Nadia Bolz-Weber Called Me What?: More On Christian Celebrity Culture

Toward the end of my podcast last week with Luke Norsworthy Luke took great delight in reminding me that Nadia Bolz-Weber called me an asshole during her podcast with Luke. If you heard that you might have wondered what that was all about.

In her podcast with Luke Nadia was reflecting on the issue of "Christian celebrity." Nadia recounted how she was at a speaking engagement and was feeling exhausted and needing some time away from the people where she was speaking. And during this moment of refreshment she opened an email from a friend sharing my post on Christian celebrity culture. In that post I shared a "test" about how to spot a Christian celebrity. Specifically, where are we to find the speaker before or after his or her talk? Does he or she take the time and effort to be with people? Or does he or she go off by himself or herself? Nadia, at the moment taking time away to refresh herself, read that "test," felt a bit guilty, and mentally called me an asshole for making her feel that way.

So, obviously, she wasn't mad at me as a human being and, in fact, noted that her reaction was more about her own feelings than anything about me.

Still, if you listen to Nadia's podcast with Luke she does go on to give my "test" some good pushback, pointing out how what she was doing in that instance--getting some time away--was important and a healthy form of self-care.

And I'd agree. And I'd also agree with the pushback that Zach Lind, drummer of Jimmy Eat World, gave to that same post in his podcast with Luke. As well as with the pushback Rachel Held Evans gave in the comments of my post.

Looking back now, I would have written my post differently. The "test" I gave in the post--Does the speaker make himself or herself available before and/or after his or her talk?--is a bit too narrow and limited. It doesn't apply to the music concert situation that Zach talks about. It doesn't take into account Rachel's point that many of us can "work a crowd" to create the illusion of being "accessible." And it doesn't take into account Nadia's comments about legitimate times and spaces for self-care and that she can't be everyone's pastor.

So I think the "test" I gave in that original post is limited in some pretty significant ways. But I think the heart of the post still holds up pretty well.

Basically, I made two points.

First, I argued that there is a difference between popularity and celebrity. Just because you're in the spotlight or there is a long line at your book signing table doesn't make you a celebrity. All that stuff just makes you popular.

So what makes a celebrity? That was my second point. Celebrity, as I described it, was creating distance, generally elite distance between yourself and others. When people chaff at "Christian celebrity culture" I think that's what they are chaffing at. It's not the big crowds or the long lines at book signings that's the problem. It's the insiderism, the cool, influential people hanging out together with the attendees--the normal, regular folk--being asked to stand behind the ropes to observe the red carpet proceedings.

You can see how, if this is my definition of "Christian celebrity," why I came up with the "test" that I did. If Christian celebrity is the creation of elite distance between influential insiders and everyone else then this can be combated by the breaking down those barriers.

Basically, we combat celebrity by cultivating practices of hospitality, with popular people welcoming and making room for others.

To be sure, we need to be attentive to issues of venue, crowd size and self-care. Still, I think the general point holds: we battle celebrity with hospitality.

And I think another point I made holds as well. In my original "test" I also mentioned speakers or performers being willing to listen to other speakers and performers. And again, issues of venue and context matter here, this just might not be workable, but I do think the general point holds.

Specifically, what I was gesturing at with this "test"--listening to others--was humility, a keen interest in learning from others. Personally, I think listening to others is the quintessential sign of humility. In fact, a willingness to listen to others may be the quintessential act of hospitality as well.

In short, a speaker only interested in talking and not listening is, well, an egoist, a self-absorbed celebrity. Only their thoughts, words and ideas matter. Again, listening to others at an event just might not be feasible for many speakers, but the issue here is a willingness and desire to listen. The craving to sit in the audience with rapt attention along with everyone else. And a feeling of regret that if, for whatever reason, you can't sit in the audience that you would have missed something special, precious and potentially life-changing.

A recent example of this.

Last week I was at Streaming with Greg Boyd. I was sitting by Greg while Sara Barton was giving her presentation. Greg had a legal pad out and was filling it with notes about what Sara was teaching. Greg was the headliner at this conference, the "celebrity," the author with all the books on the book table, the speaker people traveled many miles to listen to. But at Streaming Greg didn't act like a celebrity.

As Sara was teaching Greg was sitting there, like the rest of us, listening and taking notes.

