It’s Time to Reckon with Celebrity Power

This article originally appeared in The Gospel Coalition online, 24 March 2018.

It was not a great week. In three separate cases in my immediate circles, a person with significant power at the top of an organization, each one a subject of flattering major media exposure during their career, was confronted with allegations of sexual misconduct and related misdeeds. In one case, the person resigned from his role and board memberships, accompanied by a direct and remorseful confession. In the second, the person resigned, but not without posting a defiant denial of all allegations against her. In the third, the person likewise denied all allegations in the strongest terms—at one point with physical force, banging on a table—and, as I write, remains in his position.

All three were, or at least had once been, seen as among the most exemplary Christian leaders of their generation, including by many who worked closely with them. While I wasn’t personally close to any of the three, I have experienced and benefited from their exceptional gifts in leadership and ministry, as have thousands or millions of others.

I am not naming them here. If you are in their sphere of influence, you’ve already had the wind knocked out of you by the week’s revelations, and there is no need to redouble the trauma. If you are not, then the desire to know their names, though understandable and very human, is a prurience I will not indulge. And while I pray that such a tragic trifecta will not happen often in a single week, the truth is that I could have written this essay many times in the past few decades, and will have occasion to do so many times in the future. The names are actually not that important for my purposes—it is the system in which not just they, but we, are so deeply complicit.

The transmutation of the power of intimacy into the distance of power is an inescapable feature of all too many of our churches and ministries.

Our Complicity in Celebrity Power

Two systems, actually. First is the one, almost as old as humanity itself, that gives the powerful the opportunity to exploit, plunder, murder, and—last, worst, and perhaps most common of all—rape. By direct command or by mere implication (“Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”), those in positions of power have long been able to actualize their fantasies and grievances—no different in kind from what the rest of us indulge in without having the means to realize them.

Among the many dark gifts of power is distance—distance from accountability, distance from consequences, distance from the pain we cause others, distance from self-knowledge, distance from friendship, distance from the truth. The palace rooftop, the back entrance, the executive bathroom, the private jet, not to mention what Andrew Jackson’s critics called the kitchen cabinet and what C. S. Lewis called the Inner Ring—the accommodations that hide us from others’ sight, the adherents who are actually dependents if not sycophants, the accoutrements of plausible deniability.

In that privacy and at that distance, we become capable of acts we would never have imagined. (If all of this week’s allegations are true—which I cannot possibly know, and absolutely do not presume, to be the case—and these leaders’ denials are lies, part of the vehemence of the lies is their inability to truly comprehend that they have so completely failed to live up to their own ideals.) This has been true ever since human society became complex enough to grant some people the power to distance themselves in this way—and in a way, it was true even when human society was just two brothers in a field, just out of sight of the only kin they had in the world.

That part of the problem—the distance of power and its distorting effects on the powerful—is ancient and will never go away. But it is compounded by something genuinely new: the phenomenon of celebrity. Celebrity combines the old distance of power with what seems like its exact opposite—extraordinary intimacy, or at least a bewitching simulation of intimacy.

It is the power of the one-shot (the face filling the frame), the close mic (the voice dropped to a lover’s whisper), the memoir (the disclosures that had never been discussed with the author’s pastor, parents, or sometimes even lover or spouse, before they were published), the tweet, the selfie, the insta, the snap. All of it gives us the ability to seem to know someone—without in fact knowing much about them at all, since in the end we know only what they, and the systems of power that grow up around them, choose for us to know.

For systems of power do indeed grow up around the modern phenomenon of celebrity, because in its way it is so much more powerful than the older regime of position, status, and coercion. The distance of that ancient regime gave those at its pinnacle a kind of power, without a doubt, but a kind of vulnerability as well, because the distance worked both ways. Out of the king’s earshot, the courtiers could mutter and the bodyguards could plot. In the lord’s field, the peasants could complain. The workers could make jokes about the Man and kids on the corners could scatter long before the fuzz arrived. The new regime of intimacy is ever so much more powerful because it is based fundamentally not on fear and coercion and distance—at least at first—but on desire and imagination and indeed on eros, the desire for union.

