While I was reading a story about Mark Driscoll’s congregation moving into a downtown-Seattle church, a former United Methodist property, I remembered an poignant segment from one of Terry Gross’ interviews with David Rakoff. For one period in his life, Rakoff was a small-time actor and he told Gross about an essay where he described his playing a small part on one of the soap operas produced in New York City. Rakoff self-deprecatingly explained that he was generally chosen to play one of two rolls, either Jewy McHebrew (the stereotypical Jew) or Fudgy McPacker (the stereotypical homosexual). Rakoff was struck by the sense of embarrassed celebrity that characterized many of the actors and actresses. These people were known by millions of Americans who regularly watched the afternoon melodramas. But these stars also understood that no one else, like Rakoff, knew who they were. The way he discussed it, these stars possessed a form of humility that was disproportionate to their real celebrity.
I wish that those who write about the exploits of evangelical celebrities would do so in a way that recognized these preachers’ limited appeal. I was in Seattle for a conference about six years ago and had just begun to follow Driscoll’s exploits. So for the weekend I decided to ask all the natives I met — mainly hotel staff and sales clerks — if they knew who Mark Driscoll was. No one knew him, at least among those to whom I talked. But if I had walked into a Redeemer-like Presbyterian church on the other side of the continent, I bet that at least 25% of the worshipers would have known Driscoll’s name.
Granted, Driscoll has been on The View! And Al Mohler has been on Larry King. And Tim Keller has been featured in New York Magazine. But if I asked my former neighbors in Philadelphia or my current ones in Hillsdale if they recognized these names, I’m sure they’d shrug and wonder why I don’t have a thicker, greener front lawn. This suggests that when evangelical celebrities appear on national broadcasts or in widely circulated publications, the effect is not to increase name recognition among Americans but to increase star status within a small demographic. It also suggests that people who feel marginalized cherish feeling vindicated by the national media. But such vindication doesn’t lead to real celebrity. The only evangelical who still fills that bill is Billy Graham himself. Though Graham’s real star power began in a similar way — evangelicals rooted for him and swooned when the media featured the evangelist. But then Graham and his organization cast a real national presence through their own media productions. It didn’t hurt that Graham appeared to hang out with various presidents though it is more likely that Nixon and company were using Graham for electoral purposes than that they were listing to him.
The punchline, if there is one, may be that celebrity is a two-pronged problem. You have to wonder about the pastors who allow their images to be cultivated in a certain way. But you also have to wonder about a group of believers who become giddy over seemingly famous pastors. Pathetic might be too strong. But unhealthy certainly applies.
Protestants are not supposed to venerate saints or stars. Built-in to the Reformed faith is a spiritual egalitarianism that says all are equal as sinners. Consequently, boasting, if it happens, should be in Christ. Some converts to Rome see evangelical veneration of saints and think it’s a small step to Rome’s regard for Mary and others. Rome’s veneration surely has more dignity than Protestantism’s crass commercialism (though both cultivate the same problem of reducing Jesus’ genuine notoriety). But the solution is not to dress up sentimental attachments to mere human beings with ritual and pomp. It is to gather each Sunday with the saints and worship God’s only begotten son who offered the only sacrifice for the sins of celebrities and fans.