When celebrities die

When celebrities die

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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The house of mourning: a post for those who grieve, in memory of Daniel Berg

The house of mourning: a post for those who grieve, in memory of Daniel Berg

One year ago, I stood next to the bed of my brother-in-law, and watched him die.

Daniel was only thirty: funny, young, and handsome. He was a loving husband to my youngest sister, who is perhaps the kindest and strongest person I know. They were still newlyweds.

Livi and Daniel

This death, and the terrible decline that preceded it, are the worst things I have ever witnessed. ALS is insidious. And despite endless ice buckets dumped on countless heads, no cure exists.

Daniel in couch

Watching Daniel die changed me. While I have no claim to the kind of grief borne by my sister and by his more immediate family, Daniel’s passing stole some measure of my innocence.

In movies, death is valorized and sanitized, but there is one thing the films get wrong: death’s color. On screen, the deceased look like they are merely sleeping. But Daniel did not look like that. While he died painlessly, I could not join others in kissing his face, holding his hands, or stroking his hair.

I just wanted to get out of there—to flee the room, avert my gaze, cover up his body—anything to escape the pallor that had replaced his former complexion. The image scarred me. I still see it.

As the theologian John Zizioulas writes:

“There is no greater contradiction than a dying being” (Being as Communion).

Death is an affront, or as Paul writes, an “enemy” (1 Cor. 15.26). It is an intruder in God’s good creation.

A GRADUATION FALSEHOOD

That is why I wriggled uncomfortably in my chair last month as I heard a graduation speaker (and pastor) affirm the words of the late Steve Jobs:

“Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

This may sound nice at first, but when applied to actual people–a son or daughter, a spouse or friend–it is insulting and absurd.

Skubalon,” as Paul would say (Php. 3.8). Excrement.

It is wrong because it treats human beings like excess inventory at a used car lot: Act now! – older models must go! 

Skubalon.

Death is not Life’s best creation, and while Jobs said it, he did not actually believe it. If he had, he would not have fought so furiously (and valiantly) to fend off this great “invention.”

For those who mourn—and there are many—such platitudes don’t wash against the image of a departed loved one.

The bony hand of death cannot be manicured, bejeweled, and made pretty. It is always ugly, always cold, always an offense. True, we are often glad to know that a loved one is no longer suffering, and that they are “with Jesus.” But it is not death we celebrate; it is the cessation of pain, and their presence with God.

Death remains an enemy combatant.

A DOUBLE CRUELTY 

And then there are those left behind. For the bereaved, a double cruelty of death is that the wider world simply continues on as if nothing much has changed. A continent has been wiped off the map, and the cartographers have scarcely noticed.

“It’s as if they are erasing him,” my sister said once to me, amid the flood of paperwork to change her marital status, her mortgage listing, her tax information. But the people sending medical bills remembered.

This “double cruelty” is poignantly depicted in Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer prize winning novel, All the Light we Cannot See. In a scene set in World War II, a young French girl stands in the empty room of a departed loved one:

[It] smells of peppermint, candle wax, six decades of loyalty. […] German sailors sing a drunken song in the street, and a house spider over the stove spins a new web every night, and to [her] this is a double cruelty: that everything else keeps living, that the spinning earth does not pause for even an instant in its trip around the sun.

Here, to quote a further line, God can seem like

“only a white cold eye, a quarter-moon, poised above the smoke, blinking, blinking, blinking, as [one] is gradually pounded into dust.”

Despair lurks.

BLESSED ARE THOSE WHO MOURN

The question then is this: Is there an alternative to these two dead ends? First, the delusional attempt to say that death is “life’s best invention.” And second, the lonely despair that finds no comfort.

Perhaps one alternative is a certain kind of grief.

As Paul said, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4.13). But we do grieve. And that is for the best.

As Nicholas Wolterstorff states in a tribute to a son who died:

“Grief is existential testimony to the worth of the one loved. That worth abides” (Lament for a Son).

Or as Tennyson writes:

            “Let love clasp Grief lest both be drowned” (In Memoriam A.H.H.).

Such words ring truer than false attempts to whitewash death as “Life’s best invention.”

DEATH BE NOT PROUD

Yet more is required to fend off despair.

We need not merely to grieve honestly, we need hope that death is not the end—that the “brief candle,” as Shakespeare called it, shall reignite and “run like sparks through the stubble” (Wis. 3.7).

Death is cocky after years of sway. Understandably.

Yet in the empty tomb of Jesus, there is a hint that “the blood-dimmed tide” (Yeats) has already turned, almost imperceptibly.

“Death, be not proud,” as Dunne wrote, “though some have called thee.”

“One short sleep past, we wake eternally

And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.”

THE EMPTY TOMB

In the months after Daniel’s death, I had a chance to visit Israel with my sister (his widow) and my father. Daniel had always wanted to go. We stood together in the empty garden tomb at Gordon’s Calvary, and cried, and smiled.

emptytomb

Inside, a simple wooden sign reads: “He is not here – he is risen.”

And behind those words, I heard those of Francis Spufford:

“More can be mended than you know.”

For those who mourn as Christians, that hope provides a balance to the bitterness of death. Some sweet wine mixed with the gall. It does not take away the sting of death, but it allows us to walk on, limping. And that limp, like Jacob’s (Gen. 32), is evidence that we have been touched by someone real, someone good, someone eternal.

So if you grieve today, hear these final words of Kate Braestrup:

“Walk fearlessly into the house of mourning; for grief is just Love squaring up to its oldest enemy. And after all these mortal human years, Love is up to the challenge.”

Not here

~In loving memory of Daniel Berg.