Watching an Episode of Celebrity Christianity

They might as well just rename the show, “Celebrity Christianity” instead of Preachers of L.A.

Because this is the definition of celebrity values corrupting the very core of the gospel to the degree that it is really no gospel at all.

In my previous post on the topic, I argued that despite the spiritual claims and the apparent concern for compassion causes among many participating in this trend, Celebrity Christianity is really a counterfeit. While supposedly seeking to help disadvantaged people, it takes advantage of them in order to enrich ministries/leaders and, in the process, only widens the systemic gap between the privileged and the underprivileged, the haves and the have nots. It is brazenly materialistic, calling on the marks of celebrity success – fame and excessive wealth/lifestyles – as proof of the favor of God and the ultimate goal of every Christian’s life. Thus, it perpetuates cycles of poverty by applying the band-aid of material wealth to the leaders and some privileged members while so many remain impoverished and struggling. And it lifts ministries/leaders into exceptional arrogance toward those who might try to bring reform and equity.

Really, Preachers of L.A. certifies the phenomenon, at least in the Pentecostal/charismatic evangelical church in America. That’s not to say that the pastors and churches profiled in the show are representative of most Pentecostal/charismatic churches; but there is important overlap here. While well-known younger charismatic pastors and churches try to distance themselves from the blatant “prosperity gospel” of their forebears (and perhaps of the churches in Preachers), they struggle to make a complete break. They are still connected to the same system, still products of the same excessive, materialistic culture.

A scene toward the end of the first episode demonstrated this. Dietrick Haddon, the young gospel singer and preacher who seems to be the most problematic character at the beginning, with a bit of scandal on his pastoral resume, gets into a heated debate with the older prosperity gospel superstar Bishop Clarence McClendon. At one point, Dietrick interrogates the good Bishop on why he charges a fee to minister to churches, including payment for his “entourage,” when so many churches can’t afford it, and the gospel is supposed to be free, and this kind of thing is why the church is in such bad shape. McClendon is furious and storms out.

Of course, for all of its obvious insanity – the Bentleys, the mansions, the almost-comical preaching theatrics (which seem so absurd when placed up against scenes from the “reality” of the cast members’ lives) – the show is also giving a sympathetic glimpse at the humanity of these preachers and their families. Maybe ex-gangbanger Bishop Ron Gibson really does help some of the homies in Compton. And maybe the moral failings of young Dietrick are the product of a religious upbringing gone wrong, and he is sorry for messing up. Still, what reigns on the screen is the unquenchable thirst among all the cast members for more of that money.

And the engine of Celebrity Christianity revs and hums and bounces like Bishop Ron’s convertible candy apple red Cadillac. 

How about you? Did you see the first episode? What were your thoughts and feelings about what you watched?

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

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  • Robert Martin

    Other than sharing the teaser trailer with my home pastor who has been basically knocking holes in prosperity gospel left and right for the past few weeks, I’ve basically ignored the show. It’s honestly not worth my time and not worth giving Nielson another person to justify marketing…

    • zhoag

      You know, I actually think it’s an important cultural event. It’s an eruption of the Real, happening in plain sight of mainstream culture, not just in the backwater of TBN.

      • Robert Martin

        Perhaps you’re right… but considering that I’ll most likely end up throwing things at my TV screen and screaming at it… for my personal health and blood pressure, I think I’ll abstain. :-)

        • zhoag

          yeah, there’s that :).

  • Rob Grayson

    It’s not being aired in the UK (AFAIK) and I’m not sure I’d be able to sit through it if it was. But in a way I’m glad it’s being shown and getting such attention in the US, because it gives those who hold to the true values of the Kingdom an opportunity to shine out in contrast to the counterfeit Christianity shown on the screen.

