In 1996, the pop singer Jarvis Cocker invaded the stage at the United Kingdom’s Brit Awards. Michael Jackson was performing “Earthsong.” Jackson emerged, out of a huge image of the earth, surrounded by white light. He raised his arms in the shape of a cross and started to sing about the planet. As the song continued, Jackson was joined on stage by a crowd of people in tattered clothing, and as the song came to a close the singer took off his shirt and his trousers to reveal white robes. Again bathed in light, Jackson stood as if crucified. Slowly the crowd came to him, one by one, and he touched them or kissed them as if in blessing. Eventually, Jackson was left with just a small group of children. Holding a girl by her hand, he started to speak about the devastation of the planet, saying that he “believes in us,” that we can make a difference. “I believe in you, I love you” said the pop star, and he turned, surrounded by children, and exited the stage.
All of this was too much for Cocker. He climbed onto the edge of the stage bent over and patted his backside at the messianic Jackson. Fourteen years after the event, several years after Jackson’s trial, and nearly a year after Jackson’s death, Cocker is unapologetic. Asked by an interviewer if he thought now that he was “mean” to Jackson, Cocker said, “Not really. His performance was bad taste. Pop stars are not deities.”1 In one iconic gesture, Cocker refused to worship the messianic Michael. In the world of celebrity worship, there are clearly those who are more Dawkinsesque than we might imagine.
The idea that celebrities are “kind of” gods has a long history. Film stars have been talked about as goddesses since Hollywood began, and we are all very familiar with the term diva for female opera singers and, more recently, any successful female performers with high expectations and a penchant for drama, which comes from the Italian word for a female deity. In popular music we have our “rock gods” and “pop idols.”
Jackson might have been confused (and he would not be alone among pop stars in this confusion), but no one really thinks Jackson is divine. Yet when he died suddenly, the reaction of his fans looked to many in the media like a kind of worship. When a celebrity dies worship-like behavior is quite common. From John Lennon to Heath Ledger, from Rudolph Valentino to Kurt Cobain, we have seen people taking to the streets and expressing a level of grief for fallen celebrities that many see as a sort of religious outpouring.
Nowhere was this more the case than in the death of Princess Diana where a nation was caught up in an outpouring of grief. At Diana’s funeral, her brother Earl Spencer made the connection between Diana and the Greek goddess after whom she was named. For many, the only explanation for the nation’s grief was some idea that although she may not have been a goddess, Diana seemed to be a kind of sacred figure. The English writer and columnist Julie Burchill called Diana a “sexy saint.”2
The perplexing thing is that while commentators and the media talk about celebrity worship as a kind of religion, interviews with fans and indeed mourners generally reveal that most have no sense that what they are engaging in is “religious” and that they would reject entirely the idea that the figure they are celebrating is a god. So celebrity worship is ambiguous; it is a kind of religion.
Celebrity and How It Works
How we know about Michael Jackson, or any other celebrity for that matter, is relatively straightforward. Celebrity news makes up a huge proportion of the media output. So it is hard to escape knowing.
This hasn’t always been the case; a number of factors have come together to shape celebrity culture as we know it. The first of these relates to Hollywood’s realization that the revelation of personal information about stars sells movies and records. Our seemingly insatiable (and, one might add, prurient) interest in the life of the stars is fed by the Hollywood studios and the record companies. Until the 1960s, the flow of personal information about the stars was, to a large extent, controlled by the culture industry. All this changed when journalism and particularly photojournalism became more intrusive. The famous star caught off guard or in a compromising clinch (preferably while wearing a bikini) was found to sell more copy than the sanitized output of the Hollywood press offices. With technological innovation there has been a huge increase in media output. The combination of public interest and selling with the plethora of media output has ensured that celebrity stories fill a good deal of the available space.
Ellis Cashmore argues that Madonna was one of the first celebrities to grasp that the relationship between media and fame had changed. She blurred the distinction between private and public in a series of increasingly revealing projects. In 1991, she released Truth or Dare, a fly-on-the-wall documentary taking viewers not only behind the scenes of her 1990 Blond Ambition world concert tour, but also allowing them to witness highly personal encounters with her family. In Europe the movie was released tellingly as In Bed with Madonna. In the following year, her book Sex showed Madonna in a series of naked and, some would say, semi-pornographic poses.3
However, Madonna wasn’t the victim of press intrusion. As Cashmore writes, “The world didn’t so much ‘demand’ details or ‘invade’ her private life: they were inescapably, unavoidably, obligatorily surrounded by a life which might have been ‘private’ in one sense, but was open for inspection.”4 Madonna was able to reveal herself because of the willing cooperation of the media. We know about her because it is hard not to know. Through her self-revelation, she became the product. She commodified intimacy.
