Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Celebrity is Our Curse: A Message From the Past

I know it's long, but I think it's worth it. This piece was written 34 for years ago, swap out a few names and it could have been written a week ago. Have we, as a nation, evolved in the last 30 years? Have we devolved? Is it a useful question? Do you care? This editorial was printed in The Wittenburg Door all those years ago, and it was written by a Ben Patterson:

To Be Known

Of all the analogies and images suggested to characterize modern man, the most compelling, for me, remains that of a human being riveted in front of a television set. A Philadelphia radio station recently offered 127 families $500 to stop watching the tube for just one month. Ninety-three refused outright, and one woman admitted that her husband comes home each evening and gets up from the set only twice: to eat and to go to bed.

No, I'm not going to launch another harangue against the evils of television, many as they are. Rather, I would like you to look closely at this quintessential human being glued before his appliance and ponder his life. Each day dozens of TV personalities come smiling into his living room and he knows each one. But he is never known.

Notice also his surroundings. Prominent will be a stereo hi-fi, a radio, and a telephone. He can be sung to, spoken to, and dialed by a computer. But, again, he is not known. The identity issue for him, says Rollo May, is not who am I?, but even if-I-know-who-I-am, I-have-no-significance. I can influence no one.

He will also have magazines and books to read. Once again the same people who come into his life via television, records and radio will be there. Now they can be seen in their homes and places of recreation. Their fulfillment will be merchandised as he watches them gardening in Malibu, at a disco in Manhattan, or horseback riding in the Rockies. Up close and personal, he can study their savoir faire, their style, their tastes for clothes and food. As of last months Time magazine, he will know with millions of Americans that model Cheryl Tiegs liked to read a lot when she was a girl, and played violin well enough to qualify for a city wide youth orchestra. But he himself will not be known.

No human being can tolerate this kind of numbing impotence for very long. So, blatant in our 20th century man is always the David Berkowitz, The Son-of-Sam killer, the mass murderer. If he cannot be known, he can at least strike out and shock us into feeling, into making us both feel something. But most of the time quintessential modern just sits there in dull isolation, detached from himself and those near him, his own values and theirs.

As I said earlier, it was not my purpose to attack the media but to consider this man's situation in life. Arch Bishop William Temple once remarked that when men ceased to believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything. Our age of fervid religiosity is one witness to that truth. Another is our preoccupation with celebrities and superstars. We locate meaning and fulfillment with those who are simple known. For the tautology of our times is that being known is to be fulfilled and have value.

When Suzanne Somers, sex star of the television series Three's Company, received her so-called People's Award she told us all how as a little girl she often starred as the Virgin Mary (hee hee) in plays produced by her parochial school. Her father would sit in the front row and exhort her to stand at the center. Well, she said, here I am Daddy, dead center. She's now valuable and worthy because she is known. Perhaps that is why Andy Warhol said that in the future everyone will be famous for five. For in our culture five minutes of fame in itself would equal significance, meaning, value and fulfillment.

Popular magazines in particular service as catechisms for the Way to this kind of fulfillment. The dominance of personality journalism is one case in point. Why else would we want to know what Cheryl Tiegs liked to do when she was in junior high or who taught John Travolta how to dance? We are intensely interested in these things because we want to know the Way. Because we too suffer from the loss of value in our lives. We must know these people and how they do get It.

Of late, it seems to be no matter if our representative modern is a Christian. He, too, is in the world and he is also in the church. There too, personality journalism is endemic to sales success and magazines, books and films. We want to know how they too did It. Why? Because of their profound spirituality? At most, only incidentally. They have the right to be interviewed, photographed and to speak authoritatively on any number of theological issues simply because they, well, er, a, are well known. To not be well known is to have nothing to say or to have nothing to say that anyone would want to hear.

I wonder if Paul would have merited Evangelical Press coverage if he were alive today. He insisted to the church at Corinth that what validated his authority to speak was, besides their own consciences, the fact that as far as the world was concerned he was an impostor, dishonorable, unknown, dying, punished, poor, and negligible. (II Corinthians 6:8 and following) Today the only one of those qualities that would prompt us to read about him would be if he were sufficiently dishonorable or an impostor to titillate our prurient interest.

The evangelical media's use of personality journalism is propaganda. It suggests that if our culture heroes—i.e. those who are heroes simply by being known—can also be Christians, then their faith, like their taste in clothes, can be part of the Way to Knowndom for us the reader and viewer. That makes it propaganda because it uncritically rides in on a cultural value to sell, what? The faith? I doubt it. Magazines, books, films? I'm certain.

More deplorable, however, is what it says to the little people buying this junk. It implicitly denies the value God gives each of us, His children. We are known, inside and out, by Him and that brings a value that record sales and photo essays have no power to give. We don't need to be known to find value. We don't need to study a celebrity's style in order to be a better Christian. We need to learn only from our Lord and His servants like Paul who preached that, among other things, Christ's death rendered irrelevant the world's preoccupation with who is at the center, whatever that center is. "From now on," He said, "we regard no one from a human point of view...If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is passed away and behold the new is come." (II Cor. 5:16, 17)

1 comment:

Jessica DesLongchamp said...

It's almost creepy how relevant that article still is. Nice post.