Yesterday I attended an Andy Warhol exhibit with a friend who has shared some similar life experiences with me in terms of faith and family, which is to say, we have stepped away from both in order to be healthier, happier, saner people.
Andy Warhol’s unique dichotomy of celebrity and individuality, dark and light, masks and true faces got me thinking on the similarities between Christianity (as it is the religion I am most familiar with and as it is the prominent one amongst the people I know and in the area in which I live) and Celebrity culture.
I will mention here that I am not particularly interested in denouncing either Christian or Celebrity culture, but I have noticed unhealthy patterns in how each of them interacts with an audience and I feel it is important to be aware of such issues as they arise.
The first similarity between Christianity and Celebrity is the cultivating of a persona. While many religious individuals would pooh-pooh the idea that they cultivate a persona they live out in the world while secreting their true selves away for any number of reasons, I submit the following as examples:
Josh Duggar’s “wholesome, family-friendly” persona, which was cultivated as he rose to power in the Christian Family circles. In reality, Josh Duggar has sexually abused five young girls (four of whom were his sisters), paid for and used two separate accounts on Ashley Madison, and is self-described as addicted to pornography. None of these are “family-friendly”, and indeed, his abuse of five young girls should be a warning to those caught up in the idea of a nice, Christian family. Light always casts shadows. (I wish circumstances were different not only for the victims, but for those who wished to prosecute such a revolting crime. Duggar deserves to be imprisoned and punished to the full extent of the law)
I know a priest who has kept an abuse situation in his congregation hush-hush in order to “protect” his reputation and that of the church’s — never mind actually protecting the victims and denouncing the abuser. Professors I used to admire, who prided themselves on their religious beliefs and wholesome family life, have turned out to be emotionally, spiritually, and verbally abusive to students and their own children, while maintaining a “holy” status in the eyes of faculty, fellow staff, and the world at large.
This dangerous creation of a “perfect” persona not only allows for the breeding of lies and abuse, it also creates a strain on the individual(s) maintaining that persona. Constant vigilance against any outside (or inside) threat creates tension, stress, and eventually, breakdown. People are human. They make mistakes. We should acknowledge that fact instead of playing pretend, as the end results are always damaging.
Persona in Celebrity culture is also a protective measure, but it has a more positive reason for existing, if done in a healthy manner. It both removes the individual from the scrutiny (or a portion of it, at least) of the public, and it allows that person to perform without being one hundred percent vulnerable to the audience. It, too, however, has its dark side, as you can see in daily tabloids, online fan sites, and the lives lived behind the persona.
A second similarity that Christian and Celebrity culture share is that of an authority figure (either an agent or older mentor, or the head of a religious institution) that maintains access to your personal affairs and is sometimes a trusted mentor and sometimes a sleazy, good-for-nothing blackguard.
Unhealthy authority figures, such as Mark Driscoll, Josh Duggar, Bill Gothard, Mark and Debbie Pearl and others have seized whatever power they could to ensure their control over their “charges”. Patriarchy, of course, entrenches this behavior and often, it is unhealthy, dangerous individuals who reach the top and ultimately choose their victims from a wide array of prey.
Having an agent or a religious figure in your life can be a good thing — they are often able to reach out to people you do not have access to, their wisdom is available to you, and you will have more opportunities to be connected to a community.
However, once again, those who enjoy power may reach the top and decide that they know best, and whatever follows is their ideal plan for your life, whether you agree or not. Your freedom can be lost amidst the struggle to survive and meet the demands of your authority figure.
The third and last major similarity I have noticed is that both Christianity and Celebrity culture have an emphasis on marketing — the marketing of self, of institution, and of a certain ‘brand’. How do you tell a Baptist Church from an Episcopalian church? Open their fridges. If there’s a ton of casseroles and desserts, it’s Baptist. If it’s full of beer, it’s Episcopalian (This is a generalization but it has held true, at least in my experience of churches in the Bible Belt of the Southern United States — some Episcopalians even embrace the term “Whiskeypalian”).
We all have those jokes about branding — the Presbyterians are the “Frozen Chosen”, people who sit near the exit are “Backrow Baptists”, and we have an array of vocabulary when it comes to certain aspects of religious faith that would require much explanation to those outside the Christian sphere: “The Good News”, “Sword Drill”, and “10/40 Window”.
Christianity as a brand is instantly recognizable, from the fish icon on vehicles, to cross jewelry, to certain bands, artists, and speakers. You are aware of the marketing of Christianity before you know the tenets of their faith — if those are ever spelled out to you.
Celebrity culture varies from person to person, but there are thousands of marketing decisions and branding efforts made to retain the public’s interest in whoever is most popular at the moment, whether through merchandise, concerts, appearances, or sex tapes.
There are many, many more similarities to Christanity and Celebrity culture (such as the creation of a “tribe” or community of people, often under one leader or icon, such as John Piper or Steven Moffat, cover-up attempts by both in order to appear still worthy of admiration and respect or to avoid legal action; and of course, the garnering of financial gain from the masses), but these three are the most prominent, and perhaps, problematic, especially when it comes to religion.
Religion isn’t supposed to be about the cultivation of a persona, or how much you’ve spent on various projects, or how you market yourself. It isn’t about aligning yourself with a person of authority who now has power and say over what you do with your life, regardless of how well they are acquainted with you.
Religion, simply put, is living in such a way that your beliefs and your actions are in harmony with each other.
Both Christianity and Celebrity cultures could stand to learn a few things from each other about the dangers of living behind a mask. The mask always has to come off in the end.Image Credits: Gospel Herald