*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Idol fantasies — why we love them

by
02 February 2011

Pete Ward asks: is celebrity-worship a religion, and, if so, what does it say about us?

THE newspapers are full of specula­tion. Is Cheryl Cole dating Derek Hough, or not? You may have no idea who Derek Hough is. I haven’t. But Ms Cole, through The X Factor, and her div­orce from the footballer Ashley Cole — not to mention being in the group Girls Aloud, catching malaria, and baring all to Piers Morgan on tele­vision — has breached our innate celeb­rity scepticism. Despite our­selves, even though we may not watch much reality TV, or hardly glance at a newspaper, Ms Cole has wormed her way into our con­sciousness.

Media coverage ensures that celeb­rities such as Ms Cole are con­stantly in front of the public. It is not just the tabloids and the glossy magazines: the broadsheets also report on celebrities (even if they try to explain and debunk their “cultural signifi­cance”), and so do mainstream TV and radio news.

All types of cause, charity, and consciousness-raising endeavour rely on celebrities to publicise their mes­sage. Christians are not immune to this, either. Can you honestly say that you would not welcome the sup­port of the “Vicar of Dibley”, Dawn French, in your church-restoration ap­peal? The news-sheet Alpha News, as every Church Times reader knows, cannot resist using the smiling face of a C- or D-list celebrity to endorse the gospel.

Perplexed? So are most com­mentat­ors. But, interestingly, in trying to make sense of celebrity omni­presence, they soon turn to religion for the answer.

But they are not talking about the Church — they are just using reli­gion as a metaphor. The media rou­tinely talk about “celebrity wor­ship”, “the cult of celebrity”, “celeb­rity gods”, “divas”, and the “adora­tion” of fans. Faced with a celebrity event such as the death of Jade Goody, it is not long before someone reaches for a phrase such as: “With religion in decline, celebrities are taking the place of the saints. They are a new pantheon of the gods.”

These kinds of assertion are clearly hollow. Commentators are trying to “big up” their own celebrity world by stealing our clothes. Those of us in the Church know what real religion is — and celebrity-worship does not fit the bill. It does not connect people to God.

There is no Church of Celebrity; and celebrity culture does not build a moral community or order society. Ms Cole may be omnipresent, but she is not the ground of anyone’s be­ing — except, perhaps, Mr Hough’s.

There is no Church of Celebrity; and celebrity culture does not build a moral community or order society. Ms Cole may be omnipresent, but she is not the ground of anyone’s be­ing — except, perhaps, Mr Hough’s.

NEVERTHELESS, before we write off this whole area, we should pause. The fact is that we cannot escape celebrity culture, and, shallow and irreverent though it may be, it does mean something.

It is not religion as we know it, but there is something happening that is akin to religion. It is sort-of-sacred, and slightly reverent. My word for it is “para-religion”. It is like, but also not like, religion.

Para-religion works like this: celeb­rities attract attention through our need for gossip, but also because they mean something to us. They offer us versions of ourselves — per­haps as we might like to be. We are drawn into their lives, not because of who they are, but because of who we are (or are not).

Celebrities represent choices and possibilities. They show us different ways to be attractive, different ways to dress, and different ways to mess up. Celebrities are gods and god­desses, sacred and saintly, not be­cause of who they are, but because they represent something about us.

It is this “self” that attracts to it religious analogies and metaphors, because, in the wider popular cul­ture, the self is sacred. Celebrity idolisation is the worship of the re­flected self. We see this reflection, and name it as sacred.

But we should not become too rever­ential. Celebrity-worship is a con­fused and confusing place. Be­cause we are presented with a pan­theon of gods that burns brightly for 15 minutes, we are not really faithful fol­lowers. We are choosing between our gods, and approving or disap­prov­­ing of their actions. In fact, dis­approval and disregard is fundamen­tal to celebrity worship. The invita­tion to take a view is a vital part of all media coverage.

In the tabloids, and on celebrity web-pages, there are often oppor­tunities to vote on some aspect of celebrity clothing, lifestyle, weight-loss, or weight-gain. Our choice to vote someone off is part of the reli­gion of the sacred self. Ultimately, celeb­rities are not the ruling deity sitting in judgement — we are.

In the tabloids, and on celebrity web-pages, there are often oppor­tunities to vote on some aspect of celebrity clothing, lifestyle, weight-loss, or weight-gain. Our choice to vote someone off is part of the reli­gion of the sacred self. Ultimately, celeb­rities are not the ruling deity sitting in judgement — we are.

