What exactly is going on within our collective psyche when a very famous person dies under tragic circumstances?

For the past few weeks, I’ve been researching the subject of my next book. Its focus is upon the way “celebrity” and a celebrity-obsessed culture has come to influence American evangelicalism.

My claim is that a fixation on fame and famous people is creating certain problems for the church, despite our claim that only God be worshipped and adored. My argument is that evangelicalism needs to be “de-famed” so Jesus won’t be.

Then, in the midst this research, a helicopter crashed.

AN UNDENIABLE TRAGEDY

Kobe Bryant, his young daughter, and seven others were tragically killed.

The internet exploded.

Like most people, I never met Kobe. I wasn’t a Laker fan. And I wondered (years ago) about the sexual assault charge that was ultimately dropped against him. How do you judge the character of someone you’ve never met?

Still, like everybody else, I was shocked and saddened. A rush emotions followed: His daughter too!? It can’t be. What must his wife and family be enduring!?

I wasn’t alone.

WHAT IS A CELEBRITY?

Then I began to ask another question: How does my strong reaction to Kobe’s death fit with my research into our celebrity culture?

In his book Celebrity Worship, Pete Ward attempts to unpack just what is a “celebrity” and why they matter to us.

A celebrity, Ward says, is a “mediated person.” Celebrities are those persons who have been elevated and magnified by a complex mix of technology, media, industry, and social relationships. Ward’s claim is that our deep connection to celebrities is not actually about them—it’s about us, and the formation of the modern “self.”

To see the young and smiling face of Kobe Bryant, memorialized on CNN, is to be reminded of how fragile our lives are. It is also to be transported back in time to watching basketball with one’s own father or high school friend. It is to place myself in Kobe’s seat in the helicopter (the seat of a father), and to look into my own daughter’s eyes. It is to empathize with a grieving widow and grieving children. It is to relive our own grief and trauma vicariously.

And after that, it is to find a collective outlet for that groan on social media. (This isn’t wrong.)

In Ward’s words, “Celebrities are important, because they are one of the primary resources used in processing the project of the self” (4).

WHEN CELEBRITIES DIE

After the death of Michael Jackson, and in spite of widespread evidence of child molestation, Ward notes how the public reacted with intense grief and deep affection.

MJ’s music had formed the soundtrack for countless lives.

Hence the public was not mourning an accused child molester, or even a phenomenal performer (he was likely both). They were mourning what his music represented in their stories.

A man named Paul put it this way:

“I immediately thought of my brother with whom I held great parties and where we danced like MJ, we were teenagers […] My brother was important to me.”

LISTENING AND LEARNING

These kind of celebrity deaths also provide an opportunity for  us to ask important questions of ourselves. For instance:

1. What am I actually grieving?

Like the young man (Paul) who was thoughtful enough to link the death of Michael Jackson to his past relationship with his own brother—we should ask what our grief over persons we have never met might be trying to teach us.

What are we grieving beyond the individual who has died?

What if the death of Michael Jackson led not to a shrine at his personal amusement park (which, if we are honest, was more a crime scene than a temple), but to conversations with one’s own brother, mother, pastor, friend, or therapist?

We like to run from death and grief. And events like this ask us to connect to the deeper sources of our pain.

2. What about the others?

Here’s another question to be wrestled with: Do I really believe that every person—no matter how famous, beautiful, or powerful—is created equally in the image of God?

Equality is a value in the modern West. But our responses to celebrity raise questions as to how deeply we believe in it.

Is the death of a poor and unnamed Chinese girl every bit as precious in the sight of God as that of Kobe Bryant? Do I actually feel this to be true, despite the fact that the young girl’s death (or that of the unborn baby) will get little personal coverage, in part because a given government has a vested interest in saving face?

Celebrity deaths give us occasion to grapple with these uncomfortable questions about equality and the sanctity of life.

3. Is the ache an echo of a Voice?

The Judeo-Christian tradition has long held that God has placed eternity (or a longing for transcendence) in the human heart.

The ache over mortality is therefore meant to be an echo of a Voice. It is a “dispatch” from transcendence, and even ardent secularists can hear it.

In the words of James K. A. Smith (citing Charles Taylor), the “closed take” on reality (No God, no transcendent meaning, no afterlife)

can’t seem to get rid of a certain haunting, a certain rumbling in our hearts. There is a spectre haunting our secular age, the “spectre of meaninglessness”—which is a dispatch from [divine] fullness.

CONCLUSION

In the end, it is good and right to mourn celebrity deaths. It is good and right because they are people made in God’s image.

Yet these tragedies may also serve as reminders of important truths (or falsehoods) that we would like to ignore.

All life is sacred. All human death is an intrusion into God’s good world. And this mortal ache—while painful—may form a trail of breadcrumbs leading to a Table where we hear the same truths Kobe did at his last worship service, just hours before his death:

This is my body.

This is my blood.

Do this in remembrance of the Christ who conquered death, and who alone is worthy to be worshipped.


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