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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Justice without mercy

Justice without mercy

“Excessive zeal for justice always becomes satanic.”

That line comes from Walter Wink’s landmark study of the demonic: Unmasking the Powers. His point is not to disparage our need for justice but to season it with mercy, lest “Lady J” transform into, simply, “the accuser” (ha satan).

“Justice” often turns, like sour milk, to vengeance.

A similar theme exists in this provocative claim by Alan Jacobs:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness.

The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness.

Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’ve written on this before (here); but a similar point has now been made by a third and final figure: the famous atheist/neuroscientist, Sam Harris.

In reference to a recent spate of social media mobs that have called for the names, addresses, and (practically) the firstborn children of perceived offenders, Harris laments the fact that our modern culture has lost its ability to forgive (or even hear the evidence) amid its fervor for “justice.”

“We have to have a way back,” said Harris in a recent interview, regarding how the social media mob descends on certain persons with seemingly no mercy and no possibility of repentance or forgiveness.

Is there a lesson here from these three statements?

If anything, it is that a thirst for “justice” is not always an unalloyed good. We need mercy too. And humility (Mic 6:8).

 


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Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

Prophet or punk? (pt 2)

“Cynics smirk, pundits rant, prophets weep.”

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for posting part two of my series examining the difference between prophetic boldness and dogmatic shrillness.

This one examines the importance of receiving the language of “lament” over and above lambasting opponents.

Access here.


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Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Prophet or punk? (pt. 1)

Separating boldness from shrillness in the age of outrage.

Thanks to The Wesleyan Church for asking me to be part of their new “Voices” blog.

Here is the first installment in a multi-part series I’ll be doing on how to differentiate “prophetic boldness” from “dogmatic shrillness” in the age of outrage.

Read here.

Part two to come!


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But I deleted it

But I deleted it

I’ve been on a blogging hiatus lately as I’m been under a deadline to get a book manuscript polished up and sent back to the editor (Yes, Katya, I am working on it!).

But I took time last week to type up what I thought was a pithy response to a particular hot-button cultural issue that had been nagging me.

I wrote it; I rewrote it; and I even had some friends weigh in.

Then, after all that work, I deleted the whole thing. (Which was really hard because it had a corny joke about a “salvation” that is seen as coming sola Twittera–by social media alone.)

I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say I had an inkling of discernment (which is all I ever have…) that the last thing the world needed was one more pontification on something that I actually don’t know very much about.

On that note, I’ve found the following eight insights helpful for those times that I am tempted to think that I must always open my mouth/keyboard.

These come from the evangelical-Anglican and Baylor English professor, Alan Jacobs.

In his words:

Going off half-cocked is now widely perceived as a virtue, and the disinclination to do so as a vice.

What ‘s more:

that poorly informed and probably inflammatory statement of [My] Incontrovertibly Correct Position must be on the internet . . . or it doesn’t count towards your treasury of merit.

But must I always weigh in on every hot-button issue?

As Jacobs reminds himself:

  1. I don’t have to say something just because everyone around me is.
  2. I don’t have to speak about things I know little or nothing about.
  3. I don’t have to speak about issues that will be totally forgotten in a few weeks or months by the people who at this moment are most strenuously demanding a response.
  4. I don’t have to spend my time in environments that press me to speak without knowledge.
  5. If I can bring to an issue heat, but no light, it is probably best that I remain silent.
  6. Private communication can be more valuable than public.
  7. Delayed communication, made when people have had time to think and to calm their emotions, is almost always more valuable than immediate reaction.
  8. Some conversations are be more meaningful and effective in living rooms, or at dinner tables, than in the middle of Main Street.

None of this means, of course, that I will stop writing on issues that matter–even when they’re considered controversial.  I come, after all, from a theological tradition (Wesleyanism) that refused to shut up on things like slavery and women’s rights, even they had been dubbed “too radical” for respectable Christians to weigh-in on.

So once I’m not buried under a book manuscript (which should be sometime in the next decade) I plan to keep thinking in public with what I hope is a mix of grace and truth–or at the least “grammar.”

And I hope other thoughtful people do too.

Still, it is freeing to recall occasionally that the world’s salvation does not come sola Twittera.  Or in my more long-winded case: sola blogos. 


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Beyond outrage

Beyond outrage

It is by now cliche to note that we live in an “outrage culture.”

And there are obvious drivers:

  • partisan politics,
  • social media (see here),
  • the satisfaction I receive from virtue signaling,
  • And (of course) the financial incentives that some have to keep us in a constant state of amygdala agitation.

On that last point, see below for a humorous look at how Facebook in particular makes a fortune this way (warning: some profanity).

 

In light of all this, I’m considering drafting an illustrated children’s book in which tiny, anthropomorphized logos of Twitter, CNN, and Fox News hold a frenzied footrace to the bottom of the brainstem.

