The potential rewards of celebrity culture are many, but so are the risks.
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 …