The rise of the celebrity culture and the challenge to faith and identity

The Religion of Celebrity

What does the rise of the cult of celebrity tell us about ourselves, about religion and about the way they collide?

by Pete Ward

Celebrity is ubiquitous; it has come to dominate the media discourses in every field of life; from sport to politics and the arts to the environment. Gossip Magazines and Websites that talk about celebrities have mushroomed, serious newspapers now have celebrity columns, and Soap Opera plots are given front-page headlines in the tabloid press. Celebrity is not simply an aspect of popular culture it is part of its DNA. Even if we have very little interest in celebrity we seem to know about them. In fact we don’t just know about them we may well have some how formed opinions about them. A great deal of celebrity gossip will pass us by but we might still have a view to share about: Bono, Britney, Demi, Michael or Brad. Celebrity culture tempts us off the sidelines. It actively invites us to form a view and make a judgement. Some might say that it is kind of virus that is infecting all cultural life. Yet irritation with the pointlessness of celebrities is in many ways a key element in celebrity culture.

On Celebrity Religion: A Word to Its Cultured Despisers

The chattering classes like to affect an indifference to celebrity. They don’t watch reality TV and they would never buy a gossip rag. Most are agreed that the whole celebrity thing is froth, ephemeral, and the antithesis of all things of value. In the main this approach to celebrity is a thinly veiled version of an elitist view of culture. There is a religious version of this, which merges taste with some kind of ecclesial preference. Here celebrity culture is seen as representing the spiritual collapse of contemporary society. It is proof that for the large part we are living in an empty and vacuous society.

Celebrities are significant not because they have any inherent skills, talents, genius, or even achievements. Most seem to have achieved not very much and they can often be rather talent-less. They matter not because of who they are but because of what they represent. It is the meanings that become attached to them as they appear in the media that form their currency in the circulation of popular culture. Celebrities in other words are a part of the signifying system of popular culture. They function as symbols in the flow of communication. As such they offer a myriad of different ‘takes’ on what is possible in consumer culture. They represent different ways to be a woman, to be black, to be old, to be faithful, to be gay, to be a parent to be unfaithful, to be a loser, to fail. In fact they mediate a range of possible ways of being human.

Our interest in them or indeed our lack of interest in them has its roots in the extent to which we relate to what it is that they represent. We may identify with them or we may dis-identify with them. So as we casually flick through a magazine glancing at the pictures we are being invited into decisions about our possible selves. The question that we might ask when trying on a new piece of clothing ‘Is this me?’ is just about what is going on as we engage with celebrities in their various media incarnations. In this context the dismissal of celebrity culture by intellectuals and religious people is a genuine response. They are saying, ‘I don’t like that’ or ‘I’m not interested in that. It is not me.’ The quality press accommodates these views partly by printing mildly condemnatory articles about the excesses of celebrity culture and partly by fostering an interest in personalities in the arts, sport and in politics. This strategy however is not separate from celebrity culture it is part of it while it pretends to rise above it.

Celebrity Worship

For commentators and critics the close identification that many people seem to have with celebrities is suggestive of a religious analogy. Celebrities are routinely called idol, or icons, and from time to time they are called ‘divine’ or even gods. Fans are said to be devoted to celebrities, to adore them, and in many cases the behaviour of fans is likened to ‘worship.’ In the academic literature on celebrity culture the extent to which it might have taken the place of religion or indeed might actually be a kind of religion is quite common. In 1958 Malcolm Boyd wrote ‘Christ and the Celebrity Gods’ in it he argued that through what he called the ‘Age of Publicity’ there was now a cult of the stars. ‘In the process of achieving pantheon status, we continually observe the mass media metamorphosis of the persons of these stars into legends.’ He then goes on to give examples from the pantheon. These include: Charles Lindburgh, J.P. Morgan, Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Ernest Hemmingway, Billy Graham, Charles Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford and Liberace.’ Celebrities Boyd observed have become for us ‘symbols of various motifs of life.’We have a kind of vicarious share in the lives of our idols. Even at times when the ‘idol’ may attempt to take their own life, says Boyd, or indeed especially at such times, there may be forged, ‘a strong, almost religious, tie between idol and idolater.’

The idea that celebrities are some kind of ‘nearly’ god or idol has become a common theme. In popular culture the use of the term ‘idol’ in shows like ‘American Idol’ has become routine. This idea has also continued in academic literature Gary Laderman, for instance, writing more than fifty years after Boyd sees celebrities as semi-religious figures or false gods. ‘Celebrity icons’ he says, ‘arouse the religious passions of followers in modern society who find spiritual meaning, personal fulfilment, and awe-inspiring motivation in the presence of these idols.’ The first part of the twentieth century gave birth to what he calls ‘new gods’ who are worshipped on the ‘sacred altar’ of celebrity culture.’ In the religious practices associated with celebrity worship there is an investment in ‘mythologies that promise immortality.’ In celebrity worship there are not only spiritual rewards but also the possibility of the ‘reformulation of personal moral values and ultimate concerns.’ All of this indicates that celebrities have ‘acquired a sacred standing in American religious life’ and this has happened as what he calls the ‘stranglehold’ that mainline Protestantism has on public life has been loosened.

The decline in religious institutions has left a vacuum that filled by contemporary media. This has not ushered in an expected secular age instead celebrities are deified by fans whose ‘religious impulses and hungers remained active in that cultural field that could bring out the best, or the worst, in them.’

The idea that celebrity culture is in some way like religion or like a false religion is often repeated. As Laderman says ‘Celebrity culture, the cult of celebrity, celebrity worship – these and other phrases are regularly used to capture the elusive, irreducible power of celebrity in the present and recent past.’ There are however significant problems with the idea that celebrity culture is a religion. Most definitions of religion rely either on the idea that religion is defined by a belief in some kind of supernatural being, or that religion somehow shapes and sustains a community or a Church, or that the religious object has some kind of meaningful purchase on people lives. Celebrity Culture in almost all of these respects falls significantly short of what most commentators seem to feel is required of a religion. There is no reference in celebrity culture to a transcendent other. There is no regular gathering or community of celebrity worshippers and the extent to which celebrities may or may not be a resource for a meaning making is less than clear. In fact most people, even those who closely involved in celebrity worship, would not necessarily see it as a religion. Celebrity culture is much too frivolous to be a religion. Of course finding any kind of common definition for religion is problematic but religions, if they are anything, seem to take themselves very seriously and no one takes celebrity culture seriously.

Themes in a Theology of the Sacred Self

Confusion over the nature of the sacred is also seen in the variety of gods in the celebrity pantheon. Polytheism in celebrity worship signifies the extent to which we need a range of possibilities for the sacred self. Celebrity culture keeps the options open when it comes to gods. We are offered a choice of divinities and a menu for the sacred self. Our confusion over the choice of gods extends to what we expect of the sacred. Celebrity culture seems to revel not only in the celebration of the rise of mortals into celebrity gods but also in the seeming inevitability that these figures will fail and mess up. We find a particular pleasure in seeing our gods make mistakes. Paradoxically it seems to confirm their ‘humanity.’ Nowhere is this more evident than in the way that celebrity media seem to revel in the bad behaviour of celebrities. Every day we have an endless cavalcade of cheating sports personalities, unfaithful partners and addicted stars and starlets. Yet this delight in gods who behave badly is writ through with a much deeper yearning for faithfulness, beautiful homes and happy families. The ‘material’ visions of the good life that celebrities seem to inhabit are predicated on the central importance of relationships and above all notions of fidelity. We may enjoy the prurient but we are actually so desperate for everyone to stick together. This is why we abhor the love rat and we despise the person who has it all and seems to just throw it away.

The condemnation of celebrities that are tempted into ‘sin’ takes us into the heart of the theology of the sacred self. We are the ones who judge. The magazines, newspapers and websites are all vehicles for a popular inquisition. We have the all seeing eye. We decide who goes and who stays. We sit in judgement on our own gods. And we judge our gods because they have so much and yet they have failed to ‘make the most of themselves.’ Making the most of ourselves is a key value in celebrity worship. After all if this is a religion of the sacred self what other kind of apostasy could there be?

This is an extract from ‘Gods Behaving Badly’by Pete Ward, published this month by SCM Canterbury Press. Reprinted with permission.

Pete Ward is Senior Lecturer In Youth Ministry and Theological Education at King's College London. He is the author of ‘Liquid Church’, ‘Selling Worship’ and ‘Growing Up Evangelical’ and a frequent speaker at Greenbelt.

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