"Celebrity Culture" isn't the problem

It's the underlying evangelical theology.

Over the weekend, Ruth Graham at the NYT published a piece about the reality of church life at Hillsong: the downfall of Carl Lentz (including that there were multiple affairs, the details of which are not known publicly), and its leadership’s obsession with status and celebrity.

It’s an interesting piece that juxtaposes the life of congregants and volunteers with that of Carl Lentz and other members of the pastoral staff. A couple passages stand out:

On celebrity:

No pastor of a big church can have personal relationships with every parishioner. But Mr. Lentz was unusually remote, according to current and former congregants.

He seemed to disappear for months at a time, appearing onstage at church only intermittently. His Instagram showed him attending the Super Bowl in Florida, and at Mr. Bieber’s wedding at a South Carolina resort.

When he did appear on Sundays, he rarely mixed with churchgoers. On Sundays, a team of congregants working as volunteers prevented anyone without the right badge from wandering backstage, and only a few had clearance to enter the green room stocked with a lavish catering spread and changes of clothes to fit Mr. Lentz’s increasingly particular tastes.

The church seemed to go out of its way to cultivate a hierarchy of coolness. A reserved seating section for V.I.P.s appeared at the front of the church, and then expanded to take up multiple rows. Ms. Lagata, a former volunteer, said that when high-profile entertainers or sports stars would try to slip into the main seating area, content to worship with ordinary churchgoers, ushers were often instructed to guide them to the special section in front, or to whisk them backstage to meet Mr. Lentz. “The staff built this culture, and made them a big deal,” Ms. Lagata said. “A lot of us felt torn because it doesn’t feel like something Jesus would do.”

On the life of a volunteer congregant, and the dismissal of congregant concerns:

“All churches rely to some degree on volunteer labor to function. But several former Hillsong volunteers described a particularly intense culture of working 12 or more hours a day and then being treated as low-status workers by church leaders.

After the staff enjoyed catered dinners on Saturday evenings at the church offices, volunteers would be summoned from home to come in and clean the kitchen, according to Ms. McClanahan, who worked for the church and was also close with leaders including the Lentzes. Ms. McClanahan recalled attending, along with Ms. Lentz, a birthday party for a pastor’s wife in a private room at a Williamsburg restaurant, and seeing a friend who was a church volunteer sitting at the edge of the room. The volunteer had been enlisted to drive partiers home in the wee hours of the morning, but had not been invited to enjoy the party himself.

Mr. Lentz seemed to surround himself with people primarily concerned with protecting his reputation. Melyssa Zurasky, a volunteer who helped lead regular meetings of congregants for a year, said she heard rumors about Mr. Lentz’s “inappropriate” behavior with women in 2017. Although she had not witnessed any incidents herself, she and her co-leader felt an obligation to report it to staff leaders. Her attempts to meet with a staff leader were brushed off, she said.”

There are several alarming details in these accounts - first and foremost the dismissive attitude toward reports of Lentz’s behavior with women (which are now being investigated, after the fact, since Lentz’s public firing). The behavior of its leadership toward alienating congregants and abusing their willingness to ‘volunteer’ - as evidenced by the passage above - is also troubling.

When I read these accounts, I am thinking primarily of the impact that these actions have had on the congregants. Not Hillsong leadership. Not Carl Lentz. Not Christianity writ-large. Not megachurches. Not “the Church’s witness to the secular world.”

I’m thinking of the people in the pews, not in the pulpit (or whatever hip and less-alliterative thing Hillsong has instead of pews).

As someone who spends a lot of time focused on the stories of people who have been hurt in religious contexts and spaces, I’m usually frustrated when write-ups focus on leadership, and not on those the leaders have harmed. I am thankful that Ms. Graham’s story includes these details. Continuing from the passage quoted above:

“Eventually her story reached a staff pastor named Kane Keatinge, Ms. Zurasky said, who told her she was “unfit for leadership” and could no longer teach classes or lead her group. Her co-leader, who had also raised alarms, was removed from his position, too. What happened to her felt like “the opposite of the Gospel” and “like a cover-up,” Ms. Zurasky said. (Mr. Keatinge said he did not recall telling Ms. Zurasky that she was unfit for leadership when he dismissed her.)” (emphasis mine)

One routine way white evangelical institutions dismiss criticism of their leaders is by dismissing those who make allegations—either by outright dismissal, as happened to Ms. Zurasky who bravely spoke on the record to the Times, or by questioning the depth or sincerity of faith of the person bringing the allegations forward.

