The Insidious Cult of Celebrity
By Brett McCracken
July 14, 2010
It isn’t hard to see that our world is utterly smitten with celebrity: the concept, the people, when TMZ is a TV show, when “breaking news” of some plane crash in Africa gets equal billing with “breaking news” of Lindsay Lohan’s jail sentencing; or when the death of Michael Jackson captures cable news for, well, almost a year ... We are saturated with celebrity, to an arguably dangerous degree. It might do us some good, then, to consider the issue on a deeper level. What is the meaning and cultural impact of celebrity, and how should Christians respond?
An unhealthy obsession
Emblematic of our obsession with all things celebrity are popular websites like TMZ and PerezHilton, celebritainment TV channels like E!, and magazines like US Weekly, In Touch and People. These are all big-money enterprises, and crucial to their success is the fact that there is a huge demand for pop culture and celebrity media coverage. Paparazzi-snapped photographs of celebrities doing the most mundane things are sold to magazines for thousands of dollars on a daily basis. The occasional grade-A wedding or baby photograph can fetch in the millions.
And, let’s be honest: Part of our obsession with celebrityism is that many of us, even secretly, crave our 15 minutes of fame. And today, those precious 15 minutes are more attainable than ever before. “Now, with YouTube and Facebook, you can be a star very quickly in your own world,” Teresa Tomeo, author of Noise: How Our Media-Saturated Culture Dominates Lives and Dismantles Families, says. “People become enamored with this whole idea of celebrityism and the whole idea of being famous.”
Why are we obsessed?This is the question at the heart of the matter. On one hand, a lot of it has to do with sheer exposure: The more we saw Paris Hilton mugging for the cameras five years ago, the more she became a “celebrity” in our eyes. “That’s a new development that is a result of celebrityism,” Bob Hostetler, author of American Idols: The Worship of the American Dream, says. “They haven’t accomplished anything, they haven’t performed any heroic deed and they haven’t entertained millions—they’re just famous because they’re famous.”
On the other hand, there is a definite class dimension to celebrity. The vast majority of celebs are very wealthy, either by way of inheritance (Paris Hilton), entrepreneurial spirit (the Olsen twins), sheer talent (Tiger Woods) or, um, reality shows (Kate Gosselin). These people represent the status symbols we all aspire to; they have it all (seemingly), and thus they invite a kind of envious fascination from the rest of us.
The root of the issue, Craig Detweiler (author of Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century) believes, stems from our need to immortalize ourselves and our accomplishments. “I think the fault is that fame and celebrity enter the highest virtue in culture. It’s the closest thing to getting to heaven or eternal life,” he says. “In other words, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley are all eternal in pop culture, and so becoming a celebrity is the closest thing to eternal life outside the Church. I see a hunger for celebrity as a hunger for eternity.”
According to Hostetler, there are three things that have caused Americans to become so enamored with celebrityism: the longing for community, significance and glory. “We feel connected to celebrities even though they don’t know us. It’s almost that they become our friends, just like Rachel, Ross, Phoebe, Monica, Chandler and Joey became our friends even though we have no idea who these people are and what they’re really like,” he says. “It underscores the lack of community many of us feel. Obviously, all three [longings] are God’s will for us, but it’s not His will to find it in celebrity worship.”
So how do we deal with these longings in a healthy way? The antidote, Hostetler says, is true worship: “Almost instantly, when I turn my mind and heart toward the worship of God, the distractions, depressions and discouragements of this world, the emptiness that we look to celebrity worship to fill, begins to dissipate. He’s fulfilled my longing for community, my longing for significance and my longing for glory.” Furthermore, Tomeo adds, Christians must take responsibility for their role in celebrityism. “There are too many frequencies filling our ears,” Tomeo says. “If we’re spending the majority of our time with media outlets instead of with God and family, then that’s a problem. Think of everything in moderation.”
“We have to be aware of the problem, the obsession,” Hostetler adds. “We have to refuse to play the game. One of the saddest things is that in the Church, we’re not countercultural in that respect—we don’t resist and we don’t push back against our culture’s fixation on celebrity. Instead, we just adopt our own celebrities ... When a famous person identifies with Christ, we adopt them as a special category of celebrity because they’re now Christian.”
Indeed, Christians are often quick to scoop up “their own” and elevate them simply because they, at one point or another, have expressed belief in God. Case in point: celebs like Gary Busey, Mel Gibson (at least around the time of The Passion of the Christ), Jessica Simpson, Kanye—Christian celebs who often don’t lead very Christian lives.
Perhaps part of the solution, rather than simply tearing down celebrities, is to understand our own value—and the value of those around us—to be no less significant just because we don’t share the limelight. “We need to affirm the saints in our lives who are all around us—everyday saints rather than cultural celebrities,” Detweiler says. “Who should we be celebrating? And I don’t think it’s enough to say Jesus—no, that’s too easy. In other words, saints are human manifestations of our highest ideals, so we need more human role models.”
Ultimately, celebrity derives from humanity’s most rudimentary fault: pride. It is about the elevation of man to some high status of beauty, achievement and power ... not something we should promote. This is not to say it is wrong to admire someone for their success, integrity or achievement. The Bible constantly heralds the “heroes” of the faith (Hebrews 11) and does not shy away from singling out certain people (like Moses, Noah and Paul) who used their life for great purposes. Likewise, it’s important that we laud celebrities who do good works and “give back” in significant ways. “Celebrity is a form of bully pulpit—a platform upon which to promote a vision,” Detweiler says. “The responsible celebrity takes the spotlight that’s shining on them and turns it or holds up a mirror that redirects the spotlight on the least of these.” Whether it’s Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie doing humanitarian work in New Orleans, Bono using his celebrity to help AIDS orphans in Africa or Chris Martin making trade fair, we should be happy to see celebrity being put to good use.
Certainly there are concerns regarding celebrity and its place in our world today. But there are also opportunities. The power and influence celebs can wield is great, and it can be used for both good and ill. Rather than complaining about or boycotting (or just mindlessly idolizing) celebrities, perhaps Christians should be looking to build relationships with them. Perhaps in this big, messy, hyper-cynical explosion of entertainment we call the world, this is one thing Christians can do to make it a little better.
This article is an excerpt of a longer piece that originally appeared in RELEVANT magazine. It's a good magazine. You should subscribe.
Brett McCracken is a blogger and author of the upcoming book Hipster Christianity (Baker Books). He would like to be a cross between C.S. Lewis and Terence Malick, with a dash of Derrida thrown in for good measure, only without the nihilism.