    (I wrote a blog post a couple of weeks ago on the closely related theme of prosperity:

  • Chris Linzey

    I think one of my favorite parts was when Dietrich’s baby momma says, “We do not live together for religious reasons.” Um…what? As for the $$$, I believe that there is a cultural split in America that people don’t realize. It’s not just about the men desiring stuff – it’s about the church wanting a pastor who represents success. Many congregations seem to want their preaches to be the model of success and give generously.

    • zhoag

      yeah, i agree. this is a situation in which celebrity culture has the congregations convinced they benefit from the excessive wealth of their leaders. they don’t realize it is to their detriment.

  • Bev Murrill

    I say the same as Robert – it’s not on in UK and I don’t think I could stomach it if was. Embarrassing and a caricature of so much of what the secular world thinks of the Church. It’s true that UK leaders do not live that consumerist lifestyle, but many of the grand old church buildings are filled with valuable artefacts. People think the Church just wants your money, which is far from the truth, but there’s enough publicity for the few who do, to tar us all with the same brush.

  • stephen fife

    I was struck by the absurdity of it all. These people have managed to reduce Christianity down to all shiny veneer and nothing under the hood. Jesus has become a commodity to be sold and profited from.

    However, I wonder if this isn’t more real than we give it credit for. We dismiss it as reality TV. I wonder how many churches, ministers, preachers around the country do the exact same thing. Could this be a distorted reflection of our own reality and what we try to “sell” in our churches?

    • zhoag

      I fear you could be right. Growing up in the charismatic church I often saw the essence of following Jesus defined as just being part of the hype. No substance behind it. Good insight.

  • Jennwith2ns

    We don’t have TV. (Don’t let that make us sound more righteous than we are–we have *a* TV–but we watch stuff online through it.) I hadn’t even heard of this. It sounds kind of horrible. The only person I’ve ever known to do a good job with the humanity of the clergy through fiction is Susan Howatch in some of her novels.

    As for the celebrity thing–how do you think this translates to other media? I mean, I have some stories I’d really like to get published, and I’d like them to be published because I’d like people to read them. I feel like there’s something worth saying in them, but is the self-promotion required in the publishing world these days remotely Christlike? I don’t really feel like it is. In a society (secular and Christian) built on “celebrity or die,” how do you really navigate that? Would Jesus have had a Twitter account? ;-)

    • zhoag

      Great question. I expanded on my understanding of Celebrity Christianity here: My sense is that notoriety or a platform in and of itself is NOT negative/unchristlike. If that were the case we’d lose so many faith/art/justice leaders through the years, the greatest of which might be Jesus himself as he had both notoriety and a platform (though his self-promotion was probably minimal). Celebrity Christianity, for me, is a theology/spirituality that elevates celebrity values – fame, material wealth, bling, excess, arrogance/swagger – as an ideal to be sought for all Christians and a sign of God’s favor on one’s life.

      • Jennwith2ns

        Makes sense. But like you say, I think Jesus’ own self-promotion was minimal. I mean, there are those places where He’s like, “I’m my own witness and my witness is valid, cuz, God.” but that seems to be the extent of it. And also, He was God. So . . . God actually merits the glory by definition. Mostly He washed people’s feet and stuff, which was startling, but not inherently “self-PROMOTING,” if you know what I mean.

        I keep batting around in my head where the balance is between doing the work we need to do, and trusting God to make what’s supposed to happen, happen. Like–George Mueller praying his whole life and having a perpetually-funded (though also on-edge) ministry.

        • zhoag

          Yeah, I hear that. I wasn’t trying to equate anyone’s desire for glory as appropriate by comparing to Jesus, but more the opposite: if Jesus had notoriety (for whatever reason, probably not because he was “God” in most people’s minds), then this at least sets a precedent for platform/notoriety “happening.” But I do think that excessive self-promotion/swagger is not the way of Jesus.

          • Jennwith2ns

            Yes, exactly. I don’t think platform is bad in and of itself. I just think that the way some of us try to get there is kinda un-Jesus-y.

      • Jennwith2ns

        P.S. That other article was awesome.