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1 Corinthians 10:11-14

The Cult of Celebrity

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1 Corinthians 10:11-14

The Cult of Celebrity

Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

The ultimate in celebrity status has arrived. It is not a talk show personality, a star athlete, a rap singer, a politician. It is Angelyne. A visual phenomenon, a living icon, her face and figure adorn billboards throughout Los Angeles, extending to New York, Washington DC and overseas to England, Germany and Japan. She typically drapes her body over a pink Corvette, or waves to drivers from a pink Cadillac. She has consistently appeared on posters, bus shelters, bus sides and murals, establishing her image internationally.

She has appeared in over one thousand magazines worldwide, including People, Life, Rolling Stone, Billboard, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Vogue, Playboy, Vanity Fair, TV guide, Variety, National Geographic and a host of others. She has appeared on one thousand television shows around the world. She has a world-wide fan club, and an Internet Web page where you order a personally autographed photo with a real kiss print. Angelyne T-shirts, Videos, Cassettes, Postcards, Buttons.

Now when I say that she is the ultimate celebrity, I mean that she has literally done nothing worthy of all this attention other than plaster herself on billboards to achieve notoriety. I quote her. “I don’t do — I am! Some people become famous for music, films, sports, whatever. I became famous for being on billboards.”

So we now live in a world where you can be famous for being famous. Once not so long ago one became well known for making a life-changing discovery, Jonas Salk, orbiting the earth three times, John Glenn, or displaying extraordinary talent, Van Cliburn, achieving some other great historic endeavor. It still happens. But these are often eclipsed today by the celebrity, one who is known simply for being known. Fred Allen defined a celebrity as one who works to be known and then wears dark glasses so as not to be recognized. Think of your week with television, especially the cable news. How much of what you saw had to do with hard news? How much with personalities who dominated the tube because of their celebrity status?

How many tens of thousands pour over celebrity magazines every month? To satisfy an unquenchable thirst for celebrity news.

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Newsmagazines cannot survive without including news on the rich and famous. The special annual issue of People magazine which highlights “The 25 most beautiful people,” is one of its best selling issues. It displays the faces and bodies of the physically blessed. Teen People magazine, same publisher and format but different audience: the cover tells it all. The hottest new stars, Chad, Lindsay, Omarion, Amber, Chingy. Celebrity scoops — juicy gossip on Justin, Mary-Kate and Ashley, Pharrell, Britney, Jessica Simpson.

So what’s it all about? A measure of it may be quite innocent. But the enormity of celebrity worship in our culture does not bode well for us, especially the young. It is media driven to be sure. But the media would not drive in this direction, it if did not meet with such an enormous response on the part of the public. It seems we have become a people who need reinforcement that we are important, that we count. A feeling of insignificance and lack of purpose in the midst of a mass culture breeds, it seems, the need for identification with the officially important. Why do young men, and not so young, walk around with football shirts with Brian Urlacher emblazoned across the shoulders. What does that do for them? Make them bigger, more important. Inflation by identification.

Where did the bare midriff originate? I checked with others who are authorities. It was not invented by some obscure wall flower. It came from Madonna through Brittany Spears I am told.

And it is all over New Trier High School. In a Narcissistic culture the individual is not real unless identified with the important. And the important are those everybody knows as important, because everybody knows them.

But listen to the late Christopher Lasch in his volume The Culture of Narcissism. “In a society in which the dream of success has been drained of any meaning, people have nothing against which to measure their achievements. So self-approval, self-worth depends on public recognition and acclaim, and the quality of this approval has undergone important changes… The good opinion of friends and neighbors, which formerly informed one that he or she had lived a useful life, rested on appreciation of his accomplishments. Today people seek the kind of approval that applauds not their actions but their personal attributes. They wish to be not so much esteemed as admired. They crave not fame but the glamour and excitement of celebrity, either personally or vicariously. Whereas fame depended on the performance of notable deeds, the reward of those who project a vivid or pleasing exterior or have otherwise attracted attention to themselves is acclaimed in news media, in gossip columns, on talk shows, in magazines devoted to personalities.

Success in our society has to be ratified by publicity. The tycoon who lives in personal obscurity, the empire builder who controls the destinies of nations from behind the scenes, are vanishing types. All politics becomes a form of spectacle. It is well known that Madison Avenue packages politicians and markets them as if they were cereals or deodorants. So the mass media, with their cult of celebrity and their attempt to surround it with glamour and excitement, have made Americans a nation of fans. The media intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encouraging the common man to identify himself with the stars.

Now I would argue that this identification of self-importance with being known or identifying with the known is just a latter day version of what the commandments and the Apostle Paul warn against. “You shall have no other Gods before me.” “The lesson we must learn, my friends, is at all costs to avoid the worship of false Gods.”

But what are the false gods? They are in one way or another, projections of the ego, the self. The Golden Calf represented for the Israelites the worship of their desire for a safe and controllable God. Jesus speaks of money and family as idols and they are as they become worship of our own passions and needs. An idol is any dimension of reality that takes over and becomes a driving and central concern of myself. It can be work, sex, popularity, the Bears (I’m particularly vulnerable there), anything that preoccupies me at the center of my existence to the exclusion of higher loyalties and values. Seen this way, idolatry is something that lurks every day. And the struggle of faith is the struggle to rise above it, to give ourselves to purposes greater and more enobling.

