The Celebrity Funeral and Modern Priestcraft

James Eglinton
Thursday, August 30th 2012
Sep/Oct 2012

On both sides of the Atlantic, the last few years have been marked by celebrity funerals. In the recent passing of Whitney Houston’and before that the English reality TV star Jade Goody, the king of pop Michael Jackson, and the Irish pop star Stephen Gatley (and, if we go far enough back, Diana's celebrity funeral par excellence)’we have faced headlong the age-old human problem that death comes to us all. Even celebrity status is powerless before it. Indeed, that very status, for one reason or another, seems inextricably linked to death before one's "time."

Although all death is tragic and should be
mourned, pop culture in the contemporary West views the death of a celebrity as a particularly troubling event. Speaking theologically, something within us is inherently inclined to the old Hebraic dictum on idols: "Those who worship them will become like them." However much we emulate our icons in life, the celebrity funeral provides a stark reminder that we will also follow them into the grave. Death pays little heed to social status or wealth.

The death of a celebrity combines with the sense of faux intimacy projected by that celebrity in life to produce a curious effect: regardless of whether one knew the person in question, his or her death is seemingly enough to leave us personally bereft. As a hysterical bystander cried following Jackson's death: "I don't know where to go. I don't know what to do. I don't know who to trust." The rituals associated with celebrity death thus emotionally involve the mourning followers. Even in death, the celebrity remains at the center of the narrative constructed around his life, although the narrative is now carried forward by everyone but the celebrity himself.

The way in which the celebrity funeral has accepted a degree of standardization is fascinating. Bearing in mind that where the celebs go the masses are sure to follow, such trends are well worth observing. Two points stand out. First, it seems that the celebrity funeral is an inherently religious event. This fact has considerable social implications. Second, one cannot help notice that for all its involvement with established religion, its theological drive actually comes from other celebrities as they exercise their newfound priestly office. They try to fill the sociological roles previously fulfilled by clerics, monarchs, aristocrats, saints, and, ultimately, the Almighty himself. Particularly within the context of postmortem rites, celebrities have become the new mediators of folk religion in the post-Christian West.

From the strange Jehovah's Witness-Christian-Muslim mishmash of Jackson's death, his funeral and memorial concert (an event watched by an estimated one billion people), to the Anglican and Catholic services held for Goody and Gatley, the celebrity death rite is undeniably religious. In Whitney Houston's case, the religious element of her postmortem rites could not be contained by her (Baptist) funeral: it also spilled over into the Grammys, as LL Cool J assumed the role of lead celebrity supplicant.

The Failure of Neo-Atheism

The level of theological orthodoxy on display at the now generic celebrity funeral may be low, but the religiosity of the celebrity funeral nonetheless remains distinctly out of step with the general drive of the Western world's professed godless secularism. When we remember those we "love" (whatever that term has come to mean in our relationship with those we never met and who had no personal knowledge of us), we are simply unwilling to act consistently with the principles of our modern age. For all that Richard Dawkins and his angry troupe of misotheists are currently en vogue, we flatly refuse to follow their worldview to its logical conclusion and honestly state that our beloved icon has died, no longer exists, and has lived a life void of absolute meaning. The celebrity funeral testifies to the failure of neo-atheism in that regard.

Fascinatingly, we are even unwilling to maintain a dignified, quiet agnosticism in the face of celebrity death. In fact, the reality of death makes us return to that most derided and heady of concepts: metaphysics. When a celebrity passes away, our instinctive need is to use nonphysical terms to ascribe meaning and ongoing existence to this person. Our departed idol is now "the brightest star watching over us from heaven." He or she "has now become the perfect angel." In Jackson's case, a messianic narrative was constructed: to cite another post-MJ vox pop, "It was like he died for us all."

Narrative fashioned in a cut-and-paste manner is generally unreadable and incoherent, and the pseudo-theological eulogies told at celebrity funerals are no exception. Tragically, we turn to something that comforts only insofar as we refuse to think seriously about it. Do humans really become angels when they die? Upon which truth-claim can we base the rationale that the departed is now a celestial body? Made-up metaphysics trivializes death and robs the bereaved family and friends of their right to mourn deeply.

However inadequately our selective folk religion comforts us, it remains far preferable to the masses than anything offered by neo-atheism. Writing from a British perspective, it seems fair to say that the celebrity funeral, in its liturgical elements, is essentially the normal British funeral on a grand scale. (The major difference is that the celeb equivalent has the real Mariah Carey and Robbie Williams to perform,
whereas the common equivalent makes do with their prerecorded versions). Humankind's basic desire for spiritual meaning is reflected across the strata of society. It is perhaps the extensive media focus on the celebrity funeral that highlights that when the going gets tough, neo-atheism fails to convince.

The Failure of the Church

Equally interesting, though, is how this phenomenon highlights a major failing on the part of the church. As already said, the celebrity funeral is a religious event officiated by religious people. Their role at best, however, is all too often a token one. One ought to ask, whom do we find leading the celebrity funeral in its sad, metaphysical grasping at straws? It is rarely the officiating minister. Rather, the theological input is largely provided by other celebrities as they exercise their assumed priestly role. At the funerals of Princess Diana, Jade Goody, and Stephen Gatley, the metaphysical direction was provided by Elton John, Jack Tweed, and Ronan Keating. The clergy, in effect, sat by glibly as celebrities made strange forays into the realms of angelology and cosmology to comfort legions of devastated fans.

Not only does it now fall on the eulogizing celebrity to pronounce absolution of the deceased's sin ("Now you belong to heaven, and the stars spell out your name"; "We know you have found peace, perfect peace") and lead the congregation in prayer to the fallen starlet ("We now pray for his guidance and spirit to show us the way"), it has also become standard that celebrities, by their number and place in the celeb hierarchy, make the funeral rites efficacious. Indeed, a typical feature of press reportage on celebrity funerals is to note how many celebrities were present. It seems that such inventive metaphysics and pseudo-priestly pronouncements are more effective when surrounded and proclaimed by a great cloud of A-list witnesses. Shortly after his death, a Michael Jackson memorial event in Vienna was cancelled due to its failure to attract enough big name stars’after Madonna and U2 declined to come, the B-listers pulled out. It appears the king of pop was worth a memorial only if celebrity high priests and priestesses would be there. This is almost the post-Christian equivalent of the Scottish Presbyterian congregation unable to celebrate Communion because the visiting minister did not arrive (and the minister who happened to be present was not wearing a clerical collar).

Lesson for the Church

How little confidence must a church have in its own message when its ministers stand back and let celebrities provide the theology to comfort those who stare death in the face? The more pertinent question also arises: What exactly is the message of churches content to let boy-band members, crooners, and Z-list models preach incoherent, fabricated theologies to those (literally) contemplating the issues of life and death? Is a minister's contentment with a vaguely comforting but unreal metaphysical message (one that no one actually believes) a fair reflection of his own theology and message? Does it imply that he has nothing more worthwhile to say?

The celebrity trend is rarely marked by a turning to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ for comfort in death. Sadly, this invariably takes effect among the legions who inherit their postmortem norms from the pages of glossy magazines rather than Scripture and historic church practice. The celebrity funeral, then, must serve as a powerful call to churches grounded in biblical truth to respond to human tragedy with a priestly and prophetic message from Scripture. From its inception, orthodox Christianity has been a movement in which transformation triumphs over conformation (Rom. 12:1). This call permeates every area of life. In post-Christian Western culture, it even requires nonconformity in how one faces up to mortality. Stated simply, our vocation is to reach the masses in life, that they might be countercultural unto and even in death.

Thursday, August 30th 2012

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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