It seems like forever since we started this series on celebrity culture in Evangelical and Reformed circles.  I’ve enjoyed a rather long blog hiatus, for which I’m thankful.  And tonight I feel like writing that final post I promised some time ago.

For several posts, we attempted to think about the issue of “celebrity pastors.”  Over the last several years, the topic appeared repeatedly in the blogosphere and in on-line periodicals.  ”Celebrity pastors” are universally decried (well, except for Jonathan Leeman’s appreciation) but rarely defined or identified.  Since the term and its cousin, “Rock star pastor,” communicates negative judgment, and since the tag rarely falls on particular pastors but drapes like a blanket over much of the conference-going, book-buying Evangelical and Reformed world, it seemed at least some preliminary investigation and framing were required.

In this series, I’ve offered one take, depending on the secular work of Daniel J. Boorstin and Neal Gabler.  Thus far, we’ve covered the following ground:

In all of this, I’ve tried to dust off some corroded social science approaches to the issue.  And at the heart, I’ve tried to show that celebrity culture involves three players, each with their respective role: the well-known person who may or may not be guilty of “celebrity-seeking”; the media who develops and disseminates a narrative and publicity that increases tangibility and the likelihood of “celebrity”; and the audience or fanbase that consumes the media, identifies with the person, and confers “celebrity status” to the well-known person.

I readily admit that the problem exists and that the temptation lies in every heart.  However, I disagree with the assertion that the problem is pandemic.  My data is admittedly anecdotal and taken from interactions in one forum: the conferences so often blamed for fostering the problem.  Anecdotally, I’d put the problem maybe at 10-20 percent of young conference-goers.  By my crude math, that tallied to some 200-400 “celebrity-gawkers” in a crowd of 5,000.  Not scientific, I know.  But I welcome other methods and estimates because defining the scope of the problem remains critical for rightly responding to it.  Why roach bomb with a blanket condemnation of all of Evangelicalism if what we really need are well-targeted and tailored messages for the under-30s who could be helped to mature beyond this phase?  The size of the problem matters for measuring and tempering our responses.

Well, that brings us to the topic for today: Who are the “fans” and what are their responsibilities for the “celebrity” problem?

Who You Calling a ‘Fanboy’?

We’re accustomed to thinking of ourselves as fans of sports teams, some entertainers, and maybe even a politician or two.  But there’s something slightly uncomfortable about regarding ourselves as fans of a Christian preacher or teacher.  Perhaps the sensitivity comes from the Bible’s clear warnings against pride, partisanship, and assigning glory or fear to men.  The One True and Living God demands that glory belongs to Him alone.  So, we shudder at the thought of being a fan of Pastor ___.

Sensitivity and shuddering notwithstanding, however, we do become fans of preachers and pastors. What does that mean?  A short note from wikipedia:

Merriam-Webster, the Oxford dictionary and other recognized sources define “fan” as a shortened version of the word fanatic, and the word first became popular in reference to an enthusiastic follower of a baseball team. (Fanatic itself, introduced into English around 1550, means “marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion”. It comes from the Modern Latin fanaticus, meaning “insanely but divinely inspired”. The word originally pertained to a temple or sacred place [Latin fanum, poetic English fane]. The modern sense of “extremely zealous” dates from around 1647; the use of fanatic as a noun dates from 1650.) However, the term “fancy” for an intense liking of something, while being of a different etymology, coincidentally carries a less intense but somewhat similar connotation to “fanatic”. The word emerged as an Americanism around 1889.

The fan-fanatic connection makes the idea of being any preacher/pastor’s “fan” even less appealing.  Certainly we don’t want to be fanatics about a man, even if he does preach God’s word.  That gives an ironic ring of truth to the Latin’s meaning–“insanely but divinely inspired.”   Winston Churchill provides another memorable line when he opines, ”A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”

Some social scientists seemed to have Churchill in mind when they created a “celebrity worship scale.”  Researchers posit three levels of celebrity worship:

Entertainment-social

This dimension comprises attitudes that fans are attracted to a favorite celebrity because of their perceived ability to entertain and become a social focus such as “I love to talk with others who admire my favorite celebrity” and “I like watching and hearing about my favorite celebrity when I am with a large group of people”.

Intense-personal

Intense-personal aspect of celebrity worship reflects intensive and compulsive feelings about the celebrity, akin to the obsessional tendencies of fans often referred to in the literature; for example “I share with my favorite celebrity a special bond that cannot be described in words” and “When something bad happens to my favorite celebrity I feel like it happened to me'”.