Outright dismissal is part and parcel of the misogyny women face throughout society, and which is “legitimated” in white evangelical circles through toxic complementarian theology; the questioning of faith is particular to faith communities. Both are destructive, and when these traumas are simultaneously inflicted on a congregant, its effect is tragic for the individual.

That is why the work of organizations like The Religious Trauma Institute and The Reclamation Collective are so valuable. These organizations provide trauma-informed workshops and help match people with professional counselors trained to address religious trauma and adverse religious experiences.

They even make public-facing content, and create spaces for public conversations, on Instagram. Laura Anderson, a co-founder of The Religious Trauma Institute, shares prompts and personal reflections on Instagram as a way to encourage people to explore their own healing; The Reclamation Collective does so as well:

A post shared by Laura Anderson, LMFT (she/her) (@lauraandersontherapy)
A post shared by Reclamation Collective (@reclamationcollective)

On the topic of sexual abuse in churches, #ChurchToo has been a driving force of these conversations for years. Emily Joy coined the hashtag in 2017, and is releasing a book in March 2021. This is a topic I’m not well-suited or equipped to discuss, so I would refer you to her and other experts.

There are a lot of things that contribute to the development of these toxic church environments, including but not limited to a history of patriarchy and misogyny and theological frameworks that disenfranchise women and BIPOC. These issues are examined in detail in Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne. (I wrote up a review of her book here, and interviewed her about it here.)

I would not list “celebrity culture” at the top of the list of contributing factors.

Elsewhere on Substack, David French shared his own reflection on Carl Lentz’s downfall and Ruth Graham’s reporting. Even though he identifies several evangelical leaders whose sex abuse scandals came to light, he oddly attributes these actions to the effects of “celebrity” and the doctrine of original sin:

“It’s tempting to simply cite Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous maxim that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” note that every class of person is susceptible and vulnerable to sin, and move on. Celebrities are human, and we know that human beings are fallen, and thus there will always be spectacular falls from grace.

Yes, but must they be so frequent? Must they be so constant? Is there something about celebrity itself that makes the fall more likely? After all, in many of these folks, it’s quite apparent that something changed. Very few people embrace a life of public ministry as part of a plan for sexual conquest. They begin with a sincere desire to preach and teach and transform lives.

But they also don’t know who they truly are. They’re untested. They’re untried.

The longer I live, the more I understand a verse from the book of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” I also ponder the truth of C.S. Lewis’s definition of courage (you’ve heard me quote it before): “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” (Emphasis added.)”

I consider this woefully off the mark.

In the essay, he conflates self-trust and self-knowledge in ways that are inherently understood by people whose moral thinking was developed within white evangelicalism. French invokes “the heart is deceitful above all things” scripture as a means of provoking self-doubt and reliance upon a deity instead of developing self-control. (You’ll note that the post I embedded above from Laura Anderson addresses the notion of self-trust, which is damaged in white evangelicalism because of teachings like this.)

Later on, his language gets more specific. He says that successful Christian public figures have two common convictions: they don’t trust their virtue, and they don’t believe they’ve earned their fame. Again, I think there’s some conflation happening. Knowing one’s self and being aware of the relational agreements and promises with spouses is valuable and virtuous—but does it apply to leaders who abuse their positions of influence in order to pursue or harass people? And does fame corrupt, or does it amplify?

I’ll be honest: my own available language defies me here. I sometimes don’t know how to speak “morally” without falling into language and ideas I learned in evangelicalism, and it’s hard for me to untangle what I want to say. But “fame” and “celebrity” are of lesser concern to me than the theology and culture that have allowed these repeated abuses to continue.

It’s the theology that needs critique.

In his article, David French cites the scandals involving and surrounding Bill Gothard. Quoting from the aforementioned Jesus and John Wayne:

“Like Rushdoony, Gothard believed that most problems could be solved by submitting to the proper authorities in each domain of life. To this end, he advanced the idea of a divinely ordained “chain of command” similar to that of the military. In the family, the father was the ultimate authority. A wife owed her husband total submission, requiring approval for even the smallest household decisions, and children owed parents absolute obedience in both action and attitude. The church was also part of the proper functioning of society, and church leaders were to wield absolute, God-given authority over members….for Gothard, those in authority were stand-ins for God and were owed absolute obedience. In his moral universe, the notion of personal rights interfered with the hierarchical structure of authority, contradicting God’s design and provoking only anger and resentment.”

I know I am getting off-course, and veering further away from the topic of Hillsong specifically—but where David French sees these events as a jumping-off point to discuss the effect of “fame” on Christian leaders, I am more interested in the beliefs and actions of those leaders.

Fame isn’t the issue if the underlying beliefs, structures, and institutions foster opportunities for abuse.

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