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Features

The red carpet to salvation

Pete Ward

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If celebrity is the new religion, what kind of theology does it produce,
wonders Pete Ward? And what does that tell us about ourselves?

Anna Nicole Smith was a celebrity phenomenon. She first came to fame as a model in Playboy magazine, but she caught the public's attention with her second marriage to the oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall who was 62 years older than her. Her celebrity apotheosis was ensured in 2002 with her own reality TV series The Anna Nicole Show - an early follow-up to the success of The Osbournes. When Marshall died, Smith was at the centre of a media storm around his inheritance. The subsequent death of her son and legal disputes over the paternity of her daughter kept her in the public eye. In 2007 she was found dead in a Florida hotel room and, needless to say, controversy and prurient exposure of all kinds followed from her death.

Four years on, her memory has ascended to the more exalted air of the Royal Opera House. Anna Nicole, written by Richard Thomas (one of the people behind Jerry Springer: The opera), is being touted as one of the major cultural events of the year. 'Imagine the love-goddess Aphrodite,' wrote the Guardian critic Peter Conrad, 'fitted with silicone-swollen boobs, bloated by junk food, slowed down by pills and befogged by booze… wiggling, waddling and staggering across the stage.'1 While Smith may seem an unlikely subject for high art, 'she was also a mythical being, an artificial deity, the superhuman embodiment of our faults and follies, invented and marketed as an object of desire.' Whatever the reviews have since concluded2, it is perhaps not such a surprise that celebrity worship has extended its grasp as far as the Royal Opera House. After all this is the art form that routinely refers to its female stars as 'diva'.

The Anna Nicole Smith opera is only the latest example of a celebrity culture that 'deifies the famous' and turns them into icons. The media constructs narratives that draw us in to their lives. Our attention is grabbed when we hear the latest about Tiger Woods or Angelina Jolie or Posh and Becks or Lady Gaga, and now of course William and Kate. It is through constant media publicity that celebrities become present to us - we know about them whether we want to or not.

ABOVE ALL THAT?
Christians, clergy and especially theologians affect a kind of cultural and spiritual superiority towards celebrity culture. Church people are keen to point out the vacuous and shallow nature of all things to do with celebrities. Behind this, I suspect, lies an elitist high culture/low culture understanding, which has been merged with some sense that 'real faith' is distinctive and of more intrinsic value than the gaudy frippery of celebrity culture. Of course, while we are prone to adopt these sorts of views, we are very happy to take an interest in the lives of classical musicians, sports people, novelists and cultural figures, not to mention worship leaders and famous speakers. Christian charities routinely use celebrities to raise awareness of their campaigns and every month Alpha News comes through my door with a line up of C- and D-list celebs endorsing their product. Even those of us who are keen to stay at one remove from the celebrity sell find that we consume the narratives of celebrity figures indirectly through the ironic and slightly disapproving coverage in the culture sections of the Guardian and the Times.

The elitist view of popular culture may hold sway in the church but in recent years it has started to erode. The main cause for this subtle shift has been the explosion of writing on the 'theology' of popular culture. In the last few years there has been an amazing growth in books that deal with theology and film, or theology and popular music. We have even seen explorations of the theology of cartoon programmes such as The Simpsons. This writing has tended to reframe and thus make more palatable aspects of the popular by locating it in a Christian narrative. Those of us who consume popular media want to make sense of our interests. We want to read the wider culture Christianly. There's nothing wrong in this ongoing theological project around popular culture but I would argue that to read celebrity as theology puts us into a different sort of conversation.

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OUR SACRED SELVES
Celebrities attract our attention not simply because they are in the media. We are drawn into a relationship with them because of what they represent. Celebrities offer us possible versions of ourselves. So when we read about them and look at their images we find that we are considering who we might have been, might yet be, or who we would rather be dead than be. Celebrities show us a pantheon of choices - what it means to be black or gay or masculine or attractive, overweight, unfaithful, a good parent, an ethical consumer, a success or a failure. When we look, despite ourselves, at the gossip pages of newspapers and glossy magazines, we find that we either identify or we disidentify; we approve or we disapprove. On the surface these are judgments about celebrities and the choices they make but in reality they are decisions about ourselves.

