Opinion State

The Cult of the Celebrity

Recently, I was watching the evening news on television, and becoming increasingly irritated at the rot that was being passed off as newsworthy. Virtually all the news was gossip about celebrities. The antics of film stars and drunk footballers are hardly what make the real world go round. Celebrities, heroes and personalities have come in all shapes and sizes down through the age, but they seem to be converging these days to one common factor: one need not do anything worthwhile, just being famous is enough.

On 25 February 1956 Nikita Khrushchev, of all people, delivered a stinging attack ‘On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences’ to the twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It purported to be an attack on the Stalin cult, and a call to return to the principles of Leninism. Actually, those being oppressed and lied to by Leninism saw little difference in being oppressed and lied to by Stalinism. The cult of personality has continued unabated in all parts of the world, whether professedly free or authoritarian.

Indeed, there seems no end to it. Recently Keith Richards, the guitarist from the Rolling Stones, published his autobiography. It tells of a life of stealing, drug dealing, promiscuity, and violence. A journalist was threatened that he would have his hands smashed if he mentioned Richards’ acne. Our hero meant what he said as his practice was to carry a knife and illegal guns and ammunition with him. His daughter was raised by mother, as neither Richards nor his junkie girlfriend could care for her. When his second son died in infancy, Richards did not return home for the funeral. He does not know where the little fellow is buried, or even if he is buried. All this is par for the course, but the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was so moved by Richards’ exploits that he has called for the guitarist to be knighted – Sir Keith Richards alongside Sir Michael Jagger. ‘Bizarre’ seems too weak a word to describe such a suggestion.

Lytton Strachey promoted the policy of doing demolition jobs on eminent people. This was not some new insight gleaned by adherence to the new critical historical standards. Before Strachey wrote his Eminent Victorians, Charles Spurgeon had warned that ‘Hero-worship is a kind of idolatry, and must not be encouraged’. It is intriguing and instructive that the Bible goes both ways regarding people to imitate and admire. Responding at the party-spirit which had infected the Corinthian church, Paul laments that there is a group that followed him, a group that followed Apollos, a group that followed Cephas (Peter), and a pretentious group that supposedly followed Christ (1 Cor.1:12). This kind of Christian celebrity cult was intolerable to Paul. Christ is not divided, Paul was not crucified for them, and they were not baptized into his name. Paul would have joined in with Charles Wesley’s hymn:

Love, like death, hath all destroyed,
Rendered all distinctions void;
Names and sects and parties fall;
Thou, O Christ, are all in all!

There is no room in the Church for a celebrity cult.

Yet there is room to imitate worthy Christian models. Paul even urged the Corinthians to imitate him (1 Cor.4:16), and he told the Philippians: ‘Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you’ (Phil.3:17). Hebrews 11 is an honour role of the Old Testament saints, which omits the blots on their CVs, in order to give us examples to follow. The warts in the painting – to cite Oliver Cromwell – are there in the history, but not reproduced in Hebrews 11. If we do not look to imitate worthwhile heroes, we will pursue unworthy ones. Scripture warns us against looking to the wrong kind of celebrities in order that we might learn from the right ones.

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