Book Review: Celebrities for Jesus

I was sent a pre-publication copy of this book to review – having not seen the final text, my review may have some redundancy.

Celebrities for Jesus

It’s worth noting at the outset of this review that the author, Katelyn Beaty, is a Christian working in publishing. Apart from that, I don’t know her, though I’ve followed her on Twitter long enough to blag a review copy of this book.

This is a book that every Christian leader – and especially younger leaders, or folk aspiring to be leaders – needs to read, or at least be aware of. This is a book about a lot of things – to the subtitle’s ‘personas, platforms and profits’ I would add (At least) power, publishing (in terms of the way the megaphone of social media and the internet has ‘democratized’ things, for good or ill), presence and pain, just staying on the p’s. It is fundamentally a book about people, culture, and the way that uncritically baptising things is not good for the life of the church. In a nutshell, the problem Beaty is engaging with is quite simple (my emphasis in bold):

It’s our modern conflation of identity and gifting with a personal brand, and the endless quest for platform, that has compromised the original mission of Christian book publishing, and many authors besides. Discipleship is outsourced to gurus. Authentic relationship is mediated through ‘relatable’ and vulnerable storytelling. And spiritual maturity is measured by the number of followers and books sold rather than by everyday integrity beyond the spotlight“.

Whilst this isn’t primarily a book about publishing, it is in part, and it’s the author’s industry and expertise. The problem is rather what happens when we slap the label ‘Christian’ on the celebrity world, or try and celebritise Christian leaders. Struggling to understand what I mean? Beaty, again, with help from a fictional friend: “The moment we try to ‘manage’ celebrity’, we’ve become like Bilbo Baggins. If we think we can slip on the ring from time to time, using it only when necessary or when it serves a greater good, we miss how it is changing us into someone, or something, else that is terrifying and inhuman“. And here lies the crux of the problem – the whole ‘industry’ of ‘Christian celebrity’ is fundamentally dehumanising – for both the person on the pedestal, and the plebs in the pit. Beaty again: “There is no program for addressing the problem of celebrity. There is only a Person. And he, thankfully, knew exactly what it was like to wrestle with the temptation of worldly power“. She goes on to contrast Simon the Magus with Jesus of Nazareth – one remains famous, the former is just a bit part in the greatest drama. The challenge is laid down to recognise our place – “We don’t build or usher in the kingdom of God. We merely attest to its reality in our lives. If only we would get out of the way“.

This is a book by an evangelical – though, as she notes, that’s complicated – that I hope and pray evangelical leaders and readers will read. It’s short, punchy, and doesn’t shy away from some of the details of recent scandals – but beautifully resolves and illuminates them in the story of Jesus and the cross. “Celebrity is a distinctly modern phenomenon fueled by mass media” – and that means it’s something we can think about as Christians, and bring the ancient story of Jesus to the table. As I said at the outset of this short review – and there were some tangents I’d have loved to go down, like how Beaty carefully shares parts of the evangelical history with/of celebrities/celebrity – this is a book that every leader and reader should read. I’d add to that another two groups – anyone worried about power and abuse in the church, and anyone interested in Christian books and publishing. I’m glad this book exists, as it covers some important themes and draws them together wisely and well. There’s more to be said, but this is a great short introduction to some very big topics.

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