With a Little Help from Their Friends: How Pastors Become Celebrities

We’ve tried to do a little work on definitions and the scope of the problem.  All of that simply lays foundation for us to work on theory.  That’s what we’re really concerned about because theory allows us to explain the dynamic on some level and, at least for the practitioner, begin to propose solutions to the problem.  Here’s where rubber meets the road.

No one denies that a problem exists.  We simply disagree about (a) the appropriate terminology for accurately describing the phenomena and (b) the scope of the problem.  Some see the “culture of celebrity” under every conference brochure.  Others see “celebrity seeking” in the lives of a few particular pastors.

But there’s one more fundamental question to ask in order to develop a working theory: How does it happen?  How person go from pastor to “celebrity pastor” or “rock star pastor”?

A Brief Framework

If you’re really interested in the cultural analysis of “celebrity,” you really need to read Daniel J. Boorstin‘s groundbreaking work, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1961), and Neal Gabler‘s Life: the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.  Boorstin, as far as I can tell, introduces the term “celebrity” to the American landscape, defining it tautologically as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.”  Gabler, more sanguine about the concept than Boorstin, thinks of “celebrity” as “an art form wrought in the medium of life.”  Indeed, Gabler contends that “celebrity” is now the culture’s “dominant art form, not only in the attention it demands or in the way it subjugates other media but in the way it seems to refract so many of the basic concerns of the culture, precisely as art does.”  The “celebrity” Boorstin feared was the unmaking of the “great man,” Gabler hails as art refracting life.  You couldn’t get two more opposing views. (To read Gabler’s engaging interaction with Boorstin, see here)

I’d like to propose a framework that posits something of a hybrid of Boorstin and Gabler.  I’m not so much attempting to reconcile their views as much as use both men’s work as a way of illustrating two processes often conflated with bad results.  I want to suggest a noble path to notoriety, and mirror it with the corrupt corridor to celebrity.  Then I hope to say a word about how notoriety becomes “celebrity.”

The Noble Path to Notoriety. The Bible not only allows a godly category for notoriety, but commands Christians to honor the noteworthy.  We see this in places like 2 Cor. 8:18—“With him we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel.”  Or Philippians 2:22, 29-30 with its commendation of Timothy and Epaphroditis—“But you know Timothy’s proven worth, how as a son with a father he has served with me in the gospel. So receive him in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men, for he nearly died for the work of Christ, risking his life to complete what was lacking in your service to me.”  Or, in the context of the local church, the command in 1 Tim. 5:17—“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

One important feature about each of these commendations is the individual’s work and accomplishment.  These persons are well-known and honored because of their work and accomplishment in the Lord.  In other words, they have earned (if you will) the respect of the church because they are “proven,” risked their life in service, or “rule well”—especially in the ministry of the word.  We may safely conclude that the Bible is not describing shallow, superficial “celebrity.”  These accolades are honest and redound to the glory of God himself, who was at work in these men to will and do His good pleasure.

The noble path to notoriety might be illustrated as:

The person and their work attract the appropriate attention and respect of their peers and followers.  I’ve chosen the terms “notoriety” and “honor” to distinguish from the sometimes negative connotations of “fame” and “celebrity.”  Whatever prominence, notoriety, and honor these persons receive, they receive justly because of their labor in the Lord. Indeed, the Lord himself commands His people to respond with honor.

The Corrupt Corridor to Celebrity. I maintain “celebrity” is generally a pejorative and not a positive good because the corridor to celebrity essentially empties notoriety of its nobility.  “Celebrity” does this in one of two ways: either by eliminating accomplishment as the basis of fame and honor, and/or by embellishing a narrative that deifies the celebrity while creating a false attachment with the audience/crowd.  Gabler’s work details this process most clearly.

Now, according to Gabler, the difference between fame (simply being well-known) and celebrity is story or narrative and “tangibility”. The celebrity is someone who lives out a plotline that captures some public’s attention and makes the celebrity “tangible,” real, or “accessible” to that public.  In other words, the public likes their story and in some way identifies with the “celebrity.”  This explains and supports Trueman’s observation that celebrity includes “a strange familiarity whereby the celebrities are referred to in quite intimate terms by people who have never met them or have only the most passing of connections with them. That connection, according to Gabler, gets created by the tangible narrative surrounding the celebrity.

The narrative comes in two forms: star-driven stories based on the actual lives and achievements of the “star” (think great actors like Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington), and plot-driven narratives that can sometimes involve unaccomplished persons (think Joey Buttafuoco or Tanya Harding) in compelling dramas that interest us in the person.  Contrary to Boorstin’s view and that of many people today, some celebrities and famous persons are actually rather accomplished persons.  Star-driven celebrity has longer staying power because once the plot in plot-driven narratives is over the “celebrity” status fades as well (think Kato Kaelin).  But in either case, to go from simply being known to being a celebrity, one needs a compelling narrative and publicity (more on this in later post, D.V.).  The corrupted corridors might look something like this?

Star-Driven Corridor to Celebrity

Plot-Driven Corridor to Celebrity

The star-driven process looks a lot like the noble path to notoriety.  That’s why many folks who simply should be honored may easily be mistaken as “celebrities,” especially in a sub-culture or among individuals already nervous about conferring honor on others.  Although the star-driven “celebrification” process looks like the noble path to notoriety, here’s the difference: the narrative and publicity in the celebrity-making process renders the person a “pseudo-event” (Boorstin’s term) or a “human entertainment” (Gabler’s term).  Folks who simply should be honored for their achievement and even folks with no achievements can be “celebritized” when the real person gets eclipsed by a “role” or “image” conflated with the person’s real life.  Gabler uses a great example:

The only action John Wayne saw in World War II was on the screen in war films, yet his heroism in those movies became welded to his personal narrative to the point where he was given awards and honors for his bravery.  People believed, evidently wanted to believe, that it was his story and not just his performance.

