When I get on the subway, I usually pick up one of the free daily newspapers at Kennedy Station. I might glance over the headlines, perhaps take a stab at the crossword, but I know my real purpose is to find out the latest celebrity gossip. Harrison Ford has grown a beard; Brad and Angelina have taken a trip to the museum; Katie is plunging deeper into Scientology; Paris, still estranged from Nicole, has a new dog. These revelations, startling in their complete irrelevance to my life, are somehow addictive—and not just for me, but for all the people on the train with their noses buried in People or Us Weekly.
Why is the cult of celebrity so alluring? Perhaps we feel that by knowing every minute detail about these glamorous people, we can somehow come to share in their glamour. There is a kind of totemic significance to celebrities in our culture: We identify with them, idolize them, fashion ourselves after their image. The glossy allure of the magazine rack carries the implicit promise that our lives have a chance of reaching the distant shores of the Hollywood dream-world.
For Christians, this is a false hope. We are called to bear no image except the image of God, the one imprinted so clearly in the person of Christ. Jesus, far from being some kind of international superstar or celebrity, lived the first thirty years of his life in the same obscurity that most of us find ourselves in. When he was able to attract multitudes, at least in some towns, it wasn’t because of his perfect teeth and glistening skin—it was because he healed ordinary people in their place of need. Many of the people who initially followed him, perhaps hoping for a celebrity Messiah, turned away when they realized that he was preaching a message based not on charisma and charm but repentance.
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…” (Isaiah 53:2b, TNIV). Sometimes preachers are tempted to suggest, based on this prophetic passage, that Jesus was ugly. To do so, however, is to miss the point. Isaiah is pointing to a coming Messiah who will radically identify with the most unglamorous elements of society, a Suffering Servant who embraces the poor and broken. “He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem” (53:3). The message to Israel—and to our own culture—is that the Anointed One walks among the lepers, beggars and tax collectors rather than the rich and famous. On "Nobody Loves Me" from She Must and Shall Go Free, Derek Webb pointedly reminds us that the truth is never sexy, so it’s not an easy sell—it runs against the grain of our tendencies toward the superficial, not least in Jesus, who claimed to be truth in bodily form.
The cross itself is the ultimate deconstruction of glamour—a complete subversion of the very nature of “beauty.” No one would put a crucified man on the cover of People. Yet the cross, ugly by nature as an instrument of torture and Roman imperial control, develops an unearthly beauty when seen as the symbol of God’s forgiveness and grace. This is a beauty more substantial than the illusory ideal held up by our culture; a beauty that cannot be bought. It is this ultimate reversal, Christ’s victory over the way our world operates, that we need to cling to in an age of gloss and glitz.
It isn’t easy. When we look in the mirror, or at our reflections in the subway window, we want to see a movie star looking back at us. Nevermind that we barely know anyone with the good looks demanded by fashion magazines; we are self-conscious creatures, our insecurities fed by a steady diet of commercials and false promises. As long as we let our obsessions shape our identities, we will continue to disown our own bodies.
We must remember each day that it is the image of Christ we bear as ministers of reconciliation, children of God. All our grasping after earthbound stars will leave us empty and disappointed. But if we can come to understand who we are—a damaged people whom God has deemed truly beautiful—we will be less susceptible to those things that would cast us in their image.
Besides, celebrities are normal, broken people as well. It is a sign of our own cultural illness that we would cast them as demigods. When we live out the truth that glamour is but a shadow of true beauty, we will shine like the bona fide stars of the night sky, "children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation" (Philippians 2:15). Putting down our magazines, we will read each other.