Celebrities embody who we aspire to become and invite us—so it seems—into the inner circle of their lives. We are their kitchen cabinet, we are so close to being in their Inner Ring. They are so disarmingly transparent with us. They tell us so much of the truth. They live in our own imaginations, their faces more familiar to us than our neighbors’ or even some of those we call, loosely, in the American way, our friends. They inspire us, ordinary in their extraordinariness, assuring us that they are people like us and thus that we can be people like them. Above all, they beckon us to come closer.

The Vanishing Institutional World

Over centuries, millennia really, philosophers and political theorists wrestled with how to tame the arbitrariness of distant power. At a glacial pace—taking very different courses if you compare China after Confucius with the West after Plato and Cicero—societies gradually hedged in those at the pinnacle of power with what we conventionally call institutions, systems bigger than the powerful themselves that held the powerful in certain ways to account. None were anywhere near perfect, and the institutions themselves could be bent to terrible ends.

But nonetheless, over a long period of time and with countless fits and starts, we learned something about how to tame the worst of power. Coercion had to be justified and violence could be redressed; we came to believe in, and to some non-trivial extent came to be, nations of laws, not men. In the United States, where this experiment was in many ways carried to its furthest extent, the powers were separated across the land—not just in the three branches of government, but in organizations of many kinds, in the solemnly elected officers of countless clubs and fraternal societies, in presbyteries and elder boards, in the legal requirement for independent directors in publicly traded companies.

Our grandparents and great-grandparents built extraordinary institutions, of many kinds, along these lines, including the churches whose stately buildings still line many a town square and urban downtown street. Those institutions were nowhere near perfect and perpetuated all kinds of injustice. But at their best they preserved and gave expression to a profound and radical idea: that the best things human beings do together are bigger and more lasting than any person who may occupy a temporary position of power.

It is not wrong to be offended at the homogeneity of the faces of past presidents who stare down from portrait after portrait in institutional hallways (white males in some, black males in others, since African Americans so assiduously and proudly developed their own institutions in the years after Emancipation). But it is not wrong, either, to marvel at how anonymous they are to us, and to a great extent were to their own contemporaries; how much they saw themselves as stewards rather than sole proprietors; how much continuity they managed to preserve even as they led necessary change; how peacefully and graciously they handed on leadership from one to the next.

Their world was an institutional world. It is now almost entirely gone.

It is gone because celebrity power has swept the stolid institutional buildings and stolid institution-building people of our grandparents’ generation before it like so much chaff before a tornado. In the Oval Office of our country sits a man with the apparent emotional age, based on his public persona, of an eight year old, albeit with the libido of a fifteen year old. He cannot keep faith with anyone, in all probability because he does not actually fully grasp the existence of anyone besides himself. And he is simply brilliant at manipulating the power of celebrity.

He has colonized all of our imaginations—above all, one suspects, the imaginations of those who most hate him, who cannot go an hour in a day without thinking about him. He has always aspired to be, and now is, the ultimate celebrity—someone we know all too well but do not know at all because there is actually no one there to be truly known. He has never truly sought anything beyond the validation of fame and the uniquely modern power it brings, but having sought that one thing, in some demonic inversion of the gospel promise, all these other things have been added unto to him as well—including the fatal distance that still may allow him to do anything he pleases, up to and including total war.

At least that puts this week in perspective.

The Road Less Traveled By

It could have been otherwise for the church. There was one and only one celebrity in Jesus’s world, one face on every coin, one name on everyone’s lips. And when Jesus was shown that face and that coin, he dismissively suggested the coin be returned to the one who had been so eager to imprint his image on every corner of the empire. Render back to Caesar the coin of his realm, Jesus said—and render to God whatever, or whoever, bears his image. The visible image of the invisible God left no portrait. The one time he wrote, he wrote in the dust. He had a different way of using power in the world, a way that turned out to outlast all the emperors, including the Christian ones.

