Read the history of American celebrities backwards, and it will look something like this: Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Bono, Oprah, Prince, Cher, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beatles, Mickey Mantle, and so on. And if you keep stepping back in history like this, you will eventually bump into America’s first celebrity — George Whitefield, who soon celebrates his 300th birthday.
The then-famous British preacher traveled to the colonies and single-handedly invented what we now call “the American celebrity culture.” Along the way, writes one biographer, Whitefield also invented “the celebrity preacher,” and what we now call “Christian media.”
Ever since Whitefield, the church has wrestled with what to do with her own celebrities. Should we embrace them as gifts from God, or reject them as products of the world? The question has been on the minds of Christians in the United States since before there were United States.
To explore how the church has tried to answer these questions, I recently spoke with the authors of my two favorite Christian biographies of 2014:
- Thomas Kidd, author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale)
- Karen Swallow Prior, author of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist (Thomas Nelson)
These skilled biographers offer us several lessons we can learn from the lives of a celebrity preacher (George Whitefield, 1714–1770) and a celebrity writer (Hannah More, 1745–1833), helping guide us in thinking through how to properly respond to our Christian celebrities today.
Here are 15 notable takeaways.
1. Expect celebrities.
With almost 200 references to crowds in the Gospels, Whitefield was not the first Christian celebrity. Jesus was the first celebrity preacher in a line extending to Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon and Billy Graham. “If Whitefield lived in a media-driven culture, my heavens, we live an amazingly media-driven world. At some level, I don’t know how we can do without Christian celebrities. So long as our culture values communication, we can expect to have them” (Kidd).
2. Don’t interpret stardom with artificiality.
“We associate celebrity with insincerity a lot of the time” (Kidd). But we shouldn’t assume this, and the gospel-preaching Whitefield is a case in point. If there are celebrity Christians who are later shown to be power-hungry or money-loving fools, that should not cast doubt on the genuineness of all Christian celebrities.
3. Expect to find faults in our stars.
Except for Jesus, all of our stars have faults. For all the things he did right, Whitefield was pro-slavery. On the other hand, Hannah More fought for abolition. But of course she had her own flaws. The point is to see there are flaws in every one of our celebrities and none of them are above accountability. So we refrain from boasting in anyone aside from Jesus himself (1 Corinthians 3:21).
4. Support local churches that can protect celebrity Christians with moral accountability.
It doesn’t always work perfectly, but there’s no reason why a Christian celebrity should exist without accountability to a plurality of elders and congregation in a local church. The New Testament pattern for the local church is sufficiently capable of caring for celebrity Christians. The key is commitment and intentionality. “Celebrity preachers and artists would do well to build in real accountability structures for themselves within their church — and are they actually connected to a church to begin with? Some Christian celebrities today, if you scratch under the surface, are actually not involved with church. That is a serious warning sign” (Kidd).
5. Appreciate how fame is stewarded for gospel advance.
A lot of fame is pure idolatry and man-worship. But fame can be put to good use. Whitefield is a prime example of a gospel preacher who had no qualms about leveraging his notoriety to broadcast the gospel. People threw farming tools aside in their field and ran to hear him preach when rumors of his presence reached them. God gifts a few such preachers with this kind of drawing power to convene a crowd around the gospel.
6. Appreciate how fame is stewarded to liberate the oppressed.
Hannah More used her fame to oppose the British slave trade and to advocate for the education of women. Celebrity Christians have influence far beyond typical Christians, and we should celebrate when that influence is used to speak up for the oppressed and devalued in society.
7. Expect our celebrities to master media and innovate it.
Whitefield strategically sought out the best media man in Philadelphia, and that led him to the doorstep of Benjamin Franklin. Their collaboration sparked a 30-year friendship and a fruitful publishing partnership. Franklin was no Christian, but he helped spread the message of Whitefield across the colonies. With the gospel at stake, Christian celebrities often spearhead new media. Those who rise to celebrity are often the ones who have been willing to think outside the box, buck convention, and do whatever it takes to bring Christian teaching to more and more people.
8. Celebrate the message more than the platform.
Christian fame for the sake of fame is vain, pure and simple. “There is a temptation to celebrate people whose message is effectively vacuous, either as a pastor or an artist or an entertainer, but because they are Christian” (Kidd). Christian celebrities have a great opportunity to speak truth about God and the world. Listen for the message and celebrate the message.
9. Don’t idolize celebrities.
We are people wired to worship — and we love to worship people. Go to a concert, and you’ll see this worship on display, the kind of worship that accounts for a lot of the buzz in our media culture. “In our celebrity culture, a culture Whitefield helped to invent, for better or worse, we will have Christian musicians, actors, artists. And there is a temptation among fans to elevate and idolize them” (Kidd). This natural impulse in the worshiping heart, in every heart, needs to be addressed in the fan and in the celebrity themselves.
10. Don’t rejoice when celebrities fail.
“We evangelicals love to build people up and then tear them down. And that’s how celebrity culture works. So much of what you see on Twitter is people being built up and then later torn down. And that is an awful cycle. Christians, I think, should be cautious about building people up, especially in any kind of idolatrous way. But we should also be careful about rejoicing when people fall” (Kidd).
