Personas, Platforms, and Profits

About a year ago I spent a couple hours talking with my long-time friend, Adam Day (a professor at Tyndale Seminary in Amsterdam, the Netherlands), about the question of how much and in what manner it is appropriate for a Christian author to promote his or her writings. We talked about pitfalls, motivations, and the best ways to honor our Lord Jesus Christ through our written words. Adam is a godly and faithful servant of Christ, and I benefitted immensely from our conversation.

Ever since that talk, I’ve been posing the same question to any writing friends who are willing to listen. How much should a Christian author promote his or her writings? The problem of self-promotion versus honoring the Lord feels like an important subject that must be addressed at this moment in American evangelicalism. It also feels rather personal to me, since a number of years ago, I passed through a period of struggle trying to find an approach to this question that would truly honor the Lord.

That’s why this past weekend when I learned about Katelyn Beaty’s new book, Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits are Hurting the Church, I ordered it right away and read it promptly upon receipt. Not only does the author in chapter 5 address my particular question (“Chasing Platforms”), she highlights many other topics related to celebrity. (By the way, I think every Christian author ought to read chapter 5.)

Disclaimer: I do not know the author of this book personally, and I cannot vouch for everything she might write or speak in other settings or on other topics. But what she has written in this book is insightful and important.

In chapter 1, Beaty introduces her topic by tracing the way that celebrities, both Christian and non-Christian, have intersected with her own life, for good or ill. This has usually entailed, she says, admiring such celebrities from a distance. Beaty accordingly defines “celebrity” as “social power without proximity” (17). She also introduces some of the risks involved in celebrity status.

In chapter 2, Beaty briefly sketches how evangelical celebrities, that is, people with broad social influence who are personally unknown to those they influence, became an integral part of the evangelical landscape. She focuses on the ministry of Billy Graham, and to a lesser degree, on the earlier Dwight Moody, whose methods influenced Graham. Without whitewashing his shortcomings, Beaty is careful to underscore Billy Graham’s commitment to moral and financial integrity, and applauds his driving devotion to reach people with the gospel. But her main point seems to be that Graham’s immense success inspired others to try to build similarly large followings. Moreover, Graham’s influence has induced evangelicals in general to accept—or even crave and applaud—celebrity influence.

Chapter 3 focuses on megachurches and mega-pastors (my word, not Beaty’s). She uses Bill Hybels and the phenomenal growth and influence of Willow Creek Community Church and its affiliate organizations to describe the pitfalls and dangers involved in exerting vast influence.

Chapters 4-6 center on three pitfalls commonly associated with Christian celebrity: abusing power (ch. 4), chasing platforms (ch. 5), and creating persona (ch. 6).

Chapter 4 is rather dark, and reminds me of the first seven or so episodes of The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast I listened to last year (which, by the way, I never finished; I felt the series got stretched out beyond its initial usefulness). Beaty focuses in this chapter upon the widely publicized power abuses of Ravi Zacharias, Mark Driscoll, Carl Lentz, and John Crist. She exposes the damage wreaked through berating and controlling speech, outbursts of anger, misuse of finances, and sexual manipulation—since these sometimes accompany people who hold positions of social influence, but who also lack meaningful personal relationships and accountability. (Recall her definition of “celebrity” as social influence without proximity).

Chapter 5 is the reason I bought the book. Reading this chapter was the first time I have ever encountered an editor reflecting on problems related to author platforming. (I have often listened to authors’ laments, but never to reflections by a book acquisitions editor.) Beaty elucidates what everyone knows, but often mentally suppress, that a publishing house is a business, and that, as a business, it must make money. This emphasis on the bottom line, however, exerts significant influence on a publisher’s decision-making processes, particularly regarding which books a publisher will or will not acquire. Such a focus on profits has given rise to the relatively-recent use of the word “platform” to describe the social reach, and thus, the potential book sales, of an author. One of Beaty’s subtitles is: “It’s Always Been about Money” (102). In other words, it is often less the quality, wisdom, experience, or depth of a Christian author that determines whether a book gets picked up by a publisher; it often has more to do with how many followers an aspiring author is able to garner on social media.

In case you haven’t yet realized it, Christian book publishing is big business, so big that a few years ago the secular publishing giant HarperCollins acquired both Thomas Nelson and Zondervan. Beaty claims that “half of Christian publishing is now owned by a multi-national corporation that primarily exists to create a profit” (99). Other platforming pitfalls exposed by Beaty in this chapter include ghostwriting without adequate attribution, buying followers, using one’s ministry as a way to sell books, plagiarizing, and manipulating best-seller lists. (I still don’t quite understand how this last one works…)

I should clarify here that I have been fortunate to have worked with a few publishing houses that have diligently sought to keep their God-given missions in focus while still trying to be responsible in their author selection, and thus able to pay their electric and gas bills. But we should not underestimate the pressures placed upon Christian publishers to meet their bottom line; nor should we understate how focusing on money influences the selection, quality, and integrity of the books we read.

In Chapter 6, Beaty drills into the relationship between celebrity status and one’s public persona—a projection of oneself that may or may not correspond to a celebrity’s real self.

Thankfully, this book is not a mere jeremiad against all-things celebrity. In chapters 7 and 8, Beaty offers two primary suggestions (among a few others) for addressing the dangers of celebrity. Here are her suggestions: 1) Pursue ordinary faithfulness, and 2) Develop real relationships with people who are proximate to you and know you. Much hurt, abuse, and spiritual fallout could be avoided if Christian leaders attended to these two suggestions.

There is, however, something missing from the book. Beaty never directly addresses the question of whether a faithful Christian, while still being faithful, ever can or should actively move toward a ministry role that exerts broad spiritual influence (such as starting an organization focused on public evangelism), or similarly, whether a faithful Christian should ever step into an available role that is already exerting broad influence (say, accepting a pastorate of an already-existing large church). I would assume she would say yes, since she herself has done something similar in writing a book that will hopefully influence many whom she does not know. (She self-consciously acknowledges her own influence on page 172). But someone might walk away from this book assuming that it would be unfaithful to the Lord to move toward or step into a ministry role that widely influences others who are personally unknown to the minister. A discussion of such a question is rather important, but was absent, at least in any explicit way that I could find, in an otherwise valuable book.

I remember once hearing someone describe the biblical book of James as a cross between prophetic literature (like Isaiah) and wisdom literature (like Proverbs). Similarly, this book is a call to faithfulness (the prophetic piece) alongside wise guidance on how to move forward (the wisdom piece). May we heed the warnings and pursue God-honoring wisdom and faithfulness during this present evil age.

One thought on “Personas, Platforms, and Profits

  1. I agree that it’s a timely book, but in answer to your question about wanting to influence beyond those you know and that know you, surely anyone writing a book has that intention. Certainly the Biblical authors wanted their writing to influence WAY beyond their direct audience. Surely this is an act of faith in God’s sovereignty rather than otherwise.
    However, the warning of the importance of everyone, and especially celebrities, maintaining community connections is a helpful insight.

    Liked by 1 person

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