Our churches have become carbon copies of one another. You can attend almost any church from any denomination and you will have a similar experience, from the look to the music to the structure of the services. The various denominations are beginning to blend back together. Protestants, who broke away from Catholic heresies are melding into an amorphous blob of Contemporary Christian music (like Hillsong, Bethel, Elevation, Maverick City Music, etc.), charismatic preachers, coffee shops, rejection of the King James Bible, and more emphasis on culture than the Creator.
Not all churches have fallen into apostasy in the same ways or to the same degree; However, most American churches who once rejected false teachings are now engaged in their own heresies.
This is a paper that I wrote for one of my graduate classes, “Celebrity Culture,” back around 2017. Because I took every opportunity to write about Christianity during my university tenure, this is how I applied Christianity to the celebrity obsessed culture in which we live.
I do believe this paper I wrote half a decade ago is still relevant today. I hope you enjoy!
Christianity is the longest held and most widely followed religion in the United States of America (Aarnio and Lindeman 2005; Hadden 1987; Mencken, Bader, and Kim 2009). Religion has been of major sociological interest since before Durkheim penned The Elementary forms of Religious Life (1915). Marx wrote of religion being the opiate of the people back in 1848, and almost every major social theorist of the 19th and 20th century addressed the topic at one point or another. Conversely, celebrity culture is a relatively new form of inquiry. The literature on celebrity culture is light, and only a minute fraction is dedicated to the Christian celebrity. Therefore, I believe it is of significant sociological relevance to study the relationship between Christianity and celebrity culture in America.
For this paper, I am using participant observation from my own experiences in both the entertainment and Christian celebrity industries. From 2001 until 2008, I played drums in a touring rock band and met with numerous industry representatives. I spent time speaking with over a dozen managers, lawyers, publicists, agents, and record label executives.
I am also a Christian and have spent all 39 years of my life in churches of various sizes, denominations, and traditions. I was raised in an independent Baptist “mega-church” that averaged over 5,000 members in attendance every week. I have also attended Episcopalian and non-denominational services. I am considered a leader in my current independent Baptist church that has grown from about 400-900 members in the six years I have attended, and am privy to a lot of behind the scenes negotiations.
CHRISTIANITY IN AMERICAN CULTURE
Christianity began as a small religious movement in Israel that initially appealed to those in a higher social class, as most new religions do (Stark 1996), and grew exponentially once the lower class latched on to its principles of the meek inheriting the Earth (Matthew 5:5, KJV). This trend continues in contemporary America as the typical followers of Christianity are racial minorities, women, less educated, and have lower household incomes (Aarnio and Linderman 2005; Bader, Mencken, and Baker 2010; Rice 2003).
America was founded by men and women who were deeply rooted in Christianity. Having fled religious persecution in England, our predecessors constructed a government with the intent of protecting religious liberty. Not all Founding Fathers were believers, but they were all influenced by Christian theology (Hutson 2005).
The most powerful position in the United States government is President. According to Masci (2017), every U.S. President but Jefferson and Lincoln have had a specific church affiliation. Lincoln still spoke about the Christian God with reverence and awe and was most likely a believer. Jefferson was more in line with the other deists of the day, but clearly wrote of God’s existence in his later writings.
When Durkheim (1915) wrote of collective effervescence, he was referring to the positive feeling experienced simultaneously by a group who are participating in the same activity at the same time in the same place. In a religious environment, a moment of prayer or during an emotional point in a sermon can also bring about this feeling of solidarity and effervescence. For Durkheim, this is the congregation’s worship of the group dynamic. For Christians, however, this is the manifestation of the Spirit of God that fulfills the promise of Matthew 18:20 (KJV), “For where two or more of you are gathered in my [Christ’s] name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Collective effervescence is not limited to a religious setting. When the home team hits the game winning three pointer or a band plays their biggest hit, the arena lights up with screaming fans who may live the rest of their lives reminiscing and reliving that event through their collective memories (Zerubavel 1996). The Bible and Durkheim agree that there is a force outside of human existence that affects us when we meet in a group and partake in the same rites and rituals (Durkheim 1915). There are communities dedicated to discussion and the ecstasy necessary for a fan group to experience what I would call “celebrity effervescence.”
A “fan-staged” encounter can lead to an exuberant feeling for a fan. In fact, the mere knowledge of a celebrity’s presence in the same building can be fulfilling (Ferris and Harris 2011). Groups of tourists will load onto a bus filled with strangers and tour Hollywood like big game hunters (Gamsen 1994), who are collectively excited when the bus eases past the home of a celebrity. The celebrity effervescence radiates throughout the group in their moment of solidarity. However, all that glitters is not gold.
THE CHRISTIAN INDUSTRY
The mass produced sterility of the culture industry (Adorno 1975) is alive and well in American culture as the entire entertainment industry digs into its semifictional (Gamsen 1994) artifice of celebrity, yet the spirit of capitalism is dead (Weber 1905). Gone are the days of the pull yourself up by the bootstraps Horatio Alger myth of the American Dream (Sternheimer 2015), as it has been replaced with the reality that the creative impulse of our species being (Marx 1844) has been alienated from those who would create.