Our regard for celebrities has meaning not because of who they are but because of who we are. Celebrities are gods because they represent versions of ourselves, and in popular culture it is the self that is sacred. Celebrity worship has nothing to do with the divine as it is understood in religion. People don't think that celebrities are gods or even saints (with the possible exception of Princess Diana, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela). Celebrities are sacred because they reflect the sacredness that we hold for ourselves. It is this self-regard that constitutes celebrity worship. But in celebrity worship, regard is always tempered by disregard, piety with ridicule, and faith with cynicism.

Disregard in the first instance means that we choose from among the gods. This means that worshipping the sacred self is as much about who we are not like as who we are. Ironically this means that when as Christians we try to distance ourselves from celebrity culture we are actually sharing in one of its most fundamental tenets. Saying 'I am not like that' is as much part of celebrity worship as saying 'I am like that'. We share in the cult of celebrity through processes of judgment and comparison. Disregard however has a much deeper and ultimately more challenging aspect to it.

Celebrity media is built around practices of irreverence. The tabloids invite us to laugh at the fallibility of our gods, to morally disapprove of their failings and to rubbish their fashion choices. Celebrity figures, as we all know, are built up simply that they may be pulled down. Worshippers enjoy both the elevation of the celebrities and their demise. Irreverence and disregard is endemic within celebrity worship. We have no real commitment to our gods - in fact we are deeply conflicted even as we are attracted to them. There are two clues to this sense of unease that we have with celebrity worship. In the Metro paper that is given away in London and other cities the main celebrity section is curiously labeled 'Guilty Pleasures' and it features a picture of the devil with a leering grin holding a trident. The column features the usual gossip-filled, muck-raking celebrity fare but the picture connects this with a sort of inverted religious iconography. Communing with celebrities and getting a glimpse of their dirty underwear is a guilty pleasure.

The other clue comes from the title of top rated US TV show American Idol. This was started in the UK by Simon Fuller and was then exported to the states only to be usurped by Simon Cowell's X Factor. This year the two Simons will be doing battle once again when Cowell takes the X Factor to the US. With all the hype around these shows we can overlook the use of the word 'idol'. Yet it is there right in front of us and the message is clear. Reality shows make celebrity gods but basically these are false gods. They invite us knowingly to an empty worship.

BOOKY WOOK THEOLOGY
In a recent Newsnight interview with the comedian Russell Brand, Jeremy Paxman explored the significance of fame.3 He started by asking Brand if he had sought fame for fame's sake. 'No' said Brand, explaining mischievously that he likes to think that he exercises a certain amount of talent as a comedian. 'I didn't invent a culture that deifies entertainers,' he said. Paxman picked up on the analogy of deification and said that in the past religious people were seen as significant but now celebrities appear to occupy this place of religious regard. Brand was clear that celebrity culture is empty - a false spectacle constructed by the media to keep people stupid and passive. Like religion it is, in Marx's phrase, the opiate of the masses. The media, claimed Brand, takes a celebrity and makes up stories which have more to do with a detached image or icon than the actual person in question. That image has simply been co-opted into this process of media mythologizing.  

What's interesting is that even in debunking celebrity culture, Jeremy Paxman and Russell resort to a religious paradigm to explain it. Actually theological themes are ubiquitous in celebrity culture. Journalists habitually use the term celebrity worship and we have already mentioned the use of 'diva' and 'idol', but there are also terms such as 'rock god', the 'princess of hearts' and 'legend'.

Much like the term 'idol', we can very easily overlook that Madonna is named after the mother of God. In their interview Paxman and Brand set out the real theological dilemma in celebrity culture - it is delusional, false and empty and yet it seems to function like religion.

My own view is that on all the measurements we have for religion, celebrity worship falls short. Celebrity culture is not about a transcendent being or indeed transcendent beings. It does not point beyond itself to any God or gods. Celebrity culture does not build any kind of community or church. It does not function as a way of ordering value or organizing society. Religions seem to take themselves very seriously and be rather taken up with their own weight and significance. Celebrities we know are obsessed with their own importance but when it comes down to it no-one takes them seriously. Muriel Gray's reminiscence of an encounter with Madonna at the Live Aid concert illustrates this point. Muriel and a friend were sitting outside the portaloos having a cigarette when Madonna's minders came and told them to clear the area. As a feisty Scot there was no way Gray was going to move. So Madonna had to walk past her to use the toilet. When she came out Gray announced loudly to those around 'I would give it a few moments before using it if I were you.'4 The singer might call herself Madonna and invite adoration and regard but while there may be some faithful there are many like Muriel Gray who see it all as joke that invites ridicule and disrespect.

