A Conversation About the Evangelical Hollywood

Posted: May 3, 2011 in blogs, christianity, church, conferences, culture, ecclesiology, evangelicalism, secularism

On April 19, Carl Trueman posted an article entitled “What Hath Jerusalem To Do With Hollywood?” in which he shared a letter he received from a group of Brits who recently attended “a large American evangelical/reformed bash” (aka a big conference).  This letter, and Trueman’s comments, sparked an interesting discussion regarding the celebrity culture of American Evangelicalism.  I found the conversation helpful in working through some of my own thoughts on this issue.

Here’s an outline:

“What Hath Jerusalem To Do With Hollywood?” – Carl Trueman

“We got really good seats for the morning session, about ten rows from the front.  We were there all morning and when lunch time came we left our bags on the seats to have them reserved for the afternoon (which is what everyone does), but when we came back and took our seats for the afternoon, stewards came and told us to leave these seats.  They put up “VIP RESERVED” signs around the seats and – despite the fact we’d got there early in the morning to have decent seats – told us to leave as “these seats are reserved for the VIPs from now on”, so we had to get up and go and sit at the back and watch the rest of it on a big screen… The more I think about [conference name], the more I’m convinced it furthers (rather than counters) American idolatrous celebrity culture.  Telling a bunch of nobodies from Europe that they had to leave their seats as the “VIPs” had to sit neathe front – it’s perfectly consistent with the whole package of celebrity worth and worship.”

“Thoughts on Marketing and Conferences” – Carl Trueman

The key problem for conferences in the USA is that of 1 Corinthians, i.e., superapostles.  American culture is obsessed with celebrity and we need to be aware that the American church is thus likely to be very susceptible to this…

First, market conferences on the basis of content not speakers…
Second, why always bring in the unrepresentative guys from the huge churches?  Instead, bring in at least 50% of your speakers from churches of, say, 300 people or less…
Third, do everything you can to make the speakers just people in the crowd.  No special seats for them, no special dining arrangements…

“Really Trueman?  Only in America?” – Thabiti Anyabwile

I’m with you in spirit–and to some degree strategy, as well–but I have a suspicion that laying this flatly at the doorstep of American evangelicals might suffer a bit from speck and log syndrome.  Or perhaps the grass always looks greener “back home.” I don’t know, but it seems a fairer appraisal warrants either condemnation of “hero worship” wherever it exists and/or more charitable judgment of American evangelicals.  For all our warts, I’ve yet to meet the person worshiping a conference speaker.  Respecting, appreciating, even being a fan ought not be confused with idolatry.  Surely we can esteem others–even esteem them highly–without being tagged and blasted with “hero worship”?

“Not Guilty!” – Carl Trueman

To point out that Britain too has its problems, that the English too have their celebrities (Paul Helm would no doubt cite the “Doctor” as the great example) or that claims to being untrendy can become the new trendy, are helpful to a point and should provoke self-critical reflection; but they do rather leave us in the situation where no-one can offer criticism because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  Further, I also made it clear in several posts that America was peculiarly prone to celebrification, not that it was uniquely prone to the same.   I am ‘Not guilty!’ as charged in Thabiti’s post…

I am much less sanguine than Thabiti that the party spirit, based on big personalities, is not alive and well in Reformed evangelical circles.  Maybe I am wrong; but it is at least worth asking the question…

It is strange – but when I travel to other churches, nobody ever tells me about the unknown guy they heard in the anonymous pulpit in Nowhereville while they were on vacation; though I have forgotten the number of times certain conference speakers have been praised in such contexts.

“The Lady Doth Protest Too Much” – Carl Trueman

The amount and the strength of the pushback on my last few posts leads me to conclude that either (a) I am completely wrong on the matter of conferences (and being completely wrong is not without — ahem — precedent in my bio) or (b) I am absolutely right on target (that would be unprecedented, thus unlikely but not impossible). The strength of feeling seems to exclude any moderate middle on this issue.

“I read Thabiti Anyabwile’s reply to you on Ref21.  I imagine that if the British church was as big as its American cousin, we would also produce more of our own idols – but I think that the cultures are nonetheless distinct and so the idols are also different.  We’re also celebrity obsessed but the American variety is on a different level.  I struggle to think of many real ‘celebrity’ preachers in the UK.”

