Awash in the Toxic Sea of Celebrity

An examination of society's obsession with celebrity reveals hidden opportunities to further the Church's timeless Gospel of Life

Every culture must choose its cult. As nature abhors a vacuum, so too a culture will not tolerate emptiness at its core. Cult, taken from the Latin cultus, means a system of worship, often religious, or the honoring of persons or institutions. Every culture has at its center a cult that animates its arts, education, entertainment, journalism, and even its philosophy.

Christians take culture seriously. “All human activity takes places within a culture and interacts with culture,” writes Pope John Paul II. “At the heart of every culture lies the attitude man takes to the greatest mystery: the mystery of God” (Centesimus Annus 51,24).

Christians have an obligation to evangelize every culture, to reaffirm in it what is good and to root out what is not. The task of fulfilling the divine mandate of preaching the gospel to all nations—i.e., all cultures—requires Christians to know what the reigning cults of a particular culture are, and how those cults reflect the answer those peoples have given to the mystery of God. The task of re-evangelizing the culture in North America requires that diagnosis to begin at home.

Our Celebrity Culture

This task is particularly difficult today as one particular cult has taken hold of our public life. The cult of celebrity is not the only cult in our culture, but it is a powerful one that makes the gospel more difficult to hear. Our celebrity culture is the enemy of serious thought and enduring truths. It reduces to objects the people it celebrates, and exalts glamour and image over substance. In its promotion of a consumer mentality, it is not unrelated to the culture of death.

A recent story, superficially about religion, reflects that our contemporary popular culture prefers to worship at the altar of celebrity. Brad Pitt stars in the current film Seven Years in Tibet. He did not spend even seven months there, and he is not an expert on Tibetan politics or history. Yet he is often asked to comment upon the China-Tibet issue. “Why ask me? I am just an actor,” he responds.

Brad Pitt's common sense notwithstanding, Time magazine—not always a reliable source of news but an unerring barometer of the fashions of the day—devoted a cover story to the movie, Tibet, and the “rise” of Buddhism in America. Time reports that Buddhism counts among its American converts Tina Turner (a pop singer), Steven Seagal (an actor), Richard Gere (another actor), and Phil Jackson (coach of the Chicago Bulls basketball team).

Were these four chosen because of their philosophical or theological insights, which might shed light on the truths found in Buddhism? Of course not. Time was quite straightforward about why these were found worthy of note: they are celebrities. When religious news is presented according to the standards of celebrity, it is an indication that the celebrity cult is harming our critical judgment.

Time is only a junior player in the celebrity industry; its sister publication, People magazine, sells millions of copies covering celebrities always, everywhere, and exhaustively. The parade of celebrities on television talk shows begins at sunrise and does not end until well after sunset. The desire for celebrities—to see them, to hear them, to touch them—drives a vast news and entertainment culture of which the supermarket tabloids are only a small part. Celebrity biographies and autobiographies about even the most inconsequential figures fill the bookstores. An ever-increasing number of television “news” programs are devoted to the kind of gossip about the rich and famous formerly reserved to pool halls and beauty parlors.

The cult of celebrity treats its celebrated ones not as true heroes but as objects. Heroes are proposed for admiration and emulation. Celebrities are objects offered for our consumption. Respectable magazines would just as soon put Madonna on the cover as the Blessed Virgin Mary. It matters not whether the subject is worthy or unworthy; it is required only that she be famous.

Indeed, it is not a human subject that is being portrayed at all, but an object to be used. It is an injustice to them, but it also damages us, whether as passive participants or even as willing consumers. The cult of celebrity makes us complicit in the reducing of real men and women to objects of amusement. It is very difficult to look upon the celebrities splashed across the checkout-stand news-racks and not think of them as just another thing to be tossed into the shopping cart. Christians who know that it is wrong to treat a person as a mere object—which gives rise to lust in sexual matters and exploitation in economics—face a constant source of temptation in the cultural air we breathe. The culture of celebrity is hostile to Christian virtue.

The late Diana, Princess of Wales, was the queen of the celebrity culture because she was the prettiest object of them all. She was hailed for bringing glamour into a royal family more often thought of as dowdy, stuffy, and rigid. Yet glamour does not coexist easily with the virtues that undergird a monarchy, or any long-standing social institution: stability, discretion, loyalty, and farsightedness. The designs of Providence are inscrutable, but there was a lesson in the image of the 97-year-old Queen Mother coming to mourn the princess 60 years her junior. The celebrity culture still produces posters of James Dean, but it was Jimmy Stewart who lived more than his three score and 10.