Or consider the insights we gather from Gabler’s evaluation of the Charles Lindbergh:

Boorstin saw Lindbergh’s greatness and subsequent fame flowing from his accomplishing of having flown solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1927.  Lindbergh transmogrified into a celebrity only when his publicity and popularity reached a critical mass where they became the story, usurping the accomplishment itself and making Lindbergh well known for being well known.

Or so Boorstin has it.  [W]hat Boorstin failed to recognize is that popularity is the by-product of celebrity, not its source.  For Lindbergh, the source was the narrative of that flight–a narrative that was later elaborated by his marriage to socialite Anne Morrow and by the tragic kidnapping and murder of their baby in 1932.  He wasn’t well known for being well known.  He was well known–a celebrity–because he had a great story, and he remained a celebrity because he, or history, kept adding new chapters to it.

When performance supplants person you have celebrity.  Unaccomplished persons need “the story” to carry them to “celebrity.”  Accomplished persons may become celebrities with minimal story, but when they do become celebrities the public has welded a “larger-than-life” (or simply other-than-life) story to their persons.  What normally becomes larger-than-life for Evangelical pastors is either preaching ability, leadership, godliness, or all three.  What should have stopped at honor gets transmogrified into idol and fantasy independent of and larger than the personal reality.

The Parts We All Play

Now, I’ve been arguing that no person can make themselves a celebrity any more than a man can make a woman love him.  We all play a part in the making of celebrities.  In fact, there are three primary players: the celebrity, the media, and the audience or crowd.  The celebrity presents the achievements and narrative.  The media provides the publicity or “celebrity treatment.”  The public provides the “audience to appreciate the narrative and admire its star; for in the end, celebrity without someone to consume it is like a movie without someone to watch it” (Gabler).  In this way, the media and the public become the “friends” that make the pastor a celebrity.  These gears turn swiftly and smoothly in our pixelated and digital age.  We might call these interlocking relationships the “culture of celebrity.”

We’ll think more, Lord willing, about the role of media and technology in this process, but for now we simply need to know we’re hacking our way through celebrity culture as “a kind of cultural kudzu” (Gabler).  If you’ve been to my beloved North Carolina, you might know that kudzu grows over everything.  But you might also know that not everything is kudzu.  What you think might be a dense forest of vines, may only be a thin sprawling network disguising a brick building or overhanging tall trees.  Perhaps this is why people sometimes think they see “celebrities” everywhere.  The kudzu celebrity culture does surround and grow on us all.  But that doesn’t make everything we see kudzu.

What Happens When We Confuse Honor with Celebrity

I’m assuming no one will argue against the principle of giving honor where honor is due.  In fact, I’m assuming everyone wants to do that while guarding against celebrity-induced adulation.  But what happens when we confuse “celebrity” with “honor”?

I think there are three harmful results, which is why I’m trying to think through this issue and offer a minority report on the subject.

First, we undermine work and godly ambition.  Honor and notoriety rest on the shoulders of genuine accomplishment and hard work.  Notoriety and honor are biblical rewards for faithfulness.  When we erroneously attribute a person’s status to “celebrity” rather than “honor,” we rhetorically erase or disregard years of Christ-honoring labor.  Moreover, we dis-incentivize hard work and labor in others by punishing rather than rewarding faithfulness.

Second, we undermine godly gratitude.  The Lord calls us to show honor to those who serve well.  We’re to do that with our own leaders in our local congregations (1 Tim. 5:17), but we’re also to show honor to those from other churches that minister to us in some way (2 Cor. 8:18; Phil. 2:22, 29-30).  By pejoratively branding faithful leaders as “rock stars” and “celebrities” we effectively distance people from them.  We mischaracterize honor-worthy examples and teach people to sneer when they should cheer God’s work through others.  Rather than gratitude we stimulate inappropriate criticism.

Third, we rob ourselves of examples to follow.  The Scripture is replete with exhortations to follow the examples of others.  Most of these passages appeal to congregations to follow the examples of their leaders (Heb. 13:7, for example).  But sometimes, entire churches are challenged to follow the examples of other churches and leaders (2 Cor. 8, for example).  Let’s face it: We need examples.  We primarily and mostly need local examples to follow.  But we also need “heroes” as Kevin DeYoung recently pointed out.  When we tag faithful men with pejorative titles we rob ourselves of the potentially heroic examples we sometimes need.

There are dangers to celebrity.  But there are also significant dangers to hating our heroes and failing to honor the faithful.

Lord willing, in a future post, we’ll give some attention to how this theory of celebrity-making might point the way forward in correcting some things.  We need to ask ourselves some questions like:

  • What narrative allows a local church pastor to move to notoriety and honor and then possibly to “celebrity”?
  • In what ways are “larger-than-life” attributes developed in the stories we tell or participate in, and how do they contribute to celebritization?
  • What media and marketing practices promote this move to “celebrity”?
  • How might the audience distinguish between honor due and undue attachment?

But for now, I’d be interested in your thoughts on the framework or theory and the danger of labeling people we should honor “celebrities” or “rock stars.”