The Deadly Death of Definitions: On the Use of Terms
“A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.”
–Fred Allen, Treadmill to Oblivion
“The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.”
–Daniel Boorstin, The Image
“Celebrity: the advantage of being known by those who don’t know you.”
Chamfort Maximes et pensées
I’m a social scientist by education and training. Prior to the Lord saving me, my ambition was to teach community psychology at a research 1 university. I love the sound of markers on white boards and the way the brains of young students screech at a worldview halting or pop and ooze with some fresh discovery or intellectual challenge. For a long while, the academic life seemed like the ideal life to me.
One reason for that ambition and that view of the academy were the teachers I enjoyed during my university studies–especially graduate school. The Lord granted me the privilege of studying with some outstanding men, leaders in their field who were generous with others. I looked up to them–still do.
One thing they taught me as an aspiring research psychologist was the indispensable role of theory in guiding research and practice. A good theory was, as the saying goes, worth its weight in gold. But you couldn’t just posit a theory and walk off into the sunset having explained all life’s problems with little more than your own ruminations. Good theory was hard work. The toil began with definitions. A good theory depended on strong constructs. I couldn’t help but recall this as I watched The Green Lantern this weekend. The young reluctant superhero wasn’t so “super” until he learned to imagine and use strong reality-shaping constructs, ideas, or definitions. In the social sciences, strong constructs were the difference between a salient and workable explanation of some social problem and a thorough shredding of your theory and hypotheses in the face of data and reality.
It seems to me that much of the talk about “celebrity” and “rock star” pastors must begin with solid working definitions. Otherwise, we have no coherent, reliable way of discussing the issue. Most current usage reminds me of the quip: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” People assume they know it when they see it, but they’ve spent precious little time thinking carefully about defining it. But when the terms are sometimes pejoratives, accusations, insinuations, and slanders that affect the reputations of the ones so described, failing to define the terms or to think carefully about their use is at least negligent and at worst ungodly. As I wrote in an earlier post on the subject, I find the terms deplorable. The labels have all the power to stain and ruin a reputation without any of the inconvenience required by precise definition. Think McCarthy’s Communist charges.
A Brief Survey of Usage
I spent a little time casting about the internet reading articles and blog posts to see if anyone had given much time to defining the terms. As it turns out, at least on popular evangelical blogs, websites, and online journals, precious little definition is out there–even though from 2006 to the present one can see a noticeable uptick in the usage of the terms.
What exactly are we talking about when we use those terms?
In dictionary terms, “celebrity” refers either to “a famous person” or “fame, notoriety, renown.” The term carries no necessary negative or positive connotation. But most usage in both secular and evangelical circles nowadays departs from the textbook meanings and connotations.
For some, all you need is a blog or a Facebook page or a twitter account with a follower or two. By that definition, Carl Trueman himself–perhaps the most outspoken critic of evangelical celebrity culture–is a “celebrity pastor.” So is yours truly and probably your very own local church pastor.
For some, your writing needs to be a bit more elaborate than blog posts. You need to have written a book or two. Then you qualify as a “celebrity pastor.” If people actually buy and read the book, quote you a time or two, then you’ve moved up to “rock star pastor” status. Or, if you speak at a conference and your conference address gets published, that makes you twice the “celebrity” and “rock star” because (a) you were a conference speaker and (b) you made it into print. Congratulations!
Sometimes people assume that if you actively and creatively promote what you’ve written or spoken then the act of promotion itself is self-aggrandizing and celebrity-seeking. But why labor to speak or write on something important enough to speak or write about if you’re not going to tell others you think this important and have something to say?
Or perhaps “celebrity” and “rock star” work as synonyms for “young hipster“. Still others seem to believe simply preaching to a large church makes you a “rock star” pastor. If your church rolls boast more than 200-250 people, then you must be a “celebrity.” After all, rather than stick to Jewish limits for walking distance on the Sabbath, people drive a number of miles to hear you speak, and some would even attend a satellite church to hear you. Ipso facto–A “rock star.”
Notice something about these definitions? They all attempt to define the concept by proxy. They’re not statements about the essence of celebrity. Rather, they’re symptoms, signs, or outward activities–a kind of ”celebrity in the eye of the beholder” definition. They lack precision or nuance. In short, these are inferences and speculations. They won’t suffice for defining the phenomenon we’re concerned about. We could all list scores of persons who use Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and market their writing or organization but would not be “celebrities” or “rock stars” in the commonly assumed pejorative sense.
So there must be something else, another way of addressing the issue. Since most evangelicals use these terms as pejoratives–negative slurs–we dare not settle for lazy proxies. If we’re going to label a man and express contempt for him, we ought to do it with precision. Good derision no less than good praise depends on good definition.