To help us hear let me contrast two celebrities. Let me acknowledge at the outset that I am indebted to the writing of Richard Neuhaus, editor of the journal First Things. Six years ago last summer two women died in the same week. One was the tragic death of Princess Diana. The media frenzy and orgy of pathos was tasteless in the extreme, but it was fitting that she was mourned. Striking, however, were the commentators, many of them secularist to the bone, who went on about her having been “canonized” as a saint. Strange how even the Church’s enemies reach for the Church’s vocabulary when their words fail them. It was the “week of two saints,” according to one news program. Diana was killed at age thirty-six in the company of a wealthy playboy. Born into British aristocracy, she had married into the royal family, loaned her publicity to approved causes. And yes, she was beautiful. It is no criticism that we would probably never have heard of Diana had she not married Prince Charles. She owed her celebrity entirely to the institution that she trashed.

Nor would we have heard of the other woman who died that same week. She was, if you will , an accidental celebrity. Less than five feet short and craggy-faced, she was born in, of all places, Albania, and followed God’s call to live with and for “the poorest of the poor,” the street people of Calcutta. Her only beauty was in her laughter and her eyes, but what laughter and what eyes, they reflected the joy of doing, as she put it, “something beautiful for God.” And there she died at the age of eighty-seven. Not a very promising career path toward becoming one of the best known and most loved people of the century. But, of course, that was not her goal.

The whole point of her life, after all, was to hide her life away in the lives of those whom the world is glad to forget, the unwanted, the unneeded, the unloved. Mother Teresa’s goal, she often said, was not to be successful, but to be faithful. But astonishingly successful she was, in a curious way. As wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove, she employed that success in the service of the truth that she served.

The rumor got out about this little nun in India doing something beautiful for God and it was spread far and wide, notably by the late Malcom Muggeridge of BBC. Over the years she would become a spiritual magnet, and today the Missionaries of Charity count more than four thousand sisters and novices, four hundred priests and brothers, and hundreds of thousands of lay volunteers, all serving the poorest of the poor in a hundred countries.

The mighty of the world, who pride themselves on their realism, heaped honors upon her, often in lieu of heeding her words.

But she called us to a different realism, a more real world, a world where life is found when lost in service to others. It is easy to live in a dream world where we fancy that we are celebrity. Much harder, and infinitely more rewarding, is the real world where the royal family is composed of those whom Jesus called “the least of these,” and of those who find life in surrendering to their care.

It has been said that a celebrity is someone who is well known for being well known, but there is more to it than that. In a world captive to wealth and glitter and power, her witness kept alive the rumor that there is a radically different measure of human greatness. And even those whom the world counts great half suspected that she was right.

And Christians know better, or at least we should. And over the years, little children will ask whether you ever saw her. And you will answer, “Oh yes. That laughter. Those eyes. What joy” And another generation will listen for the voice that says, “Come, follow me,” and will throw away their lives, and thereby find their lives, in doing something beautiful for God.

But the issue is most often not played out on so grand a stage. Richard Keyes in a little volume entitled True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits clarifies the difference between the celebrity, “who is well known for being well known,” and the hero who “challenges us by his obvious commitment in life to something higher than himself.” And he then points to Jesus as the paradigm of heroes of the ages, a paradigm, by the way, that we badly need to revive. In the life of Jesus we see an unparalleled sense of purpose, love, forgiveness, courage, endurance, and service. Those who seek to imitate the heroic qualities of Jesus may never attain his perfection. But they will find in him the forgiveness, hope and incentive to become heroes themselves. And as partners and parents they can be heroes to one another. Parents need not be super people to be heroes to their children. All they need do is manifest by their living, the things that matter most.

Of course, it doesn’t always involve their applause for our heroism. A teacher asked her class of fifth graders about their personal heroes. One little girl brought her essay home and showed it to her parents. Her father was flattered to discover that his daughter had chosen him. “Why did you pick me?” he asked proudly. “Because I couldn’t spell DeCaprio,” the girl replied.

But it is true. If you ask the children, the young people about heroes, they will most often mention a parent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher, a scout leader, or some neighbor. The real heroes who by their lives challenge us to stretch and grow toward them and the God they seek to serve are rarely to be seen on the evening news or in the morning paper. Really no shortage, if you look around you.

Dorothy lives with her husband and four children in a lovely home in a western suburb. Not surprisingly she is no celebrity, is barely known beyond her circle of neighbors and friends. In some ways she lives a simple unspectacular life but in some ways she is one of a special group. Some years ago a foundation went into American communities in search of unsung heroes. Dorothy’s friends got together and nominated her.

At the nearby Episcopalian church, where she helps lead a small Bible study group, teaches Sunday School, and takes friends to members in need, Dorothy is not one of the first persons a visitor will meet on a Sunday morning. No celebrity at all, but clearly a hero to those who know her.

One of Dorothy’s friends remembers, “When our two-and-a-half year old son died, Dorothy was the one person who got me through it. She could tell by a look when you needed to talk. I would not have made it without her.”

Another friend remembers going into a dangerous premature labor with her second child, while her husband, to top it off, was in the hospital. “Dorothy took me and my daughter in to stay with her until my mother could arrive from out of town to help.”

But for these friends, merely helpfulness does not explain Dorothy. These friends describe an indefinable something about her spirit. Her eyes light up when she occasionally speaks of her hope and faith. When it comes to her religious commitment, you can see it in the way she lives. She is a truly joyful giving human being. No need in Dorothy to be a celebrity or worship one.

“The lesson we must learn my friends, is at all costs to avoid the worship of false gods. I am speaking to you as intelligent human beings: think over what I am saying.”

Copyright 2004, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.