So celebrity culture is about knowing and being known. Back in the ’60s Daniel Boorstin said that “the celebrity is a person who is well-known for their well-knownness.”5 The implication here is that celebrity is somewhat shallow. Being known, it is implied, has no relationship to artistic merit, skill, or value. Being known is simply a result of media attention. Some might wish to stay with this reductive analysis and emphasize the way that celebrity culture is characterized by a facile curiosity or by tasteless self-promotion. If we add to this the link between celebrity as self-revelation and the commercial interest associated with the promotion of the products of a popular culture, then it is clearly tempting to conclude that celebrity is simply an aspect of the culture industry’s exploitation of a gullible public. Thus, the only credible theological response would be to seek to expose the failings of the celebrity obsession and to critique popular culture as a dehumanizing and degrading phenomenon. Such a move, I believe, not only misunderstands this aspect of contemporary life, but it also runs the risk of closing down a potential area of theological creativity and ignoring the missiological challenge of celebrity culture.
Rather than following such a reductive line, a theological understanding of celebrity culture needs to engage fully with its function and significance. In dealing with significance, we need to focus on some key questions. Why is it that we are fascinated by celebrities? In what ways are celebrities and their stories meaningful to people and how does the media contribute to this meaning-making?
To return to Madonna, what do we find that is significant in her personal revelations? There is an obvious clue here in her name. It is telling that many of us primarily associate the name Madonna with the pop singer rather than with the mother of God after whom she was named. The pop star Madonna’s first hit was “Like a Virgin,” a clear link to Mary. The lyric sets it out for us that she is “like, a virgin.” The claim is to similarity and it is worth taking this hint as a jumping off point for a theological interaction with celebrity because Madonna is not an isolated case; religious themes and metaphors recur in popular culture.
Celebrity Culture as a Kind of Religion
Central to the argument that celebrity culture is a sort of religion is the notion of functional equivalence. In part, this rests on a version of the secularization theory, that is, the belief that religion is declining in the Western world. Functional equivalence argues that popular culture appears to fill the void left by religion. Celebrity culture, and popular culture more generally, is seen as in some way performing a number of functions that were previously fulfilled by religion. Chris Rojek argues that celebrity culture acts in a religious way by offering a source for identity. He says that “Post-God celebrity is now one of the mainstays of organizing recognition and belonging in secular society.”6 James Twitchell identifies a similar functional link between religion and popular culture. He makes a connection between capitalism and the way that advertising constructs a kind of “gospel”: “In a most profound sense, advertising and religion are part of the same meaning-making process. They attempt to bridge the gap between us and objects by providing a systematic order and a promise of salvation.”7 There are echoes in both Twitchell and Rojek of the Durkheimian discussion of totemism and religion. Popular culture, it is argued, is functioning for society as a kind of religion, and what lies behind this is Émile Durkheim’s idea of religion as a meaning-making or an ordering principle in society. Of course, Durkheim’s point is that worship of the totem (i.e., religion) is the worship of both the divine and the social because they are one and the same.8
While the social function of celebrity culture may relate to questions of identity and ordering, the attempt to give this significance by the religious analogy runs the risk of being reductive of religion itself. Celebrities clearly don’t help us order society and they offer no kind of collective identity. They are much more ambiguous and contested signifiers than that. There may be some kind of functional equivalence between popular culture and religion, but this does not necessarily mean that popular culture and religion are the same thing. We may talk about the dedicated fan as someone who worships Elvis or Madonna or whoever, but in the main, this is seen as a metaphorical description. That said, there are groups of very extreme fans who appear to have constructed a religion from aspects of popular culture. Yet despite the popularity of the reply “Jedi Knight” to the question of religious affiliation in the 2010 United Kingdom census, examples of worship lie at the very extremities of celebrity culture and New Religious Movements. These extremities are of interest, but they don’t really shed much light on the general or mainstream significance of celebrity culture. The idea that popular culture is religious because it orders and structures meaning is limited, but there are clues to a more theological understanding of celebrity culture in a closer examination of the way that this ordering works.
In Adcult USA, Twitchell describes how advertising works by disseminating narratives. These narratives, he says, connect us to another world. For Twitchell, the television commercial can be likened to a sermon or a parable, and the TV has become an altar. He describes how in the Christian religious scheme, the story of salvation is peopled by a number of characters. The pope, the saints, bishops, priests, and nuns are on the good side. Then, representing the forces from below, there are the demons, ghouls, fiends, and so on. Twitchell points out that the Christian mythic system has echoes of Greek mythological narratives, which it largely replaced.9 His point is that these mythical, spiritual, or magical aspects of religious narratives have been taken up and relocated in the world of the advertisement. Advertisers deliberately forge links between material things (products) and the mythic. “The spirits,” says Twitchell, “magically reside not in nature, holy books, magical signs, or chants but in objects as mundane as automobile tires, rolled-up tobacco leaves, meat patties, green beans, and sugar water.”10
Tales from Mount Olympus
Celebrities and celebrity culture, I want to argue, operate in a similar way to Twitchell’s understanding of Adcult. They 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.
