In a recent interview with Bill Maher, author and screenwriter Lawrence Wright discussed his new HBO documentary on Scientology, Going Clear. After Maher asked why so many celebrities join this cult, Wright responded that Scientology’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, realized early on that the one thing Americans truly worship is celebrity.
That’s why he set it up in Los Angeles and started the Celebrity Centre in Hollywood. Scientology’s one of the biggest landlords in Hollywood. And they set out to actively court celebrities and treat them like celebrities. And nobody worships celebrities more than celebrities.
In his 2004 book, American Jesus, religion professor Stephen Prothero traces the evolution of Christianity’s savior from the founding fathers through to the new millennium. Around the time of Scientology’s founding, a similar shift occurred in our understanding of the Christ figure: He became more celebrity than cult leader, mimicking the aspirations of Hubbard, which is why you can’t separate the spiritual from the society that creates it.
This is not to detract from other religions: Every faith and practice produces ambitious hucksters. You’ll find it among yoga teachers tagging clothing and juice companies while Instagram posturing in hopes of securing sponsorships as quickly as celebrity preachers discussing celebrity clients, which is why this article on Carl Lentz piqued my interest.
While his Hillsong Church has a number of pastors and locations worldwide, he is a big part of why the organization brings in 100 million tax-free dollars every year. The former college baller has worked his connections to garner a slew of endorsements: Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin. While there are celebrities, NBA stars are the cream of the crop.
This is not to detract from spiritual guidance that Lentz offers his acolytes. We can learn important lessons from anyone at any time. Lentz recognized that top ballers have particular issues and created a niche. Celebrities are humans too, save those that believe themselves to be above others. A textual quote about humility might be a great remedy for such a disease, and good for Lentz if he has important ears.
No, it’s something else that he and others do not sitting right: the propagation of celebrity. There’s a particular leverage gained through social media blasts and name checking that isn’t exactly new in religion; if you could convince the public that village leaders were down with your god, you’d subdue the village.
Hubbard was keen to this — why else would he erect a "celebrity centre" right in the middle of the city famous for creating illusions? Movies capture our imagination through smoke and mirrors, framing fantasy through a lens. Yet we know movies aren’t real. The deception happens when you don’t understand that religion is built on the same illusion.
Thus you have a culture that allows televangelist Creflo Dollar to use his supposed divine connection to raise $65 million to purchase a private jet. And you have the enormous wealth of men like Joel Osteen and his $10+ million mansion.
Good for them, right? They earned and deserve it. Osteen doesn’t take any money from his church; books are his cash cow. What’s the problem?
The housing crash, for one. As journalist Barbara Ehrenreich writes, Osteen and other "prosperity preachers" claim that they are no different than others, that what they have is possible for everyone. Somehow they fail to acknowledge that the idea of 300+ million Americans owning a mansion is preposterous, to say nothing of the world population.
Osteen, for example, attributes his acquisition of the Compaq Center not only to God, but also his ability to visualize this bold move: "I began to ‘see’ our congregation worshipping God in the Compaq Center in the heart of Houston.” He advises anyone interested in prosperity to do the same: “Get rid of those old wineskins. Get rid of that small-minded thinking and start thinking as God thinks. Think big. Think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough.”
Think millions of Americans underwater for believing such nonsense. Pastors, though, have a special "get out of jail free" card: They can preach it, but when it doesn’t happen, that’s your fault for not praying hard enough.
Lentz has been dubbed the Osteen of the younger generation, a pastor of hipster cool, undoubtedly for his Instagram fist bumps and bro hugs with Durant and Anthony. While he preaches being in the moment (as compared to Osteen’s visualization voodoo), he’s also using the moment to bolster the budget of his church.
Which all leads to one question: What would Jesus do?
While modern preachers love to claim that God is here for our good, it’s hard to imagine such a benevolent bro looking over our shoulder given our daily turmoil and tragedies. While I never dove into the bible as much as other books when studying religion academically, I do remember Christ taking issue with hoarders and lenders. I recall more socialism than capitalism, something about power becoming too centralized and controlled, and not enough resources getting to those who need it most.
But like Hubbard knew, the veneer of celebrity casts such a bright light that the details are obscured. Perhaps that’s why we call them "stars." The closer you get, the harder to observe the shadows being cast.