He offered no false intimacy—his biographer John said that he entrusted himself to no one, because he knew what was in every person’s heart—but he kept no distance, either. He let the children come to him. He let Mary sit at his feet and let another Mary wash his feet with her tears. Hanging naked on a cross, he forgave, blessed, and made sure that yet another Mary would still have a son. His power, truly, was not of this world.

As the power of celebrity overtook the power of institutions in the second half of the 20th century, we could have made a different choice in our churches. Indeed, some churches and some leaders did. The Anglican priest John Stott was an incomparably powerful figure, in the best sense, in 20th-century evangelicalism. He lived his life with a divine indifference to power. He spent long unsung stretches of his life and ministry in what was called in the Cold War years “the Third World,” long before Instagram mission trip reports. He was reserved, as almost all British men of his generation and class learned to be. He never married. Yet his life was utterly open to friends all over the world, to the assistants (always male) he invited into the most intimate place an Anglican rector possesses—his study—and to his personal secretary of 55 years, Frances Whitehead. The fruit of his life is incalculable.

As a young man I was impatient with some of Stott’s theology. I found it insufficiently creative, insufficiently imaginative in response to the creative image implanted in human beings and in God’s living Word, and in some ways I still do. But as I get older I am in increasing awe of the leaders he fostered, the institutions he built and served, and the legacy he left—even though, since he had the misfortune to live before social media, probably only one in a hundred people who call themselves “evangelicals” know his name.

Likewise Billy Graham. I have never kept the “Billy Graham rule” that says a man must never be alone with a woman not his wife—it strikes me as unhelpful in countless ways, above all in the ways it can rob women of the chance to influence men and to be mentored and raised up in the formal and informal power they ought to possess by the gift of God’s Spirit. But most people have forgotten the context of that rule, which was a broader set of commitments, hammered out in a hotel room in Modesto, California, in holy fear that the abuses of power that had characterized several generations of “evangelists” would ensnare the young evangelist and his team. They made four commitments, not just that one—equally important were their commitments to financial transparency and simplicity, to utter honesty in their reports of numbers and conversions, and, perhaps most notably for our purposes, to always partnering with the local church.

Graham made grievous mistakes, as he admitted freely later in his life, above all when his celebrity intersected with the toxic distance, privacy, and paranoia of Richard Nixon. He was probably more of a celebrity than was healthy for him, his family, and the revival he sought to lead. But the way he tempered his celebrity with simplicity, accountability, and voluntary limits on his power is the road less traveled by, and in the eternal accounting of his life it may well turn out to be what made all the difference.

Stott and Graham are gone. The institutions they worked hard to build are fragile, though by no means doomed. There are still countless pastors, evangelists, and other leaders in American Christianity who live modest lives, submit themselves to others out of reverence for Christ, and are building something bigger than themselves. But the revelations of this week remind us that we are in a perilous position. Not because the allegations are necessarily true, but because many of our seemingly strongest institutions actually are weak in the most important way: they are not strong enough to be able to convince us that the allegations against their leaders are not true.

The most damning facts in the disheartening emails and news reports that came across my desk this week are not about the alleged actions of certain leaders—which from my limited point of view cannot be treated as facts at all—but the uncertain and partial reactions of the systems around those leaders.

When boards are beholden to founders; when elders allow it to be publicly said that “no one person can replace” a senior pastor; when information systems can yield the number of emails exchanged between a senior leader and a given person but somehow the content is not recoverable—none of this means that any malfeasance has been committed. What it does mean is that the sheer gravitational pull of those charismatic figures has nullified the institution’s ability to protect itself, and indeed its leader, from both legitimate and falsified allegations of misconduct.

And whatever the facts of any given case, anyone who has been backstage at Christian events knows just how distant, how untouchable, how buffered are certain celebrities who on stage seem so transparent, so natural, so unguarded. Even if not one of the allegations I read about this week can ultimately be proven, the transmutation of the power of intimacy into the distance of power is an inescapable feature of all too many of our churches and ministries.