The stories are religious, therefore, not in a traditional way of supporting a doctrinal system, legitimating an institution, or framing ritual or communal worship, rather in that they serve to offer possibilities or choices. This is Rojek’s point about the way that celebrity offers a source for identity and belonging: they are a store of orientating reference points or possible ways of living (or not living). The significance of celebrity culture relates, therefore, directly to questions of identity and the complex interaction between media representations, and to the way that these influence are taken into individual and communal senses of the self. This is what the cultural theorist Stuart Hall sets out in his theory of identity and the circulation of media discourses. “Identities,” says Hall, “are points of temporary attachment to the subject positions which discursive practices construct for us. They are the result of a successful articulation or ‘chaining’ of the subject in the flow of discourse . . .”11 In relation to celebrity culture, what this means is that the media representation of celebrities and the narratives that are constructed around them are sources for individuals to orientate themselves. Identity is formed in relation to these media constructs by a process of identification, and so there is a relationship between what it means to be male, female, black, gay, straight, et cetera, and the circulation of images, narratives, style, and so on in media discourses. Celebrity culture, I want to suggest, forms a significant aspect of the way that this circulation and identification takes place. One of the key reasons for this is that celebrities, as much as they are not like us, are also like us. In other words, they are able to embody ways of living and behaving and so on. Like a model wearing clothes, they bring possible identities to life.
How media representation shapes identity, says Hall, is subject to constant change. Media discourses circulate representation. So we are viewing a constantly shifting portrayal of possible identities. In mythic language, we might say that there are many gods or saints and that the media makes sure that they are brought to our attention in an entertaining and constantly changing sequence. Change, however, is also taking place through the processes of media construction. Central to this change is the way that film, video, photography, and so on tend to create new looks or images through making links between previously unconnected things. Hall’s word for this is articulation. Articulation is Hall’s device for describing the way that connections are made in media representation and consumption. A good example of this is the shift in reading of the cowboy image and iconography as a result of the movie Brokeback Mountain. The ten-gallon hat, through articulation, can be seen to shift subtly from a redneck to a gay association. The change in meaning is not direct or inevitable; for instance, Madonna’s adoption of the cowboy hat will carry a different range of associations and readings than those linked to Brokeback Mountain.
Celebrity culture is significant because it forms a part of the complex interaction between representation and identity construction. Functional equivalence may be limited as a way of understanding popular culture, but there are, perhaps, more fruitful ways of theologizing from and in relation to this shifting and constantly changing area. The key to this kind of theological work, I want to argue, lies in recognizing that there is a connection to be made between celebrity culture as a kind of religious or mythical narrative and the way that media discourses operate. So the theological content of the celebrity world is found not so much in the faith or lack of faith of celebrities or even in their religious preferences or practices. The theological content of celebrity culture is rather to be found in the way celebrity is constructed. It is in the way that celebrities are portrayed and in the structure of the media narratives that offer us celebrity news.
By theology, therefore, I am referring to the way that celebrity culture, in its own rather entertaining way, offers various takes on what it is means to be human or superhuman, what it means to be gay or straight, what it means to be male and or female and so on. Above all celebrity culture focuses on stories, which tell of a life in paradise and of those who, through weakness or sin or misfortune, fall from grace. These narratives offer their own take not simply on the ideal and the aspirational, but also on what is to be despised, pitied, or even judged. Theology is to be found, therefore, in the way that media discourses entice and pleasure us into relishing these visions of wantonness while at the same time encouraging us to feel righteous in calling for punishment and retribution. Within celebrity culture, however, salvation is always a possibility. A celebrity may err and stray and they may begin to taste the sulphur of condemnation, but the fall is generally followed by penitence and a stay in rehab. Duly redeemed, the celebrity is seen to chart a new course and to set out to embrace the way of salvation, the good life, the wholesome life. This theological or gospel pattern characterizes the way that media discourses structure celebrity narratives. This theological structure is of particular significance for the church and its mission.
Communicating Faith in a Contested Space
It is a missiological imperative that we come to terms with the way that popular culture makes use of the religious and the theological. This is key quite simply because it is basic to any kind of communication in the present media-based culture. Communication of faith, either within our outside of the church, must be based in part on the ability to read the complexities of media representation. This means that those of us within the church need to develop the ability to engage in cultural analysis. What is required is a sensibility and a sensitivity toward popular culture, but perhaps more significantly, what is required is an ability to interact with the shifting meaning of religious symbols in a mediated culture. Religious imagery is circulating in popular culture, but it is manipulated, subjected to irreverence, and characterized by ambiguity.
