Poets, Prophets and Actors

As we discussed last time, both liturgy and drama are stylized representations of reality that mediate an encounter with the human and the divine. That’s because man is a priest. He must live out his priestly role, since he was made by God to do it and continues to do it, in some form or another, even after the Fall.

So when a man becomes a father, he mediates the image of God the Father to his children. It may be a very debased image, but the mediation happens nonetheless. Likewise, teachers, bosses, authority figures, politicians, baseball players, scientists in lab coats, rock stars and so forth are all “looked up to.” Why do we “look up”? Because they are “on a pedestal.” You know, where the statue of Zeus used to be. We crave a priesthood that will mediate ultimate reality to us and tell us who we are — and who we might be. Not for nothing is the show called “American Idol.”

This conflation of the arts with revelation is nothing new. St. Paul, for instance, quotes the pagan poet Epimenides and refers to him as a “prophet.” Similarly, it is the poet Virgil who conducts the Christian Dante through hell and purgatory in The Divine Comedy. The tendency to elevate the poet to a quasiprophetic figure also shows up in the art of Michelangelo, when he invokes both the Sibyls and the Old Testament prophets as forerunners of the Messiah who heralded his coming. So it should come as no surprise that poets (today we call them “musicians and screenwriters”) still occupy this semiprophetic role in our culture today.

All this is fine as far as it goes. But problems enter in when a civilization ceases to be Christian. To see what I mean, log on to Wikipedia and check out the birthdays of notable people for any given date. What you will notice is that, up until about 80 years ago, the notable people tended to be rulers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, novelists, inventors, captains of industry and, now and then, an actor. But as the 20th century progresses — and in particular when you reach the past 50 years or so — what comes to overwhelm the list are actors, singers, models and athletes. The cult of celebrity (and that is the precise technical term for it) comes to dominate, and we find ourselves in a world that battens on a priesthood of celebrity that mediates only itself to us. People become famous for being famous.

The gamble that God took in becoming human was the willingness to risk that we would approach creation sacramentally. Paganism misses the sacramental by worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. Before the Incarnation, Israel was headed off from the universal blunder of paganism by being forbidden to worship images. When Christ became man, he gave us the true image of God and enabled us to honor him through images that mediate grace to us. However, when a culture loses its roots in Christ, it can easily slip back to the worship of the creature.

So we batten on the star himself as a sort of god. We ask the star for divine oracles, and take seriously his pronouncements on global warming or animal rights or “gay marriage” or whatever. We forget that the star is not the character we love. We forget that all the beautiful things he says and does were written down for him in a script. In short, we make an idol of him and forget that he is, at best, merely a priest, and a very imperfect one.

The only hope for such a culture is to return to the sacramental and abandon the American idol of celebrity culture. Drama is good. But it is just a shadow of the One who is truly mediated to us in the Eucharist.

Mark Shea is senior content editor at CatholicExchange.com.