“Uncle… Uncle!” – Thabiti Anyabwile

We can fall off either.  We can be guilty of a kind of hero worship, a kind of teenage adulation of some “American idol” preacher.  That’s possible, and no doubt real–though I suspect it’s far less often the case than Bro. Trueman’s posts suggest.  But there is also “hero hatred,” a kind of depreciation of faithful men because of the status or notoriety the Lord has given them.  We ought to be careful that we give respect where it’s due…

Also (fourth point), perhaps it would be charitable for us to make distinctions between “celebrity culture” (a tendency in the culture to idolize) and “celebrity pursuit” (an individual’s effort to draw attention to himself).  Again, in defense of many of our brethren, I would be hard pressed to name anyone–at least in my circles–basing their life and ministry on “aesthetics carefully cultivated and public self-disclosure of personal details with the goal that the public then celebrates this person in public arena…”

Finally (6th point), anyone interested to join me in writing a festschrift in honor of Carl Trueman?

“Truly Honoured” – Carl Trueman

Still, the discussion has become sidetracked onto issues of national superiority.  For the sake of argument, let me concede that there is no difference between the US and the UK on the culture of celebrity; and let me also concede that I am, through my job here and my personal inconsistencies, as much part of the problem as anyone (though I do wish that celeb status was reflected in my publishing royalties).  We still have a problem.  Just making it international, not a US monopoly, doesn’t lessen it.  What are we to do about it?

“A Solution I Had Not Considered” – Thabiti Anyabwile

Perhaps, Carl, this will work as a solution to all this celebrity pastor business.  Here’s a comment from a reader at the blog:

“All this talk about British versus American. Take the perfect compromise – become Canadian…”
“Fascinating Week” – Carl Trueman

But the single most fascinating and instructive revelation of the week was:

3. With one exception, nobody actually wrote to say, ‘You know, we are sad that your friend who had paid all that money and come all that way was made to feel small.  It was accidental and unintended, but we take responsibility so please pass on our apologies.’

Still, I found that encouraging: after all, love means never having to say you’re sorry, doesn’t it?

“An interesting email” – Carl Trueman

Pastoral care, you might say, is my greatest concern for the church.  Preaching, sacraments, prayer, worship – all critical components to it – but actually spending time with your people (as elders), knowing them, ministering the Word of God in encouragement and rebuke without a row… well… this is a lost art and, apparently, one that few people see any need for anymore…”

1.    With the rise of the conservative evangelical celebrity megapastor, are we creating a situation where the expectation of the rising generation will be that they will never know their pastor personally at any level at all?
2.    Do we really want men who represent the kind of ministry described being held up as role models?
3.    Frankly, who wants a ministry where you do not get to know people anyway?  Is that not a major part of what ministry is meant to be?
4.    Should conference speaking not be the thing that one does only when one is absolutely confident that the pastoral duties at one’s own church are fully covered?

  1. Matt Gerrelts says:

    The irony is that only celebrities are appearing in this blog post…but anyway….

    There is, of course, more to evangelical celebrities than simple infatuation with entertainment. Pastors/leaders become popular because large groups of people have picked them out as someone who has something valuable to contribute to personal growth, or else because that person has learned to scream loud enough to be heard.

    I think one factor in our tendencies to glorify certain pastors is how easy it makes spiritual discernment and how it allows us to stop thinking, instead deferring questions to the authority of others who have said things well and impacted others. Going to these conferences can be a way of simply affirming yourself as part of the “right” group and associating with “holy” people. I have always wondered how many DG conference attenders are there just for the big names and how such motivations impact the truth of the “spiritual” experience and edification. Are we all just faking it and telling ourselves that we’re actually there for God?

  2. Matt Tully says:

    Feel free to write on this issue (an issue I have been wrestling with a lot lately) and I’ll post it as well! My reason for sharing these posts was simply that I found them interesting and helpful in my own thinking.

    I absolutely agree that the celebrity culture is due to more than simple “infatuation with entertainment,” especially when talking about the Reformed conference circuit (which generally produces, in my opinion, pretty solid content). However, as Trueman pointed out, I think that the focus for many quickly moves away from the content and toward the personality. Personally, I sometimes question the influence that the identity of the speaker (or writer) has on my perception of the value/worth of their content. I think you’re right on with what you said about how easy it is to become lazy in the hard task of spiritual discernment.

    And you’re right that there is a temptation to enjoy being in the “right crowd”, without any real appreciation or value placed on the significance of the content of that crowd.

    So what’s the answer to this dangerous problem/tendency?

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