The Mefferd-Driscoll controversy points to another aspect of celebrity culture: celebrities are routinely allowed to behave in ways which would not be tolerated in ordinary mortals. For example, being drunk on the job and hurling abuse at an employer would make one unemployable in the real world.
The controversy surrounding Janet Mefferd’s interview of Mark Driscoll is interesting for a variety of reasons. There is one aspect of it which has yet to attract comment as far as I can tell. That is the way it brings out another aspect of the celebrity culture which has so corrupted the young, restless and reformed movement.
My interest here is not who was right and who was wrong. That will no doubt be fairly easy to establish as the claims which Janet Mefferd made should be empirically verifiable. I would only comment that, in my own interactions with Janet Mefferd, I have always found her forthright but fair. I am concerned in this post only with what the reactions to the interview tell us about the culture of celebrity in the subculture that is evangelicalism.
I have tried a number of times to make the point that being a celebrity is not the same as being a public figure. Anyone who acts in public is, to a greater or lesser degree, a public figure. Celebrity brings with it such matters as a culture of false intimacy with complete strangers and a charismatic authority rooted in the person not in an institution. Thus, influence is often predicated on personality, not on the intrinsic merits of arguments etc.
The Mefferd-Driscoll controversy points to another aspect of celebrity culture: celebrities are routinely allowed to behave in ways which would not be tolerated in ordinary mortals. For example, being drunk on the job and hurling abuse at an employer would make one unemployable in the real world. Not for Charlie Sheen. A conviction for rape would be enough to have you characterized as a monster in the real world who had forfeited the right to sympathetic media exposure. Not for Mike Tyson or Roman Polanski (just ask that champion of women’s rights, Whoopi Goldberg). In short, normal rules do not apply to celebrities in the same way as they do to others.
The same is true in the celebritydrome of the evangelical subculture. Driscoll is a classic case in point. For example, he has claimed that God gives him explicit images of the sexual sins of other people. He has embraced prosperity teacher and denier of the Trinity, T. D. Jakes, as a brother. He has written an explicit book on sex. Most recently, he engaged in a cringe-inducing publicity stunt unworthy of a spoiled teenager. For most of us, any one of these things would have ended in church discipline and (in the Jakes’ case) removal from office. Yet in all of this, the fan base and those with a vested interest in capitalizing on his success grant him free pass after free pass.
So the fall-out from The Janet Mefferd Show has been interesting even as it has been entirely predictable. The fan base and those with a vested interest in Driscoll’s reputation rally around their hero while excoriating Janet Mefferd. In so doing, they ironically demonstrate why shows such as Janet Mefferd’s can be so very important: if the conservative evangelical world continues to be increasingly dominated by one or two huge media-style organizations, the conversation will be corralled and controlled, the hard questions will not be asked, and the leaders of such organizations and those over whom they choose to extend their patronage will not be held to account.
If, in your quest to promote yourself, you ask to appear on a particular show, you should be tough enough to take whatever that show throws at you with equanimity. The intricate and risky dance between celebrities and media is part of the game you have chosen to play, indeed a large factor in what has made you famous and influential. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not. In such circumstances, you should also accept that Janet Mefferd’s job is not to make you look good or to keep her comments within the accepted bounds of evangelical correctness as defined by you or by any other Top Man. Her job as a radio journalist is to ask the hard questions and hold you, me or whomever she is addressing, to account.
But you can still sleep easy at night knowing this important truth: blessed are the celebrities, for they will be rigorously held to a much lower standard of behaviour than the rest of us.
Carl R Trueman is Departmental Chair of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He has an MA in Classics from the University of Cambridge and a PhD in Church History from the University of Aberdeen. This article is reprinted from the Reformation 21 blog and is used with their permission.