Carl Trueman, regard by some as the “watch dog” on this issue, offers perhaps the most helpful blog reflection on defining “celebrity.” In “Public Figures and Celebrities: A Key Distinction,” Trueman distinguishes between someone simply well-known and public and someone courting celebrity. Right up-front he helpfully identifies the problem with blurring the distinction between “public figures” and “celebrities”:
Anyone who performs any public action such as writing, preaching, or making a speech, becomes known by some section of the public at some level. The more well-known such a public figure is, the more we think in terms of fame and being famous. This is unfortunate as these words somewhat blur the distinction between being a public figure and being a celebrity. After all, unless one allows a distinction between being well-known and being a celebrity, then one really denies that it is possible to criticize celebrity culture in the public sphere: such criticism, as a public act, would mean that the critics were immediately co-opted into that which they were critiquing. Such incoherence would thereby render the exercise self-defeating and hypocritical, allowing for it to be dismissed on logical and moral grounds.
So, “celebrity” and “rock star” ought not be used as synonyms for “public” and “well known.” ”Celebrity” and “rock star,” according to Trueman, include a certain dallying in secular and ungodly tendencies toward image production, fanfare, and shallow notoriety. Here are the four aspects to “celebrity” that Trueman identifies:
1. Being a celebrity “carries with it connotations of branding and marketing.” He adds: “There is a difference between someone who writes and speaks, even one who is very popular, and someone who has actually achieved a level of popularity combined with particular market appeal and particular marketing mechanisms.”
2. Being a celebrity “is often accompanied by a strange familiarity whereby the celebrities are referred to in quite intimate terms by people who have never met them or have only the most passing of connections with them.” Celebrities are people that other people feel strongly about even though there’s little or no actual relationship. Trueman comments: “Being the object of such pseudo-familiarity is often a sign of the possession of celebrity status.”
3. “Celebrity also brings with it a certain fetish quality whereby peculiar power is ascribed to the person, a power which they do not instrinsically possess.” Trueman here takes aim at the tendency of some to invest unquestionable authority in a person (“this must be right because ‘X’ says it”).
4. “Celebrity often today brings with it a certain aesthetic influence.” In other words, people begin to dress, speak, and act like the “celebrity” in question.
Based on these statements, movement toward “celebrity” and “rock star” status involve: marketing savvy, either currying or enjoying emotional attachment from those who do not know you, fetish quality, and aesthetic influence. Trueman readily admits that aspects 2-4 may have more to do with the audience than the person being “celebrified.” He opposes the idea that because a person’s admirers respond with over-familiarity, make a fetish of the man, or mimic him then the man himself can automatically be blamed for seeking celebrity. But he also contends that the well-known public figure–especially pastors–have a responsibility to work against these tendencies in their audiences. Lord willing, we’ll talk more about responsibility in a later post. But for now, stand back and think a minute about this definition of “celebrity.”
What do you think of this definition? Does this suffice as a good working definition for our theory that the church and pastors are vulnerable to “celebrity” and “celebrification”? What strengths and weaknesses accompany this definition? If three-quarters of the definition may be met by followers without the active design of the “celebrity,” how useful is this definition for describing the pastors in question?
In social psychological terms, I’d say–as helpful as Trueman’s four-part reflections are–the definition lacks “construct validity.” It has good “face validity” (it looks and sounds correct) but it fails the test of “discrimination validity” (it fails to distinguish sufficiently from other phenomena). In other words, the definition fails to measure what’s happening with the pastor or preacher or actor or athlete in question. It tells us mostly about ourselves, audiences, spectators, and fans–but it doesn’t really tell us about the “celebrity.” Again, in social science jargon, there’s a “confound.” In this case, we confuse levels of anyalysis–individual and group–with the one term.
So, it’s difficult to see how we could reliably brand a man a “celebrity pastor” or “rock star” pastor when we’re mostly describing the attributes and actions of the crowd. Let me hasten to agree with Trueman that the pastor or leader in question has responsibility for thinking about how they discourage adulating tendencies in others. But at the level of whether or not we should call a pastor himself a “celebrity” or “rock star,” it seems prudent to me that we call a moratorium until we’re equipped with better definitions. I think that’s especially important because the use of these terms implies something sinister about the hearts of the men so labeled.
