Friday, January 3, 2014

Christian Celebrity and the Already, But Not Yet

on pop theology, christianity, culture, pop culture, theologyby Ben Howard 

A few weeks ago I wrote a post entitled “Christianity Needs Celebrities.” The central thesis was that cultural change is mediated through celebrity personas. Moreover, the structure and history of Christianity is celebrity-based and, as a result, Christianity not only needs celebrities, but needs to work to foster better celebrity representations.

It’s an intentionally provocative thesis, but I’m increasingly convinced that it’s an accurate one. Since I posted it, I’ve had a number of discussions with readers most of whom reflected a general discomfort and unease with the implications of the idea, even if they found the conclusion to be invariably true. With that being the case, I thought it would be useful if I elaborated on a few areas which I left out of the original post.

First, while I’m convinced that the iconography and nature of celebrity is a powerful force in society, and therefore a force in need of harnessing, I’m not convinced that this is inherently good. David Hume famously explored how you cannot derive an ought from an is, and I would argue that when discussing the power and utility of celebrity this is certainly the case. Having a celebrity driven culture or religion is not necessarily a good thing, though it is how I believe our culture and religion happen to operate.

This dichotomy is a constant struggle and is exacerbated by the central tension of the Christian faith, namely that the Kingdom of God has already, but not yet arrived. As a result, Christians often find themselves operating out of a struggle between an unrealized idealism and a cynical pragmatism. Though this tension pervades all of Christianity, and explains more about liberal/conservative divides than any particular tenant of faith, it provides a particularly tricky hurdle when contemplating the role of Christian celebrities.

I think this tension is central to the issues under-girding the nature of Christian celebrity, in fact I think its central to almost every aspect of Christianity. However, in order to explain this fully, let me ask you to hold that concept in your mind for a moment while I pivot from the theological to the sociological.

One of the most consistent sources of discomfort in my conversations was the use and embrace of the term “celebrity,” especially when used in connection with Jesus. While I simply used the term for its basic meaning of “well-known” or “noteworthy,” I’m nevertheless intrigued by the level of unease which greeted the use of the word itself.

I can only assume this is a reaction against the cultural baggage we associate with the term. We consider “celebrities” to be vapid, vacuous, extravagant, and image-obsessed. However, I’m curious about whether these connotations emerge from being a celebrity or from the community which observes and follows them. If it’s the latter, it would certainly explain the phenomenon wherein bands/authors lose credibility as they gain prominence (see Rob Bell/Mumford and Sons).

Instead, I’d suggest that the source of this discomfort finds itself not in the inherent nature of celebrity, but in the aspiration to this kind of fame and notoriety. I think we’re leery of people who want to be watched and consumed. And I think we’re correct about this, we should be uncomfortable with the aspiration to celebrity because the nature of celebrity can be incredibly dangerous and destructive.

I spoke about the destructive nature of celebrity briefly in the previous piece, but mostly left it out because I felt it deserved a longer treatment. While the power of celebrity can be useful, the fundamental flaw is that the role of celebrity, the journey from person to persona, inevitably strips away the humanity of the actual person behind the personification. To all but those closest to them, those who are acutely aware of the person, not the persona, a celebrity becomes only their iconography, only what they represent. From a distance person and persona cannot be parsed, nor can the actual human inhabiting the role of celebrity exert any real control on the way they are consumed.

I do not use that term lightly. Celebrity is about consumption; it is by its very nature destructive, and one could argue sacrificial. It is a service provided to the community which allows the community and the culture at large the ability to communicate through the symbolic use of the personified image. One could even argue that it’s the reason we compensate celebrities so lavishly. It may appear crass, but we are essentially paying them for the use of their humanity.

So yes, we should be uncomfortable with celebrity culture, in the same way that we are uncomfortable with all manner of destructive acts. Destruction is the antithesis of creation and of the “not-yet” kingdom towards which we often aspire. We should be uncomfortable with our acts of consumption and dehumanization.

But this is reality, and in reality nothing is ever quite so simple. These consumptive acts and this celebrity culture is still central to who we are as humans and who we are as Christians. It is the vehicle through which we tell stories and learn and communicate with the culture at-large. These darker aspects of celebrity don’t invalidate anything I said previously for the world still is how it is and not how it ought to be.

So here’s the crux of the matter: We see how celebrity functions as a vehicle for ideas and meaning and we see how it consumes those who fulfill the role, but we are also aware that this is the way the world functions. With that in mind, how do we respond?

I, for one, think Christianity requires celebrities; it always has, from Jesus to the saints to the speakers, writers, and pastors of today. But I think it’s a lonely place and a difficult role. I think it requires people who know that they will be loved and hated disproportionately, that they will find themselves diluted and misunderstood.

It’s probably not worth it, but it’s necessary.

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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