I WANT to make a plea for what could be called “inter-para-reli­gious dialogue”. I have used the word “we” when speaking about celeb­rity wor­ship; you may say, “Well, not me”. But saying “Not me” is precisely what celebrity worship is all about.

By distancing ourselves from celeb­­rities, we construct ourselves in relation to them. Irreverence and dis­­approval is part of para-religion. In other words, there is no difference between the rejection of celebrity, a mild interest in celebrity, and a close identification with particular celeb­rities. It is all part of the same para-religious world.

One way to think about celebrity worship is to liken it to other move­ments. So celebrity worship might be compared to gnosticism in the first two centuries, or the Enligh­ten­ment in the 18th and 19th cen­turies.

These movements of the mind spread as a sort of intellectual and theo­logical virus. They made certain ways of speaking and thinking plaus­ible. They passed between, within, and around the Church, and affected how we did theology, and how we thought about ourselves.

Celebrity culture, and the religion of the sacred self, works in the same nebulous, cultural way. Take, for instance, the way in which politics has been slowly “celebrified”. This is not just something we see in the presi­dential elections in the United States: look at how David Cameron has let us into his kitchen, paraded his wife, and invited us to celebrate the birth of his child.

Then there is the whole area of political campaigning that has been transformed by celebrities, from St Bob and Bono to Lady Gaga.

Para-religion is powerful stuff that is changing our society in ways that we do not quite grasp. And here is the point: we — the Church, church­people, and theologians — are all part of this change. So, unlike other kinds of interreligious dialogue, this is not a conversation between them and us. Or, to put it more polemic­ally, we are not the religiously en­lightened, and they are not the reli­giously disillusioned

The implication of this shift in the religious atmosphere and sens-ibility has far-reaching consequences. I want to highlight just one of these: celebrity worship, which shows us how confused we are about God.

THE journalist Leah Carroll explores celebrity-worship through her own ex­perience. She talks about her iden­tification with the singer Courtney Love: “I am going to tell you a deep, dark secret. When I was 14 years old, Courtney Love was my idol. I got dressed every morning before high school by carefully layering ripped fishnets over purple tights, fastening the clasps on my vintage baby-doll dress, combing out my peroxided hair, and adjusting my nose ring.”

This is a confession about an ado­lescent fixation, but, in essence, it re­veals the extent to which celebrities can serve as a source for identity and a sense of self. But at the centre of this account is the religious meta­phor, “idol”.

It is easy to miss the significance of the word “idol”, it is so ubiquitous. We routinely talk about film idols and pop idols. Of course, talent shows such as American Idol — one of biggest shows in the US — and The X Factor turn people into celeb­rities: as we vote for one of the contestants, we see the apotheosis of the ordinary into the famous and the semi-divine.

Yet at the centre of this lies the theo­logical truth carried in the word “idol”. We are making false gods. Even as we worship, we know, and are told in advance, that these sacred figures are fake. And we know that, because we made them. Celeb­rity worship is the adoration of what we know to be shallow and empty, and yet we continue to worship.

In addition, there is the constant round of celebrities who mess up. This is what is happening with our inter­est in Ms Cole — we are wor­ried that she will choose another wrong ’un. This eye for failure and meltdown can be seen in our interest in people such as George Michael, Tiger Woods, Amy Winehouse, and Britney Spears.

We know that the media builds people up only to pull them apart, but our fascination with failure is part of our worship. We like to see our gods behaving badly — it makes them more human, more like us. So, even as they have meaning, they are also set up to be ridiculed.

This brings us to the real point. Celebrity culture, in its adoption of religious and theological language, subtly changes that language. It does this by linking the idea of the sacred and the divine to the pointless and the puerile.

Celebrity worship takes us into para-religion. In this parallel relig­ious world, we are both attracted and repelled: we adore and we abhor. We do not trust the divine, because we know it will turn out to be empty.

It is better to know that what we worship is shallow and unreliable than it is to be let down and abused. What celebrity worship shows is that people are as reluctant to “do God” as Alastair Campbell was.

Dr Pete Ward teaches at King’s College, London. His new book Gods Be­having Badly: Media, religion and celebrity culture is published by SCM at £19.99 (CT Bookshop £17); 978-0-33404-335).

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)