Celebrity culture is a significant resource for theological reflection. The circulation of celebrity representation carries a kind of vernacular theology that consists of metaphors and symbolism. In media representation the meaning of, for instance, what it is to be human or to live a wholesome life is linked both explicitly and implicitly to religious and theological themes, and so through this articulation, these theological metaphors acquire a shift in meaning. They are taken out of the Christian tradition and made more fluid. Celebrity culture is a contested space with opposing and contradictory meanings. As the culture critic Graeme Turner points out, media discourses represent celebrity as natural and immanent, and this tends to support the aim that the culture industry has that audiences regard celebrity as aspirational and desirable. At the same time, celebrities are also represented as inherently fake and creatures of media construction.12 This is part of the pleasure in consuming celebrity culture: we are drawn into debate and dispute. Representations circulate and shift not just in the different ways that they are presented by media stories but also internally, as we read them. We often experience celebrity as a kind of internal conflict. We are torn between our attraction and judgment, between identification and difference. It is precisely because celebrity culture is an arena of conflicted and contested meanings that it is such a fruitful area for theological engagement.
Plausibility and Capital: Beyond Functional Equivalence
To identify the way that theological themes circulate and change in a fluid popular culture is not the same as saying that these themes function in a religious way. There may be recurring notions of fall, redemption, salvation, and so on in celebrity culture, but this does not mean that they are equivalent to Christian doctrine or, indeed, that they replace Christian theology. I want to suggest, however, they are missiologically important. What I mean by this is that they form a part of the theological resources of our culture. The stories operate as a potential theological capital or reference points. They are a potential store of meanings which cluster around notions such as what it means to be human, sinful, redeemed, and so on. The theological significance of this observation is that any attempt to communicate beyond those who have been thoroughly socialized and theologically educated within the church must take this capital into account. Christian theology and the wider church needs to come to terms with the way that the shifting meaning of theological ideas within the flow of popular representation is likely to form the only reference point for people when they hear what we have to say.
The missiological challenge of celebrity culture lies in the question of plausibility. In other words, there is a need to recognize the extent to which celebrity culture shapes the lens or sculpts the imaginative landscape of the general public. The theological themes that are at play in celebrity narratives will to some extent determine the way that people react to a specifically Christian narrative. They form a part of the plausibility structures of contemporary life. For a Christian community, which is used to communicating to those who are insiders, this a particular challenge.
Moreover, it is very likely that the influence of celebrity culture does not remain with those outside the church. We all share in the flow of popular culture, and it is therefore likely that theologians, preachers, and those of us who inhabit the pews are all to some extent shaped by the way meanings shift as they circulate and flow within media discourses. If we acknowledge this, it does not mean that Christian theology cannot maintain a distinctive voice or contribution. Rather, it is a recognition that our own expression, of faith, is part of this wider flow of discourse and therefore shares in the contested space which exists within discourses, be they specifically theological or be they popular. As the Christian church, we are participants individually and communally in this flow of meaning and identification. Celebrity culture is therefore of significance for our own theological work.
2. Julie Burchill quoted in Rosalind Brunt, “Princess Diana: Sign of the Times” in Diana: The Making of a Media Saint, eds. Jeffrey Richards, Scott Wilson, and Linda Woodhead(London, UK: I. B. Tauris, 1999), 20-39.
3. See Madonna: Truth or Dare (Lionsgate, 1991); and Madonna, Sex (Warner Books, 1992).
5. Daniel Boorstin quoted in Graeme Turner, Understanding Celebrity (London, UK: Sage, 2004), 61.
6. Chris Rojek quoted in Cashmore, Celebrity/Culture, 252.
7. James Twitchell, Lead Us Into Temptation (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1999), 57. Italics in original.
8. Émile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (New York, NY: Free Press, 1995), 208.
9. James Twitchell, Adcult USA (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1996), 38.
10. Ibid., 39.
11. Stuart Hall, “Who Needs ‘Identity’?” in Questions of Cultural Identity, eds. Stuart Hall and Paul du Gay (London, UK: Sage, 1996), 6.
12. Turner, Understanding Celebrity Culture, 6.
About the Author
Pete Ward Pete Ward is Senior Lecturer in Youth Ministry and Theological Education at King's College in London. He is the author of Participation and Mediation: A Practical Theology for the Liquid Church and the forthcoming Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion, and Celebrity Culture, from which this essay is adapted, by permission of Baylor University Press (2011). He also plays in a folk band.
While George Lindbeck and Kevin Vanhoozer provide helpful insights toward the recovery of what Lindbeck calls the “classic pattern of biblical interpretation” for the church, Robert Jenson’s proposal for joining together the biblical canon with the apostolic creed is the most fruitful way out of today’s methodological chaos.