During my time in the music industry, I saw many of these truths firsthand. At the NEMO Music Festival in Boston, I sat in on a panel with major record label executives who offered critiques of demos for musicians looking to break into the mainstream. Not one criticism that I heard that day had anything to do with the artists’ creative vision. Instead, I heard things like “where is the hook?” or “this song is too long,” meaning the songs lacked a catchy hook that would stick in your mind and the songs were longer than the three minutes that labels look for in a radio single. Labels were not looking for something original, but a replica of already successful art.
A similar trend is emerging in the American church. Our pulpits are filled with young, charismatic, good-looking pastors with one-size-fits all sermons of love and forgiveness, rather than the wrath of God messages of old. Christian colleges have become the factories for pumping out generic copies of standardized church leaders. Dozens of would-be pastors are taught to use 3 to 4 main ideas while employing alliteration as a mnemonic device so that the congregation can better remember the points of the message. The advent of the “sermon series,” a pre-packaged assembly line take on messages, is a trend that crosses denominational lines all over the United States. Some churches prepare these series up to a full year in advance.
Pastors can now go to conventions to share what does and does not work in their churches. This removes the supernatural aspect of divine inspiration and replaces it with man-made simulacra. Church auditoriums being to look the same, the music features the same instrumentation and sounds like the same industry approved radio standardization mentioned above, and the images used to promote various sermon series come from the same source material and looks the same as every other institution. As technology increases, so do the similarities between churches. Creativity and inspiration decreases, and the church suffers.
Gamson (1994) detailed the negotiation of celebrity and industry representatives. This negotiation for the trajectory of an artist’s career manifests regularly throughout celebrity culture. You must already be successful for a record label to take interest in your act. Executives want a band to have already developed a large regional following and sold a significant amount of self-produced albums with no label or distribution support.
Though not necessarily considered a celebrity, a pastor may be viewed as one by their congregations. The trajectory of a person called to ministry is also negotiated with those who would influence their careers. Historically speaking, a church member could be ordained by a leader and sent to pastor a church. This process began with the Holy Spirit using Saul (the Apostle Paul prior to his Christian conversion) and Barnabas (Acts 13). In the modern church, however, those who feel the calling (Weber 1905) head out to seminary, receive a formal education in how to pastor a church, then must go through a process of ordination. Essentially, the career of a pastor is determined by whether another pastor deems him worthy. The influence of the Holy Spirit and the calling has taken a backseat to industry representatives.
My church is looking for an opportunity to plant a church in San Francisco. While the specific location still has not been determined, the pastor has. However, his journey to lead a church has been complicated, to say the least. First, he graduated from a Christian college. He then came to our church as a pastoral intern. When his intentions to move into pastoral leadership were made clear, he went back to seminary for an additional two years. He has been working once again as an intern at my church for the last year.
The church is raising funds for his trip to San Francisco, but we cannot pay for this alone. Instead, he had to meet with a missionary board so he can have additional resources provided as a local missionary. Upon meeting with the board, it was determined that he was not yet ready to go. The board gave him a checklist of leadership goals to fulfill, gave him a year to accomplish the tasks and will meet with them again to determine the state of his readiness. Once this is done, he will head to northern California to serve an additional 12-15 months as a pastoral intern at a local San Franciscan church. His fate no longer rests on merely his passion, but at the whim of a group of people who hold his desire second to their own arbitrary criteria. The opportunity to grow a church from a group in the living room to a sizeable audience without jumping through hoops may be possible, but it is becoming less and less so.
With a charismatic leader (Weber 1919) and enough funding, a pastor may see church growth explode somewhat artificially. It seems that the best avenue to take in a capitalist country is to adopt marketing tools rather than focusing on Holy Spirit led decisions. This can be quite a successful approach, so long as success is defined by dollars and not doctrine. Because of this merging of celebrity and Christianity, the emergence of the Christian celebrity became inevitable.
CELEBRITY CULTURE AND CHRISTIANITY
“Celebrity culture is no substitute for religion (Rojek 2007),” but celebrity does offer a new method for religion to be performed. Religion, in turn, borrows tenets of celebrity to promote its own agenda. Typical celebrity worship declines as a person grows in their faith. However, there is still a significant amount of Christians who also maintain high levels of celebrity worship (Halpern 2007).
The power of celebrity can bring forth strong emotions from fans; including God-like worship. Religion and culture are similar in their possession of rites, rituals, myths, sacred objects and places, values, and beliefs. Religious groups preserve artifacts that are believed to hold sacred powers, while fans collect memorabilia from their favorite celebrity and ascribe extraordinary meaning to an object (Rojek 2007).
More evidence of celebrity transcendence is derived from the drive for a fan to seek comfort and inspiration from a celebrity in the same manner that Christians turn to Christ (Rojek 2007). Additional points of elevation of the star above the populace can be found in fan magazines and TV talk shows. The characters and the actors that plays them may become confused in the mind of a fan, giving the actor a magical quality that they might not otherwise possess.