One More Attempt
In another post, Trueman cites email correspondence with a Bavinck scholar. This attempt at a definition gets closer to a one-sentence definition centered more on the individual pastor himself rather than the effects of celebrity in the surrounding culture–whether broader secular or smaller evangelical culture. He writes:
I would define the current notion of celebrity, for example, around the categories of aesthetics carefully cultivated and public self-disclosure of personal details with the goal that the public then celebrates this person in public arena etc. … Sacrificing the difficult details of your private life in order to gain public adulation is a key part of secular celebrity, and I wonder if the way some of these preachers sacrifice the harder details of their private lives (or more often, the private sins of their wives/children – after all, shaming one’s self isn’t that good an idea as a preacher) in order to get public adulation is just the same thing.
This writer defines celebrity, in part, by the designed outcome–public celebration of the person himself. The aspiring celebrity carefully cultivates an appearance, a persona, and strategically uses the details of their personal life to meet this goal. That, I think, is the gist of most evangelical uses of the labels. That, I think, is why the entire discussion is troubling on so many levels.
If evangelical pastors really act this way, they are not “pastors” in any biblical sense of the word. If this is observable in a man, he should be immediately dismissed from the pastoral role. But it’s troubling on another level. Calling someone a “celebrity,” insofar as we imply they’re celebrity-seeking, requires us to make judgments about a person’s motives we simply cannot reliably make. While it’s true that we may judge a tree by the fruit it bears, some folks are attempting to judge the difference between banana and plantain from the distance of a 1,000 miles. In many cases, the critic’s emotional dislike while being unfamiliar with the “celebrity” may simply be the negative cousin to the celebrity-making public’s emotional attachment from the same distance. One man hates the disclosure of private life while the other is drawn to it. Six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. And we’re still left asking ourselves, “What are we really observing in the person?” We don’t know.
Toward Some Working Definitions
It’s taken me a while to get here (sorry about that), but here are some beginning definitions I hope might be helpful to those convinced they should continue using the terms.
Celebrity Status–a social standing conferred or withheld by some public or audience.
A person may use their gifts and abilities to seek notoriety or fame, but they cannot by those efforts make themselves famous, any more than they can make themselves loved. Think of all the aspiring Hollywood actors waiting tables in L.A. hoping for that ‘big break.’ No matter how strenuously the aspiring celebrity may attempt to fashion and advance their image, the media and the public always play a substantial part in the image-making process and the determining role in conferring celebrity status. In short, celebrities don’t make celebrities; people make celebrities.
Celebrity–an individual on whom celebrity status has been conferred, without regard to their merit or their intention. They have a high- or popular-profile in media or other outlets important to the public.
Celebrity-Seeking–that behavior that looks for the applause and adulation of others, that aims to maintain a positive portrayal of self in the public, often on superficial and dishonest grounds. See also idolatry, pride, self-aggrandizement, self-exaltation, delusions of grandeur.
Here’s what I hope these terms do for us. They distinguish levels of analysis–whether we’re describing public attitudes and actions or individual. In the case of “celebrity-seeking,” we may focus on observable behavior and not put entire groups of pastors under the dark cloud of a vague label. I hope this says more squarely that the ability to confer “celebrity status” and the proportional responsibility for that action lies with the audiences or groups in question. If it’s true that the ability to confer celebrity status lies with the crowds, then that raises basic questions about the propriety of pointing at public and influential pastors as though they’ve anointed and proclaimed themselves to be “celebrities.” Again, I’m not denying the responsibilities we all have in the public square. I’m simply placing the primary locus of control at the celebrity-making group level rather than the individual pastor level.
Frankly, I don’t think we have any good definitions available to us at all. Even those who think about pop culture and celebrity as an academic career lament the shifting sands of definition in this area. Honestly, I think we’d be better off treating this issue the way we sometimes treat discussions of “Calvinism” or “Reformed theology”–better to describe and explain what we’re talking about than to use the label that miscommunicates so much.
What We Teach Titus
My four year old sometimes repeats things he hears. Sometimes it’s cute. He will appropriately use a phrase befitting someone in their sixties. The weird juxtaposition of old-age wisdom and his four-year-old frame triggers a good chuckle.
But his mimicry isn’t always funny. Sometimes he picks up a word he shouldn’t repeat–ever. At four years old, he doesn’t know what he’s saying and he doesn’t have the mental faculties as yet to distinguish between good things to emulate and the evil company that corrupts good manners.
So we have a simple rule in our house. If you don’t know what a word or phrase means, don’t use it. Plain and simple. Know what you’re talking about, otherwise avoid that term. This entire “celebrity” discussion reminds me of that principle. Until we know what we’re talking about, we should avoid the terms–especially when there are more respectable ways of referring to prominent people, like “prominent,” “high-profile,” “public” and so on. As Christians, we should show honor even when we’re attempting to point out serious problems.