Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Christianity Needs Celebrities

by Ben Howard

A celebrity is not so much a person as it is the persona, the mediated representation and distillation of the person who inhabits the role. Rachel Held Evans did an excellent job highlighting this difference in her post, “You Don’t Hate Me. You Hate My Brand.” Evans argues that no matter how much she or any other public figure believes in the things they represent, these beliefs and ideologies are not the entirety of their humanity. No one is as simple as the things they represent.

Instead, it is this persona, this brand, which we associate with celebrity. Removed from the complexity, and subtlety, of an underlying humanity, a celebrity persona serves as a vehicle for a two-dimensional iconography. It’s from this humanity-adjacent position that we begin to talk about what Taylor Swift “means” or what aspects of culture Kanye West “represents.” In the context of Christian culture, this concept of celebrity allows us to invoke Mark Driscoll's name as a placeholder for "angry neo-calvinist," or Rob Bell's as "hipster preacher."

It’s also vital to point out that celebrity never exists or arises in a vacuum. I would argue that most celebrities, or at least those who are celebrities because of the ideologies they represent, are the products of a wider sub-culture. As a result, this celebrity becomes a representation and amalgamation of the sub-culture from which it springs. This is readily apparent in political races where a candidate comes to represent not only their own personal convictions, but also the embedded ideology of their particular party.

Thus far I’ve focused solely on what celebrity is, not what celebrity does, which begs the question of whether celebrity is merely the by-product of our culture or if celebrity actually offers some utility. Considering that the title of this essay is “Christianity Needs Celebrities,” I don’t think you’ll be surprised to find out that I do think it plays a useful role in society. Namely, celebrity provides a bridge between a sub-culture and the wider cultural zeitgeist.

As I mentioned earlier, celebrity is not merely a representation of a person, but a mediated and distilled representation of a person. As a result, celebrity iconography is by its very essence reductive and simplifying. While I’m sure this is a constant frustration to the deeply complex and nuanced person who happens to inhabit the role of “celebrity,” it provides an easy-to-process shorthand for the dissemination of their ideology into the culture-at-large.

For example, look at Pope Francis. If you read his interview with Antonio Spadoro from September, you will discover an incredibly complex person with a wide-range of influences and perspectives on how he carries out his life and his role as Pope. However, the popular depiction, the celebrity nature of Pope Francis is a short-hand summary of this complexity. In the popular landscape he is “The Social Justice Pope” or “The Marxist Pope” or “The Awesome Pope Who Kisses and Hugs and Loves People.” While none of these depictions encapsulate the man, the Jesuit community which formed him, or the Catholic church as a whole, they serve as a way for the wider culture to access the iconography and meaning of the Pope and what he represents. Without this reductive, yet resonant shorthand, the zeitgeist likely would have omitted the ideas of the Pope entirely. Complexity has an inverse relationship with popularity.

This is why Christianity needs celebrities. Christianity does not need celebrities because it needs leaders, or because Christians need someone to follow and fall in line behind. Christians need celebrities because they need someone to represent them to the broader culture, even if that representation is a simplified version.

This capacity to create celebrity, and not its conservative, “Bible-based” theology, is the true genius of evangelical Christianity. Whether it be Billy Graham or Jerry Falwell or Francis Chan, evangelical Christianity has always known how to find a suitable personification for its version of the gospel.

As a progressive, or at least a quasi-progressive, the easy response to this is to dismiss evangelicalism and its appetite for simplicity or to denounce it for catering to a culture of celebrity. Ironically, this seems to be the argument evangelicalism itself makes when discussing celebrity culture. Celebrity is viewed as vapid, and thus unworthy of Jesus and his followers.

But this overlooks a vital aspect of how celebrity functions within the ebb and flow of culture: the ideologies and movements which find their way into history are inevitably attached to a personification; a celebrity. The Civil Rights Movement had Martin Luther King Jr. The birth of the United States had George Washington. The very idea of democracy had John Locke. 

In fact, Christianity itself is inherently a celebrity driven religion. It is literally formed around a historical figure who built a cult of personality based on his iconography and teachings. The entire Bible is built upon the back of celebrity, through the narratives of Abraham and Moses and David and the teachings of Peter and Paul and John. And subsequent Christian theology is built around celebrity culture where various theologians and saints serve as representatives of complex ideologies and movements. Even our organization of churches, centered around priests and preachers, is a celebrity-oriented endeavor.

Christianity needs celebrities because it needs a bridge; an accessible version of its ideology that's available to the wider world. Celebrity is ingrained in culture and it is part of the roots of Christianity. The problem with Christianity is not celebrity culture it is who the celebrities are and what that celebrity represents. Christianity doesn’t need to abandon celebrity; it needs to create better ones.

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.  

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