Borderline-pathological

This dimension is typified by uncontrollable behaviors and fantasies regarding scenarios involving their celebrities, such as “I have frequent thoughts about my favorite celebrity, even when I don’t want to” and “my favorite celebrity would immediately come to my rescue if I needed any type of help”.

Let’s all express our concern for anything beyond entertainment-social attitudes and behavior.  In fact, the intense-personal level has been linked to poor mental health.  And who would suggest borderline-pathological could ever be healthy?  If we think we’re seeing these higher two levels of fixation, the remedy isn’t blog posts but a swift referral to a clinical professional.

But the key issue among Evangelicals with entertainment-social celebrity attraction is not likely “ability to entertain” but “ability to edify.”  There can be a blurring of the two things.  But by and large, Evangelicals report appreciation for the way they’re built up by this or that pastor’s preaching.  Evangelical “fans” enjoy discussing sermons, books, articles, and gathering at conference along with others who enjoy the same pastors and preachers.  I’ve never heard someone say anything approaching, “I share a special bond that cannot be described with Pastor ____.” Praise God I’ve never heard that or even sensed that in others.

We might not recognize ourselves on this scale, and the term “worship” might offend evangelical sensibilities.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a place in fandom.

Are you a “fan” of anything?  Say a sports team?  A politician?  How about a preacher/pastor?

How would you know?  One tell-tale sign would be an ongoing interest and investment in a celebrity’s story.  You buy every interview in every magazine.  You keep track of the developments, and the more complex and detailed the better.  You may even take pride in excelling others in your knowledge of the person’s life and ministry.  You feel a personal connection with the person well beyond your actual relationship to them.  If these things describe you, you’re a “fan.”

To Be or Not to Be a Fan?  Is That Even a Question?

I suppose it is a question, or at least it needs to be.  Why would one set out to be a fan or continue in the herd of fans once they discover they’ve been taken unawares into the crowd?  Is fandom ever a good thing?  Or, to use the language we’ve been using throughout the posts, should we ever contribute to the creation of “celebrity”?

Short answer: No.

Yet, despite earlier protests to the contrary, I maintain that the only segment of people in this equation (pastors, media, and fans) who can in fact make a pastor a celebrity is the fan.  Celebrity status must be conferred.  It cannot be demanded nor can it be created.  Wanna-be celebrities may pose and glitter, photographers and writers may seek to tell a good story, but at the end of the day the audience must buy the product, not just read but associate with the story, and subsequently join others similarly associating with the celebrity or celebrity narrative.  By definition, if there is no audience there is no celebrity.  If the public ‘checks out’ then it’s game, set, match on the story and the person as celebrity.

To put it another way: If there is a problem–of whatever size–with Evangelical celebrities, the majority of the problem lies with those who confer celebrity status.  I realize that sounds like I’m “blaming the victim.”  After all, unscrupulous celebrity-seekers may manipulate stories and images with the hopes or effect of duping the audience.  I would never excuse such behavior, and such a person would never meet biblical qualifications for pastoral ministry. But even allowing that dishonest men seek to profit through deceitful scheming, doesn’t knowing that suggest we (the public) ought to re-double our efforts to be discerning consumers?  Being a victim or potential victim doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to watch our lives–which necessarily includes evaluating those we support.

How Not to Be a Fanboy

With all this in mind, let me conclude (finally!) this series of posts with some suggestions for all of us potential fan boys and girls out there.  If the bulk of the responsibility lies in our court, then how do we work against contributing to a “celebrity culture” and conferring “celebrity status” onto either suspecting or unsuspecting persons?  In no particular order:

Change Our Consumption Habits.  Like it or not, a lot of this comes down to what we buy or who we buy.  Marketers know this.  They study us in order to take advantage of our buying habits.  Nevertheless, we’re the ones plunking down cash or plastic to buy the book, cd, or whatever.  I don’t argue we should stop buying things that profit our souls, just that we should consume more wisely.  Do we need the next book by that author in that series of titles?  Do we need that same basic idea expounded for and marketed to adults, teens, church leaders, stamp collectors, and bird watchers?  Many of us would be better off downloading the free classic instead of buying the next “new release.”  One way to undermine celebrity-making tendencies would be to monitor and change our sometimes mindless, crowd-following, marketing-induced purchasing habits.  I know I could stand to do a better job of this.

Moderate Our Affections. The conferral of celebrity-status depends in good measure on the audience developing inordinate affection for the “celebrity.”  Again, allowing that some dishonest persons may try to play on people’s affections, the development of inordinate attachment for someone you don’t know really remains a problem only the consumer can address.  Up-front guys can and should deflect attention and adulation.  But we need to learn the discipline of examining our hearts for appropriate/inappropriate reactions to people and stories.  This means, in large part, honestly admitting a basic fact: We don’t know the people we’re fawning over.  Then asking a simple question: Given I don’t know this person, should I really allow myself to developer stalker-like attachments for them?  Answer: No.  Court-enforced restraining orders are designed for people with such attachments.  Let’s train our hearts, leading them by both the word of God and the light of reality.

Check Out of the Narratives. I would contend that this is fundamental for both of the strategies above.  Chances are your Google reader, Twitter following, and Facebook “likes” and “fan pages” tell you something about the narratives you’re buying.  Add to those steady “news” streams from our favorite persons the YouTube clips, articles and books, and conference opportunities and we can find ourselves more deeply immersed in the leader- and media-created narratives than we thought.  I’m guessing that most people who follow blogs, Twitter, and Facebook have something on the average of 10-20 “contacts” with high-profile persons they don’t know and perhaps have never met.  That stream of contacts represents a constant narrative development that we first absorb and then immerse ourselves into.  We’re conferring celebrity when we attach ourselves to these stories then allow our affections and purchases to run away with us.  We need to unplug.  We have to stop “following” the story and the person.  We need to stop contributing to the larger-than-life stories that transform well-deserved notoriety into “celebrity” rather than attenuated honor.

Conclusion

Thus endeth my two cents on this topic.  I’m genuinely grateful for the men the Lord has raised up, made faithful, and used in my life to help me understand the Bible better, love Christ more, and hopefully live more faithfully than I would have otherwise.  I honor them as the Bible instructs.  But I don’t worship them, and I don’t think the bulk of Evangelicalism does either.  But where it does exist, whether it’s ten or sixty percent of us, we need to take the responsibility that confesses it, repents of it, and walks on the grace and knowledge of the Blessed Lord.  May the Lord help us to give thanks for His gifts and to love Him, the Giver.

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3 thoughts on “Fandom: The People and Realm of Evangelical Celebrity”

  1. Graham and Nicola says:

    Pastor Anyabwile

    We’re glad that you’ve returned to this topic, (one half of us is gv720 who posted quite a bit on these threads). Generally, we’ve found your approach very helpful, and you are helping to clarify the issues. We think that Carl Trueman has instinctively detected a problem, but that we can’t make much progress until we define the problem.

    A few thoughts.
    1) One of our problems with celebrities is that they are like the old aristocracy; they achieve fame without having done anything to deserve it. If we can find good qualities that justify a speakers “fame” then we should relax a bit, and not worry so much about their celebrity. So your analysis is convincing here.
    2) In earlier posts you raised the concept of honour. Now that seems important to us. “Honour” can be viewed objectively or subjectively. As an objective quality, a person has honour when they embody a communities values; alternatively we can “honour” a person “as if” they embody important values.
    It follows that a person can be objectively honourable, and never be honoured. And a person can be honoured without achieving fame.
    We need to subjectively honour members of the Christian community who have objective honour; that will relativise fame. Honour seems to offer a way out of the problem.
    3) On achievement: many “celebrity” Pastors do not seem to say anything more consequential than “regular” Pastors. Nor do they seem to be more honourable than many of the anonymous heroes who make up the spine of the Church. So are there speakers who are famous for being famous? We think so, and we think that some have sought influence through the media. That is, they have sought fame.
    There are “shock-jocks” who create their own celebrity. We think that they have identified a “gap in the market – the conservative rebel. The message is conservative – sometimes reactionary. Their delivery of the message is crude, rude and dangerous to hear.
    We also believe that someone with good organisational skills can create celebrity, simply by using the internet and other media effectively.
    We think that you might be overlooking these individuals, and their impact, by focusing on conferences. This overlooks books, blogs, websites, multi-sites and their effect on local Churches.
    4) Celebrity has been with the Evnangelical Church for a century – since Aimee Semple McPherson (who was famous enough to be satirised in England by Evelyn Waugh in “Vile Bodies”) at least.
    The Church has managed to survive. So a little historical perspective brings calm.
    5) Overall this was an excellent series of posts; and we hope that you can return to some of the themes that you have raised (especially “honour” and how to achieve it) in the future.

    Graham and Nicola

  2. Trent says:

    What I can’t believe is that all this seems to revolve around Mark Driscoll.
    Why not NT Wright? His students or those who read him and are gullible savor every word of his and have a private fan forum called “WhatWrightSaid.” That’s pretty bizarre in and of itself. And his opponents who defend the proper interpretation of Paul get hammered on by his supporters always saying “You misunderstand him. If you understood him, you’d be on his side!”

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is assistant pastor for church planting at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition. You can follow him on Twitter.

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