Heroes, saints, and celebs

In a perverse way, our modern fascination with celebrities such as Michael Jackson provides an avenue for moral discourse
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Marcus Aurelius: the center of the story

In a perverse way, our modern fascination with celebrities such as Michael Jackson provides an avenue for moral discourse

Cultures, eras, and philosophies are known by the type of person they aspire to and commend. Some have promoted the hero. The virtues they have commended have been noble ones. Others have prized the saint. These have commended the virtues of faith and faithfulness. In the early years of the American Republic, the citizen or the Jeffersonian ideal of a citizen-farmer provided a new moral model and exemplar and an alternative to the 'ꀜsubject'ꀝ of feudal society.

While our own culture and times are not without heroes, saints, or citizens, the celebrity appears to be our culture's particular model and exemplar. But if celebrity has a certain allure, it's a tough role to play. Ask Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett, Princess Di, Alex Rodriquez or Britney Spears.

Celebrity is an especially tough role in which to be cast when 'ꀜcelebrity in trouble'ꀝ is one of the media's favorite story lines. Once you are cast for the lead in that drama there's no end, seemingly, to media efforts to cover the story, dig up stuff, and expose or conjure further misadventures and redemptions. Nor is there a bottom to the public appetite for more of all this.

The celebrity as a type fits and reflects a consumer culture. Our celebrities are produced, consumed, used, revived, and finally used up. Ultimately they are cast off or aside. In the meantime, we revel in the stories of rise and fall, rehabilitation and rumor.

There is a strange love/ hate relationship between our society and its celebrities. One moment they are idolized and celebrated, and the next, or so it seems, they are vilified and lamented. In neither case, one suspects, is the actual person really known. Celebrities serve as a screen for our projections. Moreover, the celebrity may not know themselves very well either.

In his book Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, Sam Wells offers some interesting reflections on two earlier types, the hero and the saint. It was Aristotle who, more than any other, celebrated the hero and sought to inspire his readers to be heroes. The hero is the moral type of classical culture. Here's Wells:

Aristotle sought to inspire his readers to be heroes. The virtues he commends are noble ones, and the lives he advocates are ones of effort and attention. His followers, will, if faithful, be capable of making decisive interventions that swing the course of a battle, or a debate, or a long cultural struggle. Without them, all might be lost. They are formed in the virtues required for an awesome role; they are prepared to be the center of the story.

The saint is different, though often enough those referred to as 'ꀜsaints'ꀝ are simply heroes who also have a religious identity. Or saints are thought of as persons who have attained moral perfection. But, argues Wells, heroes and saints are different in fundamental ways. If heroes are prepared to be the center of the story, saints are not. 'ꀜThe saint may be almost invisible, easily missed, quickly forgotten. The hero's story is all about the hero. The saint is always at the periphery of a story that is really about God.'ꀝ

If Aristotle and classical culture commended the hero, medieval culture and the philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas forwarded the saint as exemplar. While the word 'ꀜhero'ꀝ never appears in the New Testament, the word 'ꀜsaint'ꀝ occurs 64 times. In that context, saint means 'ꀜa person called by God.'ꀝ The two types differ in significant ways: 'ꀜHeroes have learned to depend on themselves; saints learn to depend on God and on the community of faith.'ꀝ Sometimes, when people realize 'ꀜit's not all about me,'ꀝ they are making a transition from hero to saint.

The celebrity is not only the creation of consumer culture but of the media of our age, the television, movie screen, and internet. These forms attend to image and to the surface of things. That favors the celebrity, who is famous, as in Michael Jackson's case, for being a brilliant performer, or in Farrah Fawcett's for her beauty. The image eclipses substance or interior life. This may begin to explain why celebrity is often so destructive to a person, or why celebrity so often seems to result in self-destructive behavior.

To what extent do we all, whether celebrities or not, get caught up in the norms and preoccupations of celebrity culture with its attendant focus on image, appearance, and 'ꀜpresentation'ꀝ?

And is there anything good to be said of celebrity as a moral or cultural type? Not much, but perhaps this: Celebrities and their stories do provide grist for moral reflection and conversation among us. We debate A-Rod's pay and motivations, we discuss Madonna's latest attempt at third-world adoption, and we ponder Britney's divorce and custody battles as a way of trying to figure out our own lives, to discern moral boundaries, and perhaps even to expand our tolerance for different behavior.

Often enough, celebrity-in-trouble stories allow us to say, 'ꀜThank God I'm not him or her,'ꀝ or to comfort ourselves saying, 'ꀜAt least I'm not that screwed up.'ꀝ If there is something mean-spirited about that (and there is), it does provide a form of moral discourse in a society where such reflection finds few venues.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.