Defining Celebrity Down

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.

22 thoughts on “Defining Celebrity Down

  1. Not all fame is celebrity. Sometimes people are famous for actually doing things.

    For this reason I would not want to equate Mark Driscoll with Al Mohler. Driscoll’s public appearances seem designed to promote Driscoll while Dr. Mohler’s public appearances seem designed to promote Jesus.


  2. If evangelical celebrities are no big deal woe to Reformed celebrities. They must have name recognition on par with that of renowned scholars of poetry among the general population (although Harold Bloom is probably better known than Machen).

    My wife’s cousin lives in Seattle. I asked him if he had heard of Driscoll and he had not.


  3. The University of Idaho students I’ve spoken to hadn’t heard of Doug Wilson, either.

    On the other hand, DG Hart has an Amazon review from Anne Rice. That’s sort of like a Mencken obit.


  4. D.G. – Since we’re discussing celebrities and this site is all about you can I ask you a few interview questions?

    (1) Where did you grow up?
    (2) Where did you go to high school?
    (3) What did your parents do for a living?
    (4) Where did you go as an undergraduate?
    (5) Did you grow up in the OPC?
    (6) Do you know John Stackhouse? He was my advisor when I was a freshman in college at Northwestern in Orange City. He left after that year to go to Regent.


  5. I will say from the Driscoll sermons that I’ve heard that he does get the gospel right. He has no sympathy for the regulative principle, however. I’m not sure how they do baptism in his church or which creeds & confessions they subscribe to (if any).


  6. Erik, at the risk of turning this into Facebook, I’ll have a go at me:
    1) I grew up in the armpit of Bucks County (PA), Levittown. I’d like to have more loyalty but it was no real place.
    2) It used to be called Woodrow Wilson High. They switched to the atom bomb dropper when the township’s two high schools merged.
    3) My dad was in sales for a electrical supply company, but he would have preferred to be church choir director. My mother did odd jobs including substitute teaching.
    4) My freshman year I went to Messiah and then transferred to Temple.
    5) I grew up in a dispy, fundy, Baptist congregation with heavy ties to PCB and Dallas Seminary. (My folks were Bob Jones grads, but they were married so they didn’t have to observe all the rules.)
    6) John Stackhouse was my host when I interviewed for a job at Northwestern. I also knew him through the Institute for the Study of Evangelicals which I directed for several years at Wheaton College.

    All of this all about me does not make for good sabbath preparation.


  7. D.G. – So in other words you had the classic upgringing for a historian of Reformed churches, ha, ha! I can’t believe NWC did not hire you. If Stackhouse had stayed and they had hired you who knows where I would be today. After he left I switched out of being a history major and eventually ended up as a CPA. Very weird. That would have been an incredible small-college history department if the two of you had stayed there. Basically it was a two-man department at that time.


  8. Another weird coincidence in the Facebook motif. The first guy I met at Northwestern was a Christian guy from Glidden, Iowa named Joel Bundt. He has a sister named Julie who became Julie Sulc. She worked with your wife in Phildelphia and recently moved to Ames, Iowa where I work. She had a garage sale this summer and I talked to her in her driveway about how she has been to your house. She said you have a lot of books, which I of course believed.


  9. Mark Driscoll’s book Death by Love teaches the common false gospel.. Driscoll has no idea of an atonement in which the application of the atonement is secured by the atonement. He undermines the justice of God by asserting again and again that Jesus Christ died for all sinners and even paid for all their sins.

    Of course the legal application of Christ’s death does not happen until the time of hearing and believing of the gospel. But Driscoll teaches that many for whom Jesus died will perish. Contrary to Romans 8:32, Driscoll denies that God will freely give all things along with Jesus to all those for whom He gave His Son.

    Driscoll’s message is ultimately not good news about what God has done, but only a message about what God will do if you do something. On p 193, Driscoll writes, “it all comes down to you and Jesus”. But in fact his message comes down to only you, the sinner. Jesus according to Driscoll has paid the ransom price for every sinner, so it most certainly does not come down to Jesus or what Jesus did already. Driscoll makes the whole thing depend on the sinner. If you respond to his idol, his idol will do something for you. Even though Driscoll writes about “efficacious” love (p240), he conditions success on “if you turn”.

    His “limited unlimited atonement” is not a straightforward Arminianism. Driscoll does not say stupid stuff like—“Jesus will die for you if you ask him to”. But it’s not that much more subtle. Driscoll embraces the lie that tells people Jesus died for all sinners.. How can the cross of Christ be the difference between saved and lost when you have a cross which supposedly says that God loves every sinner? Driscoll teaches that God hates many sinners in the end, but he never explains how unrequited love turns into hate.


  10. Mark – “He undermines the justice of God by asserting again and again that Jesus Christ died for all sinners and even paid for all their sins.”

    I didn’t realize that. Isn’t he considered one of the “Young, Restless, Reformed Types”? (I have that book but haven’t read it). It’s hard to be Reformed without affirming the “U” and “L” in TULIP.


  11. Didn’t you know you don’t have to believe or teach definite atonement to be Reformed? It was even the case among those who signed the Westminster Confession. So it’s not just a problem with the baptist revivalist types. Even many who have subscribed to the Confessions never ever talk about particular atonement. Rich Mouw is not the only one who has that doctrine as only his “shelf doctrine”, to show that he’s a kosher Reformed guy when he dialogues with conservative Mormons. Why talk about election, when you can talk instead about “the covenant” which supposedly includes the non-elect?

    Of course, Christ died for His people, but being Reformed means explaining how His people are not the elect alone. So let’s talk less about sins imputed to Christ, and more about you getting off your couch and keeping yourselves in “the” covenant.


  12. Mark – Can one get the gospel right without getting all of Reformed theology right? Are some Baptist, Pentecostal, and various other evangelical ministers preaching the gospel even though they are misinformed about other important doctrines? Where do we draw the line on what is the gospel and what is important but is not the gospel, per se? Machen found some common cause with fundamentalists that he probably had many disagreements with. He drew the line with theological liberals because they were teaching a fundamentally different gospel, no?

    On the subject of Machen: My wife chided me today because I was sharing some family business with someone at church. She said, “Next time you’re tempted to talk about that just talk about ‘Machem’ instead.” Machem with an m, ha, ha! I need to get her up to speed.


  13. Dr. Hart:

    Drop a pound of Nitrogen per 1000 sq. feet on your lawn about mid-September and then again about the 1st of Nov. and they won’t be wondering why your yard isn’t thicker and greener!


  14. D.G. – You were probably considered too conservative – theologically & especially politically to get hired at NWC. I was 2nd in my graduating class GPA wise but did not get elected to the senior honor society (top 10 seniors) and I have always thought it was because I was an outspoken political conservative. I went into college somewhat apolitical (albeit a Republican) but listened to Rush Limbaugh and read the Conservative Chronicle during my four years there. I would drive some of the faculty nuts arguing with their left-wing views. Ah, the glory days…


  15. The two men who did get hired after Stackhouse left — Douglas Anderson & Doug Carlson were good guys but definitely not conservatives. Anderson’s specialty was Christianity in the West (The U.S. West) and I don’t know what Carlson’s was. I think Anderson has an artcle in the History of Reformed & Presbyterians in the U.S. that you edited.


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