Enduring Truth vs. Novelty

Glamour is evanescent and so the appetite for it is insatiable. The resulting hunger is hostile to enduring institutions and truths. The purpose of a family and a Church is not to tantalize with something new, but to reassure with what is always valid. By definition, what families and the Church do cannot be glamorous. A teenager may learn how to dress or speak from his celebrity idols, but the glamorous set will not teach him to be home before curfew or to get up early to go to Mass. The celebrity culture can create an image, but it cannot build character.

Education in enduring truth cannot compete in a culture where the standard of evaluation is novelty. General Motors ran an advertising campaign aimed at young people a few years back with the tag line, “This is not your father's Oldsmobile.” Fair enough; our fathers' cars are inconsequential. The faith of our fathers is not.

In a culture where there is nothing worse than being yesterday's news, Christianity is hard-pressed to compete with the newest idea. To paraphrase Chesterton, most new ideas are just old errors tarted up. Costumes are always alluring, and the frivolity, superficiality, and constant distractions of the celebrity culture ensure that we do not look too closely at the error's new clothes.

The triumph of image over substance in our culture suffocates serious thought and shortens our collective attention span. The license the celebrity culture gives any famous person to hold forth on any topic whatsoever requires of us a willingness to suspend our critical judgment. Elizabeth Taylor, the poster girl for polyandry, becomes a spokeswoman for AIDS, a disease almost wholly preventable by monogamous sexual behavior. To live with such grotesquerie requires us to suspend our reason and to refrain from speaking the truth.

The surest sign that the cult of celebrity prefers to avoid reality is its near total neglect of God. He who is most real is neglected in the pursuit of objects and images that are only pale reflections and imitations. The celebrity culture wallows in every kind of sin, scandal, and crime, but is oblivious to any concept of right and wrong. The ability of so many of our cultural grandees to speak continuously of suffering, tragedy, grief, and death, with nary a mention of God, indicates a culture in full flight from reality.

Celebrity and Death

There is a strange symbiosis between the cult of celebrity and the culture of death. To treat a person as an object for use or consumption is a hallmark of the culture of death. The cult of celebrity consumes its own, and yet it cannot bear death. The death of one its standard-bearers sends it into a frenzy of confusion and denial as it is deprived of its objects of worship.

The celebrity culture fancies itself as celebrating vitality, so it can only deal with death by transforming it into something that it is not, i.e., a celebration of life. And so we hear about “legacies” and “living on” and “lessons to be learned.” Many a contemporary funeral is indistinguishable from a testimonial dinner, except that the recipient of the lifetime achievement award arrives in a box. The culture of celebrity can deliver a fine eulogy, but is inclined to forget the death.

Our culture fools itself about death because death is the great leveler that lays waste to celebrity and tabloid-reader alike, exposing the folly of living vicariously through the exalted. It is high irony that so many want to live through those who so often die young. Elton John sang a song about one beautiful young blonde who lived in the fast lane and met a violent death, and was able to re-use it for another before his copyright expired. Tragic death becomes a hit song, and the cult forgets the former and revels in the latter.

But a culture that cannot face the reality of death is unable to understand the purpose of life. It is salutary for Christians to remind the celebrity culture—and ourselves, who are not immune to its seduction—that neither riches nor fame nor beauty nor youth can delay the most important moment in life: the day of judgment. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Gospel of Life's Appeal

The great orgy of coverage occasioned by celebrity deaths is perhaps an opportunity for evangelism. Faced with the great mystery of death, it is opportune for Christians to speak of the mystery of God. There can be no better time to proclaim the gospel of life than to the grieving who require reassurance that the loss of life is worth grieving over. The cult of celebrity has nothing to say about death, so it ignores it. At the heart of the Christian story is defeat of death and the triumph of life, and that has not only been known, but lived by Christians for two millennia.

Against the cults of our day, the Church proposes to Christians the cult of the saints. The liturgy never ceases to point to the “celebrities” of the Christian world: patriarchs, prophets, apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins, holy men and women of all kinds. In the early period of Christianity evangelists often appealed to ancestor-worshipping pagans to channel this aspiration into proper veneration of the saints. It was a powerful example of faith illuminating culture, replacing the old corrupt cult with the new. Saints are famous to be sure, but the saints point beyond themselves to what is true and real and permanent. Celebrities obscure all that by standing in front of it all, and pointing to nothing other than themselves.

The Church finds in every culture the semina Verbi, the seeds of the Word. The celebrity culture is so toxic that those seeds find little room to grow, and yet there remains the fundamentally good desire to celebrate those who are worthy of being celebrated. It is a noble Christian service to point out those who are truly worthy, and those who are not.

Raymond de Souza is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario.