The potential rewards of celebrity culture are many, but so are the risks.
by Leah Payne
When Tish Harrison Warren’s article “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?” crossed my Twitter feed last spring, I braced myself for a strong response.
In the piece, Warren claims that the blogosphere has exposed a longstanding authority crisis within evangelicalism, especially for female writers, speakers, and theologians. As a historian of American evangelicalism, I knew that her call for a reestablishment of church authority in the digital age would elicit an intense social media reaction. And it did. Although responses included digital high-fives to Warren for her analysis of evangelicalism, many others (including Christian female bloggers) accused Warren of “elitism, snobbery, sexism” and ugliness.
Our national outrage culture helps explain much of the strength and speed of this response. But there was something more at play in the reaction to Warren’s article. In her critique, Warren called into question what is arguably the most significant source of evangelical authority: celebrity culture.
In many evangelical circles, the biggest star with the biggest audience—usually someone who is populist and speaks in popular parlance—becomes by default the most powerful theologian. Evangelical celebrity status makes popular, public theologians arguably more powerful than university-trained, denominationally vetted, seminary-ensconced “professional” theologians.
It’s a type of democratic authority that appears to place power directly in the hands of lay people. It’s also a tradition within American evangelicalism. Nineteenth century preachers Phoebe Palmer and D. L. Moody displayed and maintained authority through packed revival meetings. Aimee Semple McPherson and Lucy Smith did the same through radio programming in the early 20th century. T. D. Jakes, Beth Moore, Max Lucado, and Joel Osteen have used television.
Celebrity authority is often ridiculed in the academy, but—as everyone from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump will tell you—this kind of authority can take you places in American society. Bloggers are the latest wave of evangelicals who rally thousands of followers around a specific cause or brand, this time using a hashtag or retweet instead of pamphlets and tracts.
For women who do theology via blogging in the public sphere, celebrity authority offers enticing rewards and extraordinary risks.
SOURCE: Christianity Today: “Women”
Leah Payne is an assistant professor of Christian studies at George Fox University and author of Gender and Pentecostalism: Making a Female Ministry in the Early Twentieth Century (Palgrave, 2016), winner of the Society for Pentecostal Studies’ Pneuma 2016 Book of the Year. Her current research explores politics in Pentecostal and charismatic communities, and she blogs about religion & pop culture at leahpayne.blogspot.com.