The Greeks had a wise saying: “Call no man happy until he is dead.” Celebrity culture calls a man happy as soon as he has enough followers on Facebook. We do not know enough about celebrities to call them “happy” as the biographies that come out after their deaths often demonstrate. We trivialize our goal of happiness when we take the appearance of happiness for the reality. Happiness is not a “feeling,” but human flourishing. Human flourishing is having harmony between reason, emotions, and desire in a community of happy people. As Aristotle understood and Jesus demonstrated, happiness is hard to gain this side of Paradise, but priceless when acquired.
Celebrity is particularly dangerous for Christians because we should know better and because the worship of celebrity is antithetical to the Gospel. The Scriptures and church history teach us that what seems to be true often is not. Satan himself can appear as “an angel of light” or a network television program.
Following a celebrity is not good for them and worse for us. Why? Humility is hard enough without the leader facing a cult of personality that makes more of him than he can stand. We elevate the recent convert too quickly and cut off his growth. We tolerate error, sin, and folly in our celebrities, because how could we do without them? As a result, small errors become big problems and the fall is hard.
Celebrity Christianity would have decided drunken Noah was just being Noah. Celebrity Christianity would have urged forgiving Judas the next day if “he was sorry.” Celebrity Christianity would have given Arius a forum to dialog about his “controversial views” and urged Athanasius not to be so contra mundum.
Celebrity also points us toward a distant “people” that we do not know and are actually airbrushed, sanitized, fictions: photoshopped religion. Instead of honoring our decent fathers, mothers, local leaders and friends, we look to even “greater” figures. We admire lives sanitized by public relations and read books written by ghost authors. Better one conversation with my Nana on her sunporch than one thousand hours of video shot by an empty headed celebrity who knows nothing but how to read the script given to him by a sycophantic staff.
Folk wisdom is lost in “popular culture.” Pop culture is cut off from real people and is manufactured for prophets seeking profit. Folk music is drowned out in the star power of mediocrity hyped to us by religious marketeers. The authentic voice of God speaking to the simple man or woman is drowned out by those who market celebrity and build brands around personality. Celebrities strip the one idea, calling, or gift from their “workers” to take credit for it in books they did not write, programs they could not really make, speeches on books they have not read, and teachings on subjects they do not understand.
If Jesus cast the money changers out of the Temple, perhaps it is time that His followers cast the cultists of celebrity out of their pantheon of heroes. We know an inauthentic “celebrity” when the person has done little in his life other than tell his own story or do one thing well. Homeric Greeks called the skilled “virtuous” so that deeply flawed men like Achilles who were good at war could be named “heroes.” Christians called nobody a hero unless he was also good. A Christian gentleman would refuse to do business with a skilled cad because he was a cad. If we have never been consistent enough about this good behavior, at least the ideal was there.
Now we excuse the celebrity or the talented merely because they are famous or skilled. We have Presidential candidates who scarcely bother to hide their roguish graft. We have a leading candidate who enables the misogyny and vice of her spouse. Republicans tolerate know-nothing, racist spew if it comes from “one of our own” who has a following. This is sickening.
We are none of us perfect, but saints and heroes are made over time or at the moment of death. Saints or heroes often fall, fail badly, but spend a lifetime in repentance and doing good deeds. History judges their sincerity, not a poll.
We must stop elevating those in process to the pantheon of those we emulate without a lifetime of heroic service. We forget Billy Graham because he is old and tired while elevating the present entrepreneur of the gospel who sells us the Word of God for gain. We confuse reality television with reality and glibness with profundity.
Our heroes must be Christians of centuries past that have fought and died for the faith. We know the record of Saint Lawrence, the soundness of the sermons of John Chrysostom, and the power of Nina, equal to the apostles in power. They stand with my grandparents, holy in their generation, in a great crowd of witnesses urging me to finish well. We can measure the sermons of today against the writings of the Scriptures. We can look at the outlier, the Christian who acts as if he or she alone can start a revolution in holiness, and compare their lives to Francis or Wesley. My church can honor past pastors, now in glory, rather than buy product from people we do not know.
Call no man holy until he is dead.