11. Allow Christian artists room to make great art.
Of course our celebrity preachers are expected to proclaim the gospel with clarity. And some celebrity artists will use their platform for a similar purpose. But not every artist must produce religious art. In the case of Hannah More, she “had studied languages and knew the classical forms so she was writing from the beginning what we would call polite literature, literature for high and learned society. By the time she experienced conversion she decided to seclude herself from fashionable society and turned to writing didactic works, tracts, and treatises that most of us would not read today” (Swallow Prior).
In other words, More turned away from writing literature, and perhaps unnecessarily. Did she assume her conversion required her to turn away from her literary art? This is a question every Christian artist must weigh. As Francis Schaeffer said of painters who felt the pressure to paint Bible scenes, “Some Christian artists will never use religious themes. This is a freedom the artist has in Christ under the leadership of the Holy Spirit” (Works, 2:412). Give artists room to make this decision.
12. Embrace your obscurity.
Most likely you’re not famous. That’s okay, especially when you discover the dark side of the celebrity life. If God has called you to be less than famous, embrace it, and be thankful. Recognize the value of your family and closest friends and local church and disavow yourself the affection of strangers and unseen masses. The reality is that “you may be famous in your church, but you’re probably not going to be a media celebrity” (Kidd). That’s straight talk. We can use our platforms well, but if it’s raw fame we’re seeking, we will eventually just look like self-centered jerks.
13. Acknowledge fame is a pathetic god.
Part of embracing our obscurity is realizing the aim to become famous is a pitifully pathetic god. Fame will never satisfy your heart. It may give you a buzz for a while, but those who try to feed on the buzz of fame are in for the harsh reality that fame only feeds unquenchable desires for more fame, eventually filling the heart with dread and anxiety of the coming day when the fame has passed. This can be our prayer for our Christian celebrities: that they would see past the fame and root their eternal delight in Christ.
14. Anticipate your own fame.
Not one of God’s children will fall short of cosmic fame. This is part of what it means to be glorified. If you are in Christ, you are an heir of the crown of life that will never fade, and all the riches of God are thrown in for good measure (Romans 8:17; Ephesians 1:18; Colossians 1:27; 1 Peter 5:4).
You will reign over the earth with Christ, as a kingdom of priests to our God (2 Timothy 2:12; Hebrews 2:8; Revelation 1:5–6; 5:10).
What impresses me about More is how she embraced the hope of future glory (what she called “honest fame”). Once you get this, it changes your entire worldview, and makes worldly fame now look as paltry as it really is. At a time when women were especially overlooked and ignored, More encouraged them to clear their eyes to see past the vain allurement of fame in this life. She wrote,
For Christian women to look up with a giddy head and a throbbing heart, to honors and remunerations, so little suited to the wants and capacities of an immortal spirit, would be no less ridiculous than if Christian heroes should look back with an envy on the old pagan reward of ovations, oak garlands, parsley crowns, and laurel wreaths. The Christian hope more than reconciles Christian women to these petty privations, by substituting a nobler prize for their ambition, “the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
In the midst of her own renown, More helped believers anticipate a greater future fame. She understood that the gospel makes celebrities out of every woman, man, and child in Christ. But of course, this is a superior fame (and a shrouded fame) to whatever the paparazzi are trying to capture with rapid-fire shutters. This is a fame to be revealed later and all grounded in Christ, our ultimate Celebrity.
If our nobility will be projected for all eternity, the real core issue here is our sinful desire to preempt our true glory by reaching for pitiful pagan remunerations now.
15. Embrace Christian celebrities.
Rejecting Christian celebrities on the basis of their fame is foolish. Paul tells us to do the opposite, and to see faithful Christian celebrities, not as idols, but as divine gifts. “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future — all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s” (1 Corinthians 3:21–23).
“No rock band has heard, and no all-star athlete has seen, and no elite actor has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
In other words, celebrities like Whitefield and More are part of God’s cascading eternal gifts. In the end, if you can anticipate a day when you will inherit the earth, then you have begun to discover the freedom you need to humbly and joyfully embrace every celebrity God has given the church — celebrity teachers, preachers, artists — as gifts. Such wide-hearted gratitude is the antitoxin for the poison of elitism.
Every celebrity Christian who is utterly devoted to the gospel and the Scriptures, is a foretaste for us nobodies of a day (probably an awkward day!) when we will possess all things and take our place to reign over the earth, a day when this paltry thing we now call a celebrity culture will be put in the shadows by a superior God-glorifying magnificence.
And then we will finally understand what it means that no rock band has heard, and no all-star athlete has seen, and no elite actor has imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.
These are a few highlights from my stimulating conversation with Thomas Kidd and Karen Swallow Prior about their new biographies on George Whitefield and Hannah More. To listen to our entire conversation, subscribe to the Authors on the Line podcast in iTunes, download the recording (MP3), or stream the audio here: