Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Dangers of Idolatry, 21st Century Style

The last time I idolized a celebrity, I was in college. Of course, I thought that my idolization of Nadia Comaneci was a positive thing which implied the depth of my commitment to my chosen sport: gymnastics. In late 1989, just after I had started my freshman year at Syracuse University, Comaneci defected from Ceauceascu's Romania - with a married man, and with whom she promptly shacked up. (I forget his name and am too lazy to Google it - he was an immigrant himself, and promptly left his wife for, in her words, "a party girl who could do gymnastics in bed"). Nadia's trampy appearance and indifferent, graceless attitude at the time became tabloid fodder for months. Having worshiped her since age 12, I was devastated. How could "Little Miss Perfect" commit adultery?

A bunch of other Americans were pretty dismayed, too. Then, I clearly remember the Editor in Chief of my local newspaper (himself an immigrant from Hungary) offering wise perspective on our celebrity culture in a piece called "Let's Be More Blase about Nadia". The problem with us Americans is that we worship media-generated images (and I say this as someone who has lived abroad and can attest that other cultures do not, by and large, ascribe the same demi-god-like status to their celebrities as we Yanks do). Then, we have the nerve to be disappointed when those celebrities do not turn out to be as perfect as we believe, but turn into flawed adults with clay feet just like everyone else.

Fast-forward a couple of years. I greatly admired (then) Christian singer Amy Grant, and bought all her albums. When she had the affair with Vince Gil and lambasted her (Christian) fanbase for having the AUDACITY to note that both adultery and divorce,...morally wrong, I was disappointed. Not devastated, mind you; but disappointed. I'd expected more from a woman who'd made a career out of being a Christian. While I'd never truly "idolized" Amy Grant, I genuinely believed she was far more spiritual than I. Then I read some of the interviews, in which she revealed herself to be an immature woman with no moral compass.

Lately, this Michael Jackson media circus has brought to mind the absurdity and very real spiritual danger of idolizing celebrities. Leaving aside the fact everyone seems ready to canonize a man who denied the very deity of Christ, who wasted his life and sought only earthly glory; whose narcissism stretched the bounds of credulity and whose greed left him $400 million in debt; masses of people are weeping for the image of a man they never knew. As Fred Sanders wrote last week in "Why I Don't Pray for Celebrities",
"Celebrities are such odd phenomena. They are these personas that are presented to us, carefully packaged by a publicity team and then transmitted through a vast system for the dissemination of their images. We know nothing about celebrities except what they want us to know. They and their handlers project a public image by sending a set of coordinated signals: posed and retouched photos, bits of biographical information, sound bites, reports of how they feel, and of course their own artistic productions or performances....

I also don’t pray for fictional characters. I don’t ask God to send rescuers to Robinson Crusoe, or to get Gilligan and his friends off that crazy island, or to make things work out right for the people on Lost. Those are not real people or real islands.

I know that somewhere behind the persona of any celebrity, there must be a real person. Tom Hanks lives somewhere, has a mom and a dad and loved ones. Jennifer Aniston might have pets, and they probably love her. Even Jack Black must be an actual human. If I actually knew any of those people personally, I would pray for them. But I would not pray for a life-sized cardboard cut-out of them, and what I have available to me in their celebrity personas is essentially an elaborate cut-out."
People have been weeping, hysterically and publicly, professing undying love for a man they never knew. That, dear readers, is idolatry; not compassion. Do these folks weep so profusely for the 24,000 souls who starve to death in Africa each day? The one person every eleven seconds (a conservative estimate, by the way) who dies apart from Christ? Perhaps some of them do. If so, good for them. But the endless fascination with Michael Jackson, coupled with a desperate attempt to construct him into something he was not is morbidity at it's worst.

As has been pointed out elsewhere in the blogosphere, Jackson was by all accounts a deeply disturbed individual who wore his brokenness on his sleeve. He desperately needed Christ, but instead chose to deny Him (first in the cult of Jehovah Witness; much later as a self-professed Muslim). As his fame grew, his bizarre behavior seemed to increase. Public fascination turned fickle - he was the scapegoat everyone loved to hate. Except those who were obsessed with him, and believed they loved him. Ironically, the family that for most of his adult life distanced themself from him now somehow can't seem to say enough good about him.

