Thursday, August 23, 2012

Why I Pay Attention to The People From Twilight

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianity
by Ben Howard

In the past few weeks I've clicked on at least three stories about how Kristen Stewart cheated on Robert Pattinson. Well, it might be more like 5...or 10. I can't really explain why I'm interested in the personal life of this celebrity couple. I'm not even a fan. Combined, they've made one movie that I actually liked (the first half of Water for Elephants and the second half of Snow White and the Huntsman).

So why do I care? Why does their personal life intrigue me? Why do I find it “humanizing” when Stewart offers what seems to be a heartfelt apology (in public) or when Pattinson goes on The Daily Show and shares some melted Ben and Jerry's with Jon Stewart? These aren't rhetorical questions. Seriously, why do I care?

The concept of celebrity and society's response is entirely fascinating to me. One of my favorite authors, Chuck Klosterman, had an interesting series of thoughts on this topic in his book of essays, Eating the Dinosaur. He argues that we turn celebrities into icons of meaning, essentially living metaphors, and then use these metaphors as cultural currency.

Everyone understands the cultural weight and value of a Kristen Stewart, or a Britney Spears, or a Lebron James. We use them to communicate. Klosterman actually argues that this is why celebrities deserve the money they make, not because they entertain us, but because we purchase the metaphorical meaning of their lives. If Britney Spears doesn't make millions and millions of dollars, we might feel bad when we use her to represent whatever negative stereotype we feel like discussing.

The same thing happens in politics. Mitt Romney and Barack Obama are no longer human beings who want to be president, they exist as a constellation of ideas and positions; ideological proxies with far less control over their own meaning than they're probably comfortable with.

So what exactly is a Christian response to this kind of celebrity culture? A culture that twists people into characters and turns reality into a warped version of a stage? The easy answer is that Christians should avoid this kind of culture, but that seems na├»ve. It smacks of the fearful, simplistic response of those who argue that being “in” the world and not “of” the world means little more than running away in terror when the ugly parts of reality rear their heads.

In fact, the more I consider the issue, the more I'm convinced that Christianity and its subcultures are deeply enmeshed in this culture of celebrity. Doesn't the Christian culture create it's own celebrities and line up behind them for our ideological grudge matches? How many people respond to Rob Bell as an embodiment of theology instead of as a person? Or John Piper? Luther? Augustine? Paul? Peter? Jesus?

In Orthodox theology, the incarnation of Jesus is essential. God became human. Yes, he was a great teacher. Yes, he died and was resurrected, but first and foremost, God became us. St. Athanasius says that, “God became man so that man might become God.” The idea of Jesus is beautiful, but we need the human Jesus even more than the idea. In Jesus we have the intimate connection between humanity and divinity.

That's what we strip away when we turn people into celebrities and movements and ideologies and iconography. We dissolve humanity into meaning as if humanity has no meaning in and of itself; no value apart from what it portrays or represents. It does. Our humanity is what connects us with the divine.

Remember that next time you watch a movie or sports or TV. These are people, much like you, some talented and some less so. And remember it when you read a book or go to church. Whether the author or preacher is wise or simple, brilliant or stupid, they are human and humanity is made in the image of God. Jesus was human. Just like the actors in Twilight.


When he isn't deconstructing the entire premise of his blog about the meaning of pop culture and those involved in it, Ben is trying to think of philosophical work-arounds so he can write something about the “essence” of Taylor Swift. You can follow his mental gymnastics @BenHoward87.

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