Working titles include: “3, 2, 1… Civil War” and “The fast and the furious-er.”

(It will be a sequel to my classic children’s tale on bias: “Everybody skews” [see here].)

THE RIGHT KIND OF OUTRAGE

But there is also another reason for outrage, and we must not forget it.

That is, some things are genuinely outrageous.

Some things are simply wrong.

And if those things fail to bother us, then the problem is not an “outrage culture” or “the social media mob,” but our own callousness, and the fact that our allegiances have been coopted by rival kings and rival kingdoms.

THE PHOTO BY THE WINDOW

Perhaps the ultimate example of such callous compartmentalization is relayed by the British spy, John Weitz (here), who helped liberate the Nazi death camp at Dachau.

Upon approaching the gas chamber where countless families had been slaughtered, Weitz noticed a photograph of young German children taped next to the window that looked in upon the death room.

A Nazi father had apparently taped the photo there, by his “work station,” so he could gaze fondly on his own children while remaining unmoved by the wanton evil being done to “theirs.”

He was a loving dad – no outrage here.

THIS PAST WEEK

So this past week, I added my own voice to thousands of others (Republicans, Democrats, Independents) calling for a halt to using kids as pawns in a dispute regarding immigration—especially by way of out-of-context Bible verses.

Then, to my surprise, something happened: it worked. Kind of.

Public outcry brought a change (Thank God!), albeit an incomplete one since many children remain separated from their parents and there is some question over if and when they will ever be reunited. Apparently the whole process was pretty chaotic [*resists further comment and keeps moving].

Nonetheless, this good change raises an important question:

What next?

What comes after an initial spike in outrage achieves a portion of its goal?

BEYOND OUTRAGE

My interest here is not just with this particular issue (though it is important), but with a “meta-phenomenon” — that is, what outrage does well and what it does more poorly.

Here then is my tentative conclusion:

In some cases, the same traits that are needed in a crisis can be counterproductive to crafting long-term solutions.

I say this because long-term solutions require compromise, listening, and the ability to ratchet down the rhetoric in search of common ground.

Hence the problem is not that outrage is unwarranted, but that it is incomplete on its own. We need more. In the aftermath of crisis, we need to transfer some energy from the amygdala to the other parts of the brain.

We all know this in other areas, I think.

  • The person you want next to you in the Zombie apocalypse may not be the one you want running your company, chairing the school board, or leading your marriage counseling.
  • The skills needed to facedown Hitler may not be the ones that make for a successful peacetime leader (Read a Churchill biography; or a Stalin one).
  • And the recipe for alerting the masses (amygdala!) may not be the same as that required to solve complex problems with the prefrontal cortex.

My fear, however, is that we are far better at the former than the latter — I know I am.

So here’s to wisdom on how to translate righteous zeal into Christian justice, and on how to going beyond outrage to thoughtful long-term solutions.

 


On the subject of immigration reform and border security in particular, I am particularly thankful for the statement set forth recently by my own denomination, The Wesleyan Church (see here).


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American Suicide

American Suicide

Several years ago, there was a mediocre movie made by M. Night Shyamalan, called The Happening.

It was a horror-thriller sort of film, involving hundreds of senseless murders.

Yet the twist in The Happening was that the linked-together killings were committed not by a psychopath or super villain.

They were suicides.

In the movie, some unseen force—in the air or in the water—was causing Americans to self-delete in catastrophic numbers.

And that’s precisely what is happening now–though less dramatically.

AMERICAN HAPPENING

We are in the midst of an American Happening.

And I don’t say that because of Anthony Bourdain (though I was a fan), Kate Spade, or the many other celebrities who have tragically claimed their lives in recent months.

It’s a cold, hard fact–and not just for famous people.

As the New York Times reports (here):

Between 1999 and 2016 [American suicides] increased 25 percent

And

In 2016, there were more than twice as many suicides as homicides.

THE QUESTION THAT NEEDS ASKING

Why?

Depression, yes, but what else accounts for it?

To be honest, I don’t know.  I’m not trained to answer complicated questions on depression, mental health, and shifting trends in sociology.

But come on: 25 percent!?

With the caveat that my knowledge on this topic is very limited, the following are some very tentative thoughts—Not “13 Reasons Why” (though I have written on that previously), but something.

THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

  1. The dark side of “social” media.

It’s not hard to name the biggest social change between 1999 and 2016. It may be the biggest technological shift since electricity: the advent of the internet, and social media.

And despite all its vaunted benefits, for some young people especially, there is no doubt that the smartphone–complete with Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat Apps–has become a suicide machine.  It is a way to compare “my life” to the filtered version of “theirs.” It is a way to get addicted to porn and drown silently in shame.  And for some young people especially, it is a way to bully, retaliate, and take so-called “mean girl” antics to a whole new level.

Is it any wonder, then, that suicides for girls aged 10 to 14 have tripled since 1999?

If there is a lesson here, it is to think carefully about how and when kids are allowed to utilize such “tools”—and about what boundaries we ourselves need (I’m speaking to myself as much as anyone).  

  1. Secularization and the sanctity of life.

In Christian history, the stigma surrounding suicide was massive (and not always helpful).

Given that, it bears reminding that self-murder was not always frowned upon by ancient Greeks or certain Eastern cultures.

In some ways, the shift to secularism is a reversion to pre-Christian ways of thinking. Here, the body (this “meat-suit” as it often [gnostically] referred to) may be done with as one pleases.  It seems unsurprising, then, that suicides would increase.

In the Latin phrase inscribed upon some pagan tombs: Non fui, non sum, non curo. “I was not; I am not; I care not.”

  1. Opioids and other addictions.

The time from 1999 to 2016 is also the period in which opioid addiction went from “problem” to “pandemic.”

And as with all addictions, I imagine feelings of shame and utter helpfulness can lead some to end their lives.  Consider how many of the recent celebrity suicides involved people battling addiction (Bourdain was very open about his past struggles with heroin).

It is all the more shocking then that such dangerous opioids—getting more powerful every year as drug companies rush to outdo one another–are so widely available. 

  1. The aftershocks of war.

For the USA, 1999 to 2016 was also a time of almost non-stop war, even if folks like me (like the vast majority of Americans) were allowed to go blissfully on as if little had changed except the added TSA security.

The soldiers weren’t so lucky.

And in terms of suicides, such conflicts have been decimating.

I spoke to a former Navy SEAL recently who told me he’d lost two friends in a week. “The enemy doesn’t kill us nearly as effectively as we do.”

There are probably many reasons for this: PTSD; traumatic brain injury; lack of brotherhood or sisterhood upon returning home; a public that hardly noticed they were fighting; the inability to win a war against an “idea.”

Whatever the case, we must do a better job of reaching out to veterans; and in thinking carefully before galloping off to wars without sufficient consideration for the human costs both on and off the battlefield.

  1. “Contagion” and crowd dynamics. 

In the words of one parent (here), after a year in which his child’s school endured an unbelievable six(!) teen suicides, there is an element of “contagion” at work with instances of self-harm. As he writes:

Suicide–even those of strangers–poisons the air my young sons breathe. You can’t quarantine it. Every episode of self-deletion compounds our sense of collective despair, making further episodes more likely. I’m watching it happen in my own community.

Malcolm Gladwell sees the same phenomenon at work in school shootings. A generation ago they never happened; yet with each ensuing occurrence the “threshold” lowers till the next becomes almost a foregone conclusion.  In short, it’s tough to close Pandora’s box; The Happening is not just science fiction.

  1. Erasing Hell.

Historically speaking, it is hardly disputable that one reason that some deeply hurting individuals said “No” to suicide was the fear that such an act would consign them to the fires of hell. (It was, for instance, a “mortal sin” in Catholic tradition.)

So while the Bible doesn’t teach this claim explicitly, there is no doubt that an “erasing” of the fear of Hell within modernity has also (for some people) erased a reason to keep living in extreme duress. (And I don’t say that as one who “uses” Hell as a cheap scare-tactic.)

7. Affluenza

One would think that wealth would make us happier and less-prone to suicide. Not so.  As Time Magazine noted (here) in 2012:

all else being equal, suicide risks are higher in wealthier neighborhoods, a morbid demonstration of the folly of trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

As one might expect, they are also high in times of unemployment, yet an additional

twist comes when you look at low income individuals who live in high income areas. According to the study, they face greater suicide risk than those living in low-income areas. The study’s authors call it a “behavioral response to unfavorable interpersonal income comparisons.”

  1. “The satan”

Even in Christian circles, to bring up the devil is something you don’t do at dinner parties.

“Old Scratch” is, as Walter Wink puts it: “a scandal” and “a bone in the throat of modernity” (See here for a prior post on the topic).

It bears noting, however, that the Hebrew word for Satan (ha satan) is not a name, but a title and a job description: “The accuser.”

“The satan” is the one who—often through a nagging inner voice—brings accusations:

“You’re worthless. Everyone would be better off if you weren’t here.”

And like every other factor on this numbered list, such “reasons” are ultimately bad ones—even while they can seem crushing.

So whether you believe in the devil or not, it’s imperative that you stop listening to him.

CONCLUSION 

In the end, I don’t know all the reasons for this American Happening. And many more could undoubtedly be listed.

But I do know this: we need you.

So if you’re struggling with depression or suicidal ideations, I hope you’ll tell someone (email me if nothing else), cause it’s time this mediocre movie got a whole lot better.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255


 

The title for this post was taken from Rod Dreher’s recent discussion of the topic (see here).