The most successful “preachers” in America today have taken the celebrity model and applied it to the church. Take Joel Osteen, for example. His “prosperity theology” bears a striking resemblance to the Calvinist idea of wealth being a sign of God’s blessing, while ignoring the calls for constraint from the Pietists (Weber 1905).
Born from the merging of faith healing and upward economic mobility, prosperity theology emerged from the Pentecostal denominations through the ministry of Oral Roberts in 1947 (Coleman 2000). This shift from Protestant asceticism toward the celebration of wealth marked a change in mainline Christianity in the post-WWII era, but it mirrored the well-marketed extravagance of Hollywood that took off in the 1920s (Sternheimer 2015).
Fans of Lady Gaga must shell out between $70 and $410 to see this star perform fresh off of her Super Bowl performance in front of over a billion people worldwide at the T-Mobile Area in Las Vegas on August 11, 2017. When he spoke in Las Vegas this past January, Joel Osteen charged between $21 and $200 for seats at the same arena – imagine how different the Reformation would have been if Martin Luther was worth $40 million and still charged $200 to see him speak. Though it appears that Mr. Osteen does charge significantly less for his performance than one of the highest selling artists of all time, he is still charging money for preaching the same message as thousands of pastors across the United States give for free. Furthermore, Osteen, though away from his home church in Houston, TX, still asks his audiences who already shell out money to hear him speak for additional offerings. Not even Gaga would ask for more cash without handing you a t-shirt.
Television evangelism, or televangelism, is another tool that the church has taken from the entertainment business. Whereas the rise of television negatively impacted theater attendance (Sternheimer 2015), televangelism has given Christians an excuse to stay home and watch church from the comfort of their couches. Popular fixtures in this medium include faith healers like Benny Hinn and scandal ridden Jimmy Bakker.
Hinn, worth around $42 million, began his ministry in 1974 when he stood behind a pulpit and believed that a problematic stuttering disability was supernaturally healed (Hinn 2017). His televangelism ministry is seen in over 200 countries around the world, and is listed as one of the richest pastors in the world (Schmidt 2017). Pastor Hinn currently holds the record for the largest live audience in church history at 7.3 million people over three services in India (Hinn 2017).
It is equally powerful when a celebrity descends. Changes in body shape, physical ability, drug addiction, and mental illness can lead to a steep decline and even death from disease or suicide. However, celebrities who survive the descent can be redeemed over time, like the drug offending Robert Downey Jr. who has risen like an iron suited phoenix thanks to his Marvel character, Iron Man. The obsession with the moral or emotional journeys of the celebrity seem to serve as great distractions from the horrors of real life (Rojek 2007).
Jimmy Bakker was one of the most popular televangelists in the 1980s. His “Praise the Lord” ministry was bringing in about $1,000,000 per week. However, an alleged rape, additional sex scandals, and a conviction for fraud landed this religious celebrity in prison for five years, led to the divorce from his almost-as-famous wife, Tammy Bakker who died in 2007, and resulted in over $6,000,000 in debt (Harbour 2014). Jimmy Bakker, as of 2017, is actively trying to stage a comeback and return to the good graces of the Christian community.
Men like Joel Osteen, Benny Hinn, and disgraced mega-pastor Jimmy Bakker may be secularizing the mission of the church to fulfill the American Dream through the guise of religious devotion (Harris 1981). Religion used to be the remedy for the downtrodden, but as society moves increasingly away from God, a placebo must be offered in its place. Celebrity has taken that mantle.
Religious figures have their share of celebrity status. Jesus Christ is one of the most well-known, widely discussed figures in any society on Earth. His name spoken out of context is considered a profane swear word. No other religious figure can make that claim. The Catholic Pope is the singular head of one of the most powerful and religious organizations on Earth. Joel Osteen has become a household name, often with a negative connotation from both Christians and non-Christians alike. The Christian celebrity is not a new concept, but empirical research on the subject is.
The study of the relationship between religion and celebrity is so new that literature is difficult to find. This presented a most difficult limit to my research. With little literature, a full study of this relationship would require many hours of ethnographic research. Unfortunately, I faced many time restraints, and my data suffered. Rather than fresh data, I had to rely on past experiences, and that is not the level of empiricism that I want.
Regardless of time constraints and literature limitations, I believe that I have made the case that a relationship exists. There are many parallels between Christian and celebrity cultures; the extravagant conspicuous consumption, the culture industry, collective effervescence, and worship of celebrity itself. Both cultures feature strong messages supporting the American Dream, they both share a fascination with scandals, and both offer a promise of redemption. There is certainly a connection.
Future research should include ethnography and interviews to further examine the possible differences between Christian effervescence (“feeling” the Holy Spirit), celebrity effervescence (“feeling” the presence of a celebrity), and collective effervescence (“feeling” the power of the group). I would like to know if these feelings are similar or different, and the reasons why they would be.
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