Gospel + Culture: The cult of celebrity

Paul Winch | Sep 24th, 2010

Do you know Jessica Watson? Think hard before you read on … Forgotten? For a few days back in May, it seemed the whole country knew her. She was greeted by thousands of spectators and received an official reception from the Prime Minister and Premier of New South Wales. There was indeed much to celebrate: she sailed solo around the world non-stop and unassisted in a mere seven months, at just 16 years of age!

Culture Analysis: Celebrity

The adulation of this sailing hero is typical in our society. We are a celebrity culture. Of course, there have always been famous people, people whose renown far outstripped the number of people they actually personally knew. However, in many ways, Jessica Watson perfectly models the new celebrity of our culture: she is young rather than old, she is female, and she is 'one of us' rather than from an entitled or privileged class. All of these are new features to fame, which through much of history has generally been the domain of a few select males of the nobility. Probably even more significant than all this however is that Jessica Watson is attractive! This perhaps is the chief difference between ancient fame and modern celebrity. We live in a visual world, where image is often the determining difference in success between two achievements of approximately equal merit in every other way. Contrast for example the world of Charles Dickens, who despite his incredible popularity was able to walk the streets of London unhindered because only his closest associates actually knew what he looked like.

Developments in media and technology are not the only reason for these changes. Our celebrity culture 'makes sense' within a matrix of values and the worldview of post-modernism. One of the most cherished ideals within a post-modern outlook is the quest for individual freedom. This is in part due to the fact that many of the external freedoms have basically been met by the "modern" project: education, health, politics, employment and so on. In a postmodern world, intrinsic freedom is often mediated by consumer choice. Achievement against the odds is another route. When a 'nobody' makes it somehow, the aspirations of a generation are titillated. And within our visual orientated world, being beautiful is in itself a merit, so if achievement against the odds and being HOT can be combined, then all the better. And it really does work like a 'cult' – celebrities are not labeled idols, icons, and stars for nothing. They have 'priests' (aka managers and consultants) who choreograph their image. The analogy could continue.

That is often why so many of the new spiritualities are branded with a celebrity. Having rejecting modernist meta-narratives, many people want to make sense of their lives and chart new courses. Someone who has a measure of achievement like a celebrity and is trying something like Scientology or Kabala just may be onto something. In addition, postmodern values such as collective tolerance and communitarian (not authoritarian) knowledge provide the space for all this exploration and adulation of the different.

What should we make of all this as Christians? How do we passionately follow and proclaim Jesus in a celebrity culture? Let's think through our three theological pillars yet again, this time going down from the cosmic level to the individual levels.

3. Mission of God

In many ways the importance of celebrity in our culture shows the desperate searching for the transcendent, and the spiritual hunger that is pervasive. The normal and mundane are not enough for people, and the scientistic and rationalistic outlooks of the modern meta-narrative have left people dry. Far from the "death of God", there has actually been an explosion of spiritual and religious interest if not practice. Of course the postmodern solution in its worship of celebrity also shows that many people are looking in the wrong place, substituting the creator for a creature. Nevertheless, if "God has set eternity in their hearts" (Eccl 3:11) and "set our times and places … so that we would reach out for him" (Acts 17:26-27) then a question confronts us: is this phenomenon something that we who know the one with the most outstanding achievement ever, able to 'tap' into somehow? Perhaps an emphasis on the gospel as a narrative will work well, as people in our culture are used to following and scrutinising the achievements of particular people, especially public figures and celebrities. This personal and relational approach to gospel proclamation, intersecting our story with the Jesus story, supplementing a more abstract or conceptual proclamation, is certainly worth a try. After all, there are four such gospel narratives in our Bible!

2. A Peculiar People

So far the profound and growing interest in 'spirituality' in our culture, often spearheaded by celebrities, is not translating into church attendance. In fact, the perception is that church is an inhibitor of spiritual expression. I don't pretend to know the answers here, but I do know that it is a great shame that many of those who are seeking something beyond themselves, who are searching for personal meaning and so on, often think that Christians are the last people to be with. To the extent that disconnect is our problem (and it by no means all is), then repentance is necessary, since the gospel does indeed bring true and lasting intrinsic freedom, amongst many other things. If church tradition, structures, leadership, forms, practices or whatever are the basket hiding such a light, then our churches must change.

1. Integral Discipleship

In our world that is so enamoured with celebrity and provides the mechanisms for new stars to be born (and die) overnight, it is just possible that Andy Warhol's "fifteen minutes of fame" will come your way. Even if it doesn't, as a follower of Jesus we will each have to handle the influence and appeal of a celebrity culture. The great reckoning to make deep in your heart as a disciple of Jesus is the question – what truly leads to life? Jesus said "if anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink" (John 7:37).