not obvious cannot remain hidden forever” (1 Timothy 5:24–25).
Although Celebrities for Jesus exposes the abuses of celebrity by Christian leaders, it does so not to titillate, but to warn of celebrity’s dangers and to recommend a better way. The final chapter, “The Obscure Messiah and Ordinary Faithfulness,” commends humility for ministry and draws on Henri Nouwen’s account of Jesus rejecting the temptations of relevance, spectacle, and power when He was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Beaty writes, “In a time when large swaths of the American church have merely mimicked worldly concepts of power, going for bigger, louder, and glitzier, we have to return to the small, the quiet, the uncool, and the ordinary” (168). Or, as Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave — just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28).
While many of the insights of this book have been made in the 1990s by critics such as Os Guinness (Dining with the Devil) and Douglas Webster (Selling Jesus), the author brings the discussion up to date and offers cautionary wisdom about resisting worldliness in ministry. Despite a few chatty asides (71, 75) and gratuitous woke comments (80–81, 146), Celebrities for Jesus is a sober and perceptive treatment of a modern malady we all must avoid. —Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of 15 books, including Fire in the Streets (Salem, 2022) and Christian Apologetics, 2nd ed. (InterVarsity Academic, 2022).
- Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, October 6, 2022. See transcript, “Tucker Carlson: Is Kanye West Crazy? You Be the Judge,” Fox News, October 11, 2022, https://www.foxnews.com/transcript/tucker-carlson-kanye-west-crazy-judge.
- All Scripture quotations are from the NIV.