My friend Jamie has a podcast called 15 Minutes. The name is not a duration: it much more accurately describes the subject matter, which is the nature and experience of fame. In one of those episodes, he jokingly mentioned that he hasn't had anyone to talk about the religious nature of fame with, and I gave an off-hand comment on the Facebook post offering to chat with him about the idolatry of fame. He, of course, didn't call me on it (which is great, because I hadn't actually planned anything), but after a while, I started to wonder what I would have said if he had.
It's a valid question, of course. There is this almost spiritual reverence people show for celebrities in good standing, at least within fields they concern themselves with. Consider when Beyoncé released pregnancy photos and the internet was suddenly flooded, not simply with those pictures, but with fanart based on those pictures. These were passed around like religious icons, a status she played on well during her appearance in the Grammy's - which, of course, spawned its own iconography, at least one of which refers to the singer as the artist's religious focus.
Even established, non-celebrity religions fall into this. Mark Driscoll, a famous Christian pastor and author, was for a time wildly famous for his role at Mars Hill Church and the Acts 29 church planting network. This period was fraught with controversy, as his opposition viewed him as an agent of widespread misogyny in the church (among other things) while his supporters propped him up as a misunderstood saint. When his fall from grace over an entirely different issue finally set in, he was abandoned, cast into the shadows, and largely forgotten. His new church is apparently finding growth easier for his presence, but his removal from the national stage has been very nearly complete in a surprisingly short time.
But why? What is it about fame that it holds this power over us, grants such a blessing on its chosen, and can do so much damage to those who it finally rejects? I submit that the answer to all of these questions, or at least part of the answer, lies in the world in which we, as westerners, live. That fame, or its modern incarnation, is a natural byproduct of the fusion of capitalism and democracy. Let's consider what each of these things does when left unchecked.
Capitalism, as an economic system, is portrayed as something which encourages industry, personal advancement, and a flexibility of social classes. That one can earn their way to a higher income, but they must earn it. But there's a deeper, unstated nature to how it plays out. It is not only nice to make money, it is seen as fundamentally good to do so. There is an ethics statement to capitalism, which is why it can stand is such heated moral opposition to what was originally a philosophical system in communism. That ethics is that gaining money is good, and losing money is evil, and that greater amounts of money amplify this quality. Poverty is understood as a social evil, a state of being that is clearly the result of laziness (whether this is accurate or not), possibly the greatest social sin. Wealth, then, may as well be a measure of righteousness. There is a holy fervor to the pursuit of riches, to the point where the Bible itself felt the need to address it.
For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
Democracy is a system based fundamentally on the idea that the best thing to do at a given time is that which is best for the largest number of people. This is all well and fine, but it also comes with an ethical statement that arises out of practice: that path which has the most support must be the highest moral good. To gain public support is not simply the better plan for a current situation, but fundamentally the best thing a moral person could do.
The only way to make a lot of money is to provide something that a lot of people want to pay to have. Whether this is entertainment, or technology, or food, or anything else. The hard work makes this good, the acquiring of wealth makes this good, and the support of the masses makes this good. Holy, holy, holy, our systems cry. A halo is formed around the head of those who hold positions of wealth and public approval. It is no longer that they are simply in a higher tax bracket or that they've accomplished something great, but that they have become icons of a destination the holy quest after, idols in a faith that promises love and security and comfort to all those who drink deeply enough of it. Fame does not simply feel occasionally religious. It is a religion. And we would do well to consider our relationship to it with that in mind.
Tim McLaughlin Jr is an artist, ministry trainee, podcaster, husband, and father.