When I saw the title, which is the same newspaper title I use in this inspirational piece, I was immediately pulled to read it. Authored by George Packer, the article is about inequality and also about heroes. I don’t often put those two themes together, so it was an interesting perspective.
Packer helped me to think about the phenomenon of celebrities. I will admit that I don’t care much at all about celebrities. In many ways the cultural celebrities come from arenas that don’t impress me that much, namely, entertainment and sports. I certainly like sports, but I don’t think the heroes in the sporting world are any different than the average person---except they are really rich! And that is part of the article’s argument.
Packer asks the right question. He queries, “What are celebrities, after all?” Rich, famous? Usually both are true. Packer continues by noting that celebrities “dominate the landscape, like giant monuments to aspiration, fulfillment and overreach.” That is an interesting way to put it. In some ways celebrities do dominate the landscape. They play an inordinate role in the cultural lives of Americans. They dominate the media world. They are used in the advertisement world to sell things. They tell me what to think and what to buy.
I like Packer’s line of argument. He begins to go a little deeper in his analysis. He says that celebrities “are as intimate as they are grand, and they offer themselves for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion.” If you are reading this closely, you realize that we have now entered a kind of spiritual realm. He says that celebrities are intimate and they are grand. I assume that is probably true. In an unfortunately odd way, they become role models for folks.
But then Packer adds, celebrities offer themselves for worship. Whoa, I think! LeBron James? Michael Jackson? Choose your own favorite celebrity. Are they offering themselves for worship? I might have worshiped some sports figures when I was a little kid. But I cannot imagine worshipping any celebrity today. For me that would cross a line---a real no-no.
Packer says the celebrity offers himself or herself for worship by ordinary people searching for a suitable object of devotion. That is an interesting contention. It seems this argument suggests people want to need some object of devotion. At one level, I would agree with this. In this world of spirituality there is one line of thought that says humans are homo religiosus---that is, naturally religious. I admit that I always have been attracted to this idea of humans.
Humans are naturally religious. The real question is in what they will place their devotion. In spiritual terms the question is asked: will they believe in God or will they place their trust in that which is not God, i.e. an idol. The answer is pretty clear: many of us place our trust and hopes in some form of idol. Perhaps this is exactly what a celebrity is: an idol. The celebrity is a god of our own making. He or she has become a suitable object of our devotion---for whatever reason.
As I reason my way through this, it helps me see why I am not drawn to celebrities. I already have a firm belief in the Holy One. I am in quest of the real, living God. And I don’t watch television to see God. And I don’t expect to find God on the internet! Surely, I can find out a great deal of stuff about God on television and the internet. But God is not found in the box. God is found in the human heart.
The final question is how does all this tie into inequality? Packer offers a convincing perspective. He says that celebrities “loom larger in times like now, when inequality is soaring and trust in institutions — governments, corporations, schools, the press — is falling.” This perspective offers a telling critique on our contemporary society. Our times do see inequality soaring. I would agree that trust in institutions is not as strong as in other times.
I find it interesting that he does not list churches, mosques and synagogues in the institutions in which trust is being lost. I would not be so sure but that they also should be on the list. Whatever the case, I find it odd and unfortunate that celebrities would replace the institutions.
Maybe it is time again to reassess in what we place our faith. Let me be clear that my faith and trust is in God---the Holy One. This does not mean I will have no problems. This will not automatically mean that inequality will go away and everyone can live happily ever after. But life with God is for me the way, the truth and the life. Anything less is idolatrous and leads to no good end. Instead of inequality, I celebrate God