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PARA-RELIGION
While not exactly a religion, celebrity worship is one of the ways in which religion persists in popular culture. But as it persists it becomes dispersed or (dis)located. This para-religion does not play out as any kind of formal belief system. Rather what we see in celebrity worship is the persistence of theological themes and metaphors that are taken up by the media, by academic commentators, by fans and by celebrities themselves. In part these theological themes simply serve to aggrandize celebrity narratives. The theological is used to disguise and legitimate the mundane and the banal. But at the same time ideas of worship and of the divine point to the sacred self as it is reflected in and through celebrities. Through the habitual use of religious imagery and analogy theological themes drawn mainly from the Christian tradition are linked to ideas of the sacred and the self.

What is happening here is the exact opposite of the books about theology and popular culture in which the popular is situated within Christian tradition and understanding. In the para-religion of celebrity, theological ideas are lifted out of the that tradition and relocated in the irreverent religion of the sacred self. Through this process the meaning of theological metaphors and terms starts to shift and become fluid.

As someone involved in the Christian Church and the communication of faith in contemporary culture, I want to suggest that this is where the rubber hits the road. It is one thing to try to make sense of ourselves in relation to popular culture - and the burgeoning theologies of film and popular culture are clearly important here - but if we want to communicate faith we need to do something more than domesticate modern idols into our own theological narratives. The terminology may sometimes sound the same, but celebrity worship promotes a very different kind of worldview. We need not superimpose the Christian model on what we see around us, but seek an empathetic and participative understanding of the religious spirit of the age.  

Central to this is the religion of the sacred self. This religious sensibilitiy is diffused and inchoate.  It is like Gnosticism in the biblical era or the philosophy of the Enightenment in the 18th and 19th centuries.  It is the fluid cultural tone of the age and as such the religion of the sacred self passes between and within and around religious traditions. It affects those of us in the Church and the way we do religion as much as it does those with whom we share our newspapers, movies and neighbourhoods.

We therefore need to explore these shifts in theological expression and imagination because they tell us not simply about an imagined 'them' but also about 'us'.

Pete Ward

 

2  Anna Nicole runs from 17 Feb to 4 March 2011 at the Royal Opera House.
Newsnight - Friday, 1 October 2010.
4  Live Aid Documentary - Rocking All Over the World BBC 11th July 2007


Theology Through the Celebrity Looking Glass

GOD
Celebrity worship is uncomfortable with the idea of God. It is not simply that all notions of transcendence are absent or even that we are suspicious of celebrities when they suddenly turn into evangelists. Ask yourself why is Bono uncool in some quarters - it isn't simply his sunglasses or his irritating self-consciousness - it is his predilection to turn into a preacher. We don't like him doing God. No, the real unease is seen in our conflicted attitude to the gods we make for ourselves in the media. For even as we watch them being airbrushed and exalted, we remind ourselves that they are idols. We know that they will have 15 minutes of fame and then they will crash and burn. Actually we like our gods to have feet of clay, to fail and to mess up. To be fallible. We like it because it makes them human, like us. And that, above all, is the message. We yearn for the best in ourselves, we worship it in others but we a filled with doubt. We have fashioned for ourselves godlike images but we see through them.

SALVATION
Flick through the pages of Hello magazine and you see into the paradise of the gods. Perfect families, beautiful homes, stylish clothes. This is Hello Heaven, a vision of the perfect life. We all know this is the guy's third wife and it won't last, but it still draws us in. Hello Heaven is a vision of salvation - Shalom with a pool. For all its focus on infidelity and failure, celebrity culture reveals at its heart a yearning for loving relationships. At the centre of this is the perfect home - however materialistic it seems, what makes it work is family (or the illusion of family). Hello celebrates family events. Weddings above all else keep the magazine in business but baptisms, birthday parties, funerals all feature. Every stage of life is here each with its glass of champagne and designer dress. There is a reverence in Hello that is not simply about wealth but about family and happiness. This is the sacred self that we are invited to worship.

SIN
Unlike the contemporary church that shies away from judgment and likes to downplay sin as mild oversight, celebrity culture is clear that wrongdoing and moral failure is rife and it demands justice.  Sin, however, is incarnate - seen in the body through weight gain and weight loss. To sin is to let your self go - an obvious point, perhaps, in the religion of the sacred self. To fail morally is not to live up to your own values. To lose it is to not make the most of your self. The judgment and punishment of the tabloids is meted out because celebrities have it all and they have thrown it away. We are constantly invited into these condemnations so we become the judges of our own gods.