While the aforementioned study focused on pop and rock stars, fame in general seems to exact a heavy toll. The dissolution of Jon and Kate Gosselin's marriage, Lindsey Lohan's infantile recklessness, Heath Ledger's tragic overdose, and Owen Wilson's suicide attempt in 2007 reminds us of the frequently high price of celebrity. The news continually invites us to follow the parade of depressed, addicted, and reckless celebrities into rehab, which has become a burgeoning industry in its own right. In fact, Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, which launched in January 2008, has become popular entertainment.
Yet despite the ample and never-ending evidence that fame, fortune, and beauty fail to bring lasting peace and satisfaction—in fact, often quite the contrary—Americans are more celebrity-obsessed than ever. I am not making light of the suffering of those who happen to be famous. I am saddened for the lives of those who have come to ruin in such a public way. What caring human being cannot be troubled by the public destruction of Jon and Kate's family, the tragic course of Michael Jackson's life, or even the morally vacuous Paris Hilton, who is as much a victim of irresponsible, over-indulgent parenting as anything else? We should be deeply concerned for a society that has elevated mere celebrity to hero status and for a church that has been flaccid in asserting the true virtues of heroism.
In his excellent book, True Heroism in a World of Celebrity Counterfeits (NavPress, 1995), Dick Keyes writes that:
Throughout history, most generations have passed their values on to their children not by giving them lists of rules and laws to follow, but principally by telling them stories that embody the values of their culture.
Historically, our heroes served to inspire us on to higher virtues and aspirations. Consider the story of George Washington and the cherry tree. The truth of this story as an actual or mythical event matters little; what matters is the virtue of honesty, which the story sought to teach. It is only the cynic that obsesses over whether or not the story is true, thus missing the point entirely. Regardless, this is what true heroes do; they inspire us on to higher aspirations of virtue and morality.
Keyes adds, "Our fascination with heroes comes from a hunger for excellence. Without heroes the whole source of imaginative motivation is disengaged from life. Without heroes, what will inspire us to go beyond mediocrity and cynicism? What will keep us from becoming bored and boring?" And what do bored people do? They seek after the idols of amusement, food, and things to assuage and/or medicate their boredom. This might account for the plethora of giant screen TVs, the epidemic of childhood obesity, and rapacious consumerism so rampant in our culture.
Jonathan Swift, the Irish cleric and author of Gulliver's Travels wrote, "Whoe'er excels in what we prize, appears a hero in our eyes." This might explain, in part, the cultural shift from true heroes to the celebrity-as-hero phenomenon. What we prize has changed! Whereas we once prized honor, integrity, virtue, courage, and the like, we now prize fame, fortune, and beauty. The celebrity serves as the ideal "hero" in such a culture, despite their apparent moral failures and lack of any real virtue, because even in their worst moments, they often still retain their fame, fortune, and beauty. With the jettisoning of biblical values (i.e., virtue), celebrities have become the default heroes of the age and these are the "stories"—along with their bankrupt values—to which our children are subtly encouraged to aspire.
Even within Christian circles we have begun to see the infiltration of the celebrity-based valuation. There are a growing number of pastors, authors, and public figures who are lauded not for their substantive teaching and theological knowledge but because they have achieved some level of fame. Churches frequently rely on the "celebrity-testimonial" to attract audiences. Why? Because it works! I have heard a number of these good people and I've often been shocked by their inability to articulate a coherent faith. Being famous seems to be all that matters.
MTV, that great creator and purveyor of false heroes, commissioned a study on youth from the research firm Social Technologies. Researchers reported that "Youth, especially younger people, fantasize about fame …" Nearly one-third said they wanted to be famous. Being famous has become their career goal! The tragedy is that these young people simply aspire to fame and riches and not to any sort of moral excellence or virtue.
We have allowed the culture to redefine heroism and human excellence based on what the world values. Dick Keyes is here again helpful:
We are good at talking about excellence in sports, the corporate world, education, [and] music … Thinking about excellence in these areas is easy because the standards [are] … agreed upon and measurable, and those who excel are recognizable. … They are the visible winners of our society. But it is as if there is a taboo against enlarging the scale, daring to ask, what is excellence, not in playing the guitar or managing a corporation but in a whole human life? What is it to live a good life? These questions have to do with human greatness—or heroism.
The answers to these questions are ultimately found in Christ. True heroes are not always "the visible winners in our society." Such was the certainly the case with Jesus, whose earthly ministry appeared to suffer the ultimate defeat but in the end he was the ultimate hero in all of human history. Jesus Christ—fully God and fully man—embodies the highest aspirations of love, moral virtue, self-sacrifice, and courage. Christ, the true hero, engages our imagination and motivates us to try to make that virtue—those kingdom values and principles—our own. Granted, we must be aided in these efforts by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit but for those whose souls have been quickened by His grace, the choice to "seek first the kingdom" remains ours.
The church must seek first to embrace and live out these seemingly upside-down virtues of Christ and his kingdom. We must recover the belief that Jesus Christ is the standard by which all heroes are to be measured and the church must pass these virtues to its children in more compelling ways than feeding kids pizza and treating them to video games!
Our failure in this area has resulted in changed cultural values, which in turn has changed our "heroes." Subsequently our stories have changed. Instead of inspiring a generation to excellence in moral virtue, we are increasingly indoctrinating children in secular humanist propaganda over and against biblical truth. Perhaps offering schoolchildren the story of the Good Samaritan would better serve the needs of society than the story of Heather Has Two Mommies!
(DISCLAIMER: The subject of this article is NOT about Elvis Presley nor is it a condemnation of Elvis Presley [or any other celebrity figure] so please do not write to me and tell me that I have maligned a "great Christian man" by including his name among the notable famous whose lives came to tragic ends.)
© 2009 by S. Michael Craven
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S. Michael Craven is the President of the Center for Christ & Culture and the author of Uncompromised Faith: Overcoming Our Culturalized Christianity (Navpress, 2009). Michael's ministry is dedicated to equipping the church to engage the culture with the redemptive mission of Christ. For more information on the Center for Christ & Culture and the teaching ministry of S. Michael Craven, visit: www.battlefortruth.org