Michael Jackson was certainly deserving of pity, (and is even more so now), but the Bible is clear that we reap what we sow. A life lived in utter carnality without regard for God's moral order (or basic common sense) will ultimately come to ruin. See Proverbs 11:18; 22:8, Psalm 36: 2 and Romans chapter 1, for starters. I am not singling out Jackson as I see this principle at work every day in the courtroom, but his behavior was lived out very much in the public eye. And now, of course, many would like to re-write his story. With all due respect, God gives everyone enough revelation to turn to Him. A literate, American celebrity, familiar with the Bible, the claims of Christ and the commands of God, has literally no excuse.

If this post sounds a bit more cynical than usual, forgive me. It's not that I'm oblivious to the fact Jackson was a tormented soul. However, much of it was (whether the ever-fickle media now wants to admit it or not) of his own making. I have seen enough real tragedy between the courtroom and the hospitals where I interpret not to have a lot of misplaced sympathy left over for the rich, pampered and idolized. Idolatry is still wrong, no matter who the star is.

"Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God". - Hebrews 12:2


Neil said...

Well said, Marie. I don't find that to be cynical at all. Just a great reminder not to idolize anyone, ever.

Glenn E. Chatfield said...

Marie, that was really good. I remember my younger - pre-Christian - days when I idolized a few famous pilots and astronauts, and then later found out about their personal lives and was devastated. How vain it is to put people on pedestals.

Barbara said...

This seems just...sad.

Truly I had never read nor heard any of her interviews. I remember her from before she married Gary Chapman, it was always Amy Grant and Sandi Patti. Truly, I hope she comes to a place where "Jesus is the answer" becomes a precious truth to her, instead of a "sickening cliche" in her songs that she felt the need to run from.

Marie said...

I hadn't seen that, Barb. Actually, I hadn't thought about Amy Grant in years - I just remember her "Don't judge" tirades right after the affair. And her complaining that all the pot got put away when she, a known "Christian", arrived at parties. (Her words; not mine).

That clip was a perfect example of someone wanting to come across as somehow spiritual, but ashamed to mention Christ. The interviewer gave her a perfect opportunity at 11:15 - "how do you experience the divine?" (Her answer: all about being grateful when you wake up in the morning). Not once, in 13 minutes, did she mention Jesus, affirm her faith in Him, or give any indication of a desire to know Him more or pursue holiness. She and Bono should get together.

It is sad, but what can you do. Celebrity culture is just a manufactured image - for a while, the "Christian image" was working for her. I do hope, though, that she is a true Christian and will return to the faith she held (or at least professed) at first. Ironically, she was brought up in the uber-conservative Church of Christ. I'm not sure I buy the story "it wasn't about rules" - maybe that was what pushed her so far in the other direction.

JTW said...

The people we lift on our shoulders as heroes says so much about our culture. We deify fame or infamy, it doesn't matter what a person is known for as long as they are famous.

C. S. Lewis made the following comment in Screwtape Proposes a Toast: "As the great sinners grow fewer, and the majority lose all individuality, the great sinners become far more effective agents for us. Every dictator or even demagogue -- almost every film star or [rock star] -- can now draw tens of thousands of the human sheep with him. They give themselves (what there is of them) to him; in him, to us. There may come a time when we shall have no need to bother about individual temptation at all, except for the few. Catch the bellwether, and his whole flock comes after him."

What happens to the soul of the megastar and the souls of the people who idolize them? Consider the angel in Revelation that John started to worship; you can almost hear the panic in that angel’s voice as he forbad John from doing such a thing. Then consider what happened to Herod in Acts 12 as the people shouted, "This is the voice of a god, not of a man." Herod loved the praise of men and he was judged for it. Something becomes horribly twisted in the soul of an idol and those who idolize them. Very dangerous stuff.

BTW, Interview with Amy Grant… very sad.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of Amy Grant, she apparently hasn't gotten any better:

- The Pilgrim