A celebrity (or popularly, celeb) is someone currently receiving high recognition and attention in public life. Most noticeable are entertainment celebrities, but athletes (if considered other than entertainment), politicians, academics, literary figures, and even religious figures-if they are heroes or highly controversial-may be considered of celebrity rank.
Much of celebrity is transient, though some have been able to achieve fame or notoriety over years or even decades.
A triumvirate of three “C’s” help describe today’s popular culture. Consumerism is its overarching reality and its end, commercials are its driving force, and celebrity its manifestation. Celebrity puts flesh on our hopes and dreams, our fears and anxieties, our escape.
Pete Ward’s God’s Behaving Badly: Celebrity as a “Kind of” Religion captures the importance, vastness and vacuity, and the “spirituality” of contemporary celebrity.
In this book he argues that celebrities and celebrity culture have become in many ways a kind of religion, in which they are”seen as in some way performing a number of functions that were previously fulfilled by religion.” Much like religion, celebrities offer those in the culture who follow them a source of identity. Thus for youth in particular who are in the process of forming their own identities, it is no wonder that celebrities and pop culture have such an influence on their generation.
Ward argues that celebrities and popular culture portray a kind of theology:
In this sense, celebrities are akin to the Greek gods or the saints. They exist in a mythic world of stories and tales. They’re godlike, not in the Christian Trinitarian way, but in a mythic sense. Celebrity stories are kind of like tales from Mount Olympus. When we read about celebrities, they are like us and yet not like us. They live in a sort of parallel world, which is real and yet unreal. Like Greek mythology and the stories of the saints, celebrity stories are peopled with the incredibly beautiful and the hopelessly flawed, with angels and demons, saints and sinners, the venerable and the venal. Celebrity stories are in many ways like morality tales. They portray possible ways of being good or bad, faithful or unfaithful, ideal or not ideal.
Celebrity stories therefore offer a source of identity and belonging through presenting the culture with different ways of living. It “offers various takes on what it means to be human or superhuman, what it means to be gay or straight, what it means to be male or female and so on.”
Celebrities’ influence on culture, then, is immense in that the stories of celebrities; their rise and fall, their successes and failures, help to provide a sort of standard by which we live. According to this perspective, their influence is so pervasive in that like religion the ideas they present become the lenses through which the culture, particularly youth culture, views the world. The challenge for us as educators, Christian or otherwise, is to present a new set of lenses through which the culture that celebrities create can then be assessed in light of the best moral standards of our day.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
1. Do you agree on the importance of the three C’s of current culture?
2. Who is, or was, your favorite celebrity?
3. What is your favorite celebrity story?
4. What most impressed you with Pete Ward’s introduction to the issue of Celebrity? What questions or comments do you have?
5. Is Ward stretching the point in talking about celebrity as a kind of fan worship, a kind of religion? And what exactly does he mean by “a kind of” religion?
6. Why do parents and all those who care for or about young people, need to study and understand celebrity?
All those who care about those growing up in today’s environment, and shouldn’t this include us all, need insights into the hopes and fears of young people-perhaps all our dreams and anxieties. A study of celebrities and their fans give us important clues into our culture and how it is socializing all of us-especially the young.