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21 thoughts on “Nadia Bolz-Weber Called Me What?: More On Christian Celebrity Culture”

  1. I appreciate what apologist J Warner Wallace has said on this issue. He argues that the "million dollar apologists" ( Willam Lane Craig , Ravi Zacharias etc) are needed -yet not accessible to the masses. His goal is to equip a million "one dollar apologists" so that we can grow where we are planted, making a case for Christianity where we are without the barriers of celebrity.

  2. "As Sara was teaching Greg was sitting there, like the rest of us, listening and taking notes."

    It is for this reason that I push back at the accusations of Greg being a "celebrity" pastor. Yeah, he's well known, respected, and a lot of people put him on a pedestal... but he pretty regularly steps down from whatever pedestal folks put him on and does whatever is necessary to be "normal".

    I had my own video interview with him within the past year at which point I asked him about that... and his comment was something on the lines of "When it becomes about me, it's boring. Boring, boring, boring."

  3. I wouldn't say I took "great delight" in reminding you. I was just doing my job.

  4. I was sort of thinking that popularity is about widespread appeal while celebrity is about obtaining popularity by association/imitation/admiration. I think it could be a positive thing if you are trying to emulate someone's kindness or generosity etc. Either way I think it says more about person then the celebrity themselves. Imitation is a good way to learn though, so maybe what we really find irritating is people choosing to admire or copy the superficial and meaningless rather then the underlying character.

  5. I'm glad you didn't back off this point completely. It's true that we all have to make the choices we're able to in the moment and different situations call for different responses, but if a speaker consistently finds themselves making excuses for why they just can't be hospitable to their audience they quickly lose my esteem. Conversely, those I've known who have been responsive and hospitable are the people I listen to most closely.

  6. If you look at other mediums like print for example, we can be inspired and moved by a good book yet at the same time have zero response or connection to the writer. Yet in a public speaking role we have a different expectation of interaction or hospitality. I'm just not sure if we really do listen more closely or learn better from people who are hospitable, or if we just have expectations for for it in some situations.

  7. The expectation of hospitality and interaction obviously only applies when it is possible. Technology has increased the number of circumstances in which it is possible and thus expected, but I don't think the expectation itself is new. For example, I always admired authors who read and responded to fan mail before there was the internet.

  8. That's true. We do appreciate people who are willing to make time for us. I was thinking more of the clamoring crowd all wanting a blessing/healing/special relationship etc with the person who is 'closer' to God and have no interest in the speaker beyond looting and carrying off a 'personal experience'. Well maybe that is really all of us at some point :) I'm just saying that I don't know if I like our expectations of speakers, but still I do appreciate those that are able to give more then was asked.

  9. Great post, Richard! I think this frames the issue much better than your first post. Out on the road, I meet a lot of speakers/writers, and it seems that humility is a general posture of openness/learning/listening which often manifests itself by accessibility, but not always. As an introvert, I will always understand why some folks need a little time away to recharge. :-)

  10. How about posts and comments filled with big names; is that a sign of Christian celebrity? ;)

  11. Hey Richard,
    Great post. Thanks for the clarification.
    I am gad you added the point about Greg Boyd at the end. I was really impressed with that at Streaming as well. Additionally, I mentioned to some of my friends how impacted I was personally by Greg at the conference. He has been someone I have admired and followed regularly. When I went to the conference I was hoping to just get a chance to say hello and thank him. But he went out of his way to make me feel welcome and important. I was genuinely stunned by his personality. I am sharing this because (1) I think it is relevant to both of these posts, and (2) it was refreshingly "christian" (in the best sense of that word).

  12. What really sucks is that I manage to be an egotist without the celebrity. I suppose I'd be a real ass if I had that misfortune. :) Thanks for the thoughts.

  13. might be. question for me is do i put on christ and become one identity? in the past I've been tempted to put on celebrities and had the illusion that they represented me. I can have many personas but no real me. Jesus is real to me & present w/ me. I have to die to myself daily & my chosen celebrity (control fantasy)

  14. i think it depends on the maturity level of empathy. bright shiny new egos tend to look for validation and affirmation of position & entitlement I think. I sure did when I was young. Anybody needing compassion from me? Fuggitabout it. But nowadays I am old & broken. I understand it's wise to be kind!

  15. i agree! as celebrity culture is addicted to fame, success, wealth, apperances, entitlelment, privilege would be a good place to unpack the tangle of psychological/ emotional dependance. a toxified identity needs to be understood on so many levels!

  16. Apparently, a post with profanity is a sign. Recently found this blog and was going to share it to my FB feed, when I noticed the language. Too bad.

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