Change Starts with Us—It Starts with Me

We need profound change, and it starts less with our public figures than with ourselves. We will, paradoxically, need to expect less transparency from our public figures, less alluring displays of intimacy and “vulnerability,” and more accountability from the systems around them. We will need to put more energy into building systems, including systems that account for the temptations of power, that will last for generations. We will need to somehow quell our lust to feel close to people who can charm the camera and hold the spotlight—recognizing that the half-life of such leadership has always been measured in years, not generations, and now is numbered in something more like months or days. We will need to commit ourselves to the institutions that have maintained their integrity, sometimes through painful episodes of public accountability—I serve on the board of trustees of two such organizations, and there are many, many more.

Meanwhile, those of us who find ourselves with a measure of public fame must make radical commitments to limit our power. I have tried to do this myself as I realized my public profile and influence was growing. Some of my commitments ought to remain confidential—so that my right hand doesn’t know what my left hand is doing, let alone my right hand Instagram what my left hand is doing—but I can name at least some of them.

I have served alongside, learned from, mentored, and promoted women, and the women of all generations who are my partners in the ministry of the gospel are among the great gifts of my life. I often have good reason to meet with them one on one (though I have also found that almost all work, ministry, and even counseling is more fruitful in groups of three or four than in dyads). For two decades now it has been my intentional practice that we meet in public places, and on the rare occasion when we meet over dinner it is early in the evening and in the front of the restaurant, not in the back. My wife Catherine knows of every such meeting ahead of time and hears about the conversation afterwards. Catherine has all my passwords. I ensure that every woman who entrusts something deeply confidential to me understands that she is entrusting it to Catherine as well.

I have joined an organization I did not found, led by a CEO to whom I report, who in turn reports to a serious, empowered, independent board of directors, and I spent 12 years before that working for another organization. I have submitted all my travel and speaking decisions to my CEO as well as to Catherine, and was finally able, gladly, to shift from a freelance speaking career, with income flowing to my sole proprietorship, to one where all fees flow to the organization. I publish my speaking fees and terms online. I minimize my use of agents who would have a financial incentive to increase my celebrity and would interpose themselves between me and the churches and ministries that wish to engage me as a speaker. (I do have a literary agent, but she is eminently and unshakably sane.) At conferences that offer speakers a “green room,” I use it only for prayer and preparation immediately before I speak. The rest of the time, I sit in the audience like everyone else. At events that use name tags, I wear one.

Every Sunday I rest. Every summer I turn off my email, entirely, for two weeks. (My vacation message begins, “Unfortunately, I will never read your email.”) Every seven years I aim to leave my daily work and all the significance it gives me. Twice those sabbaticals have come because what I was trying to do had failed. They have been the most creatively fruitful periods of my life.

Every January I meet with seven other men who have similar positions of public leadership. We call ourselves “The Eulogists.” We aim to know one another so well, and for so long, that we will be able to give a genuine, honest, and complete account of one another’s lives at our funerals. We also aim to hold one another accountable to lives that would be worth a eulogy. We are relentlessly transparent with each other. I have told them everything of substance there is to know about my life, my temptations, my consolations, and my desolations, and we have wept and prayed and rejoiced together. That is all I will ever tell you about the Eulogists.

This is just what I do. The details are less important than the reason behind them. I have all this in place because, still and all, if you knew the full condition of my heart, my fantasies and grievances, my anxieties and my darkest solitary thoughts, you would declare me a danger to myself and others. I cannot be entrusted with power by myself, certainly not with celebrity, and neither can you.

But we don’t have to be entrusted with it by ourselves. We can constantly be pouring our power out, handing it over to others, reinvesting whatever power comes our way in a community that will last longer than our short lives, building something that will endure even to our children’s children—a community to which we are genuinely accountable, a community that will rescue us from ourselves and set us free to be the people we wanted to be, the people we knew we could be, when we first began this journey of life, full of heart and hope.

It is not too late—for the three names I’ve been grieving over this week, for the names you know and grieve over, for you, for me, for the church, perhaps even for our nation. It is very late, but in the goodness and grace of God, it is not too late.