Book Review

"Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion, and Celebrity Culture" by Pete Ward

Shane Rosenthal
Pete Ward
Friday, March 1st 2013
Mar/Apr 2013

What is the chief end of man? "The chief end of man is to glorify ourselves, thus immortalizing our name and to reach Elysium." Not the answer you were expecting? That's probably due to the fact that I was quoting from The Homeric Shorter Catechism, a fictional document created by my daughter Sydney as part of a homework assignment given to her during our study of the Greek classics. In order to sum up her understanding of the Greco-Roman world before Christ, I asked her to rewrite the first few lines of the Westminster Shorter Catechism so that it presents not Christian but pagan convictions. And, for several reasons, I was reminded of this while reading Pete Ward's book Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion, and Celebrity Culture.

At only 163 pages, I was able to read this book from cover to cover in just a few hours between takeoff and landing, and it ended up being time well spent. Ward argues that there is a kind of parallel between celebrity and religion, and that this parallel is evident in the very language we use. We adore our celebrities, and fans are said to be devoted. We watch American Idol and refer to superstars as legends and icons. Even the word fan, Ward argues, carries a religious connotation, since its Latin root is fanaticus, meaning "of the temple." But Ward is not arguing that our new culture of celebrity is in fact a new kind of religion, but rather that it is so powerful that only religious language can really capture its essence.

Another point Ward makes is that the linguistic parallels take us, not to traditional religion, but rather to an earlier more primal and polytheistic form that we find embodied in ancient paganism. Interacting with the thoughts of journalist Andrew Brown, Ward says that today's media elevates celebrities "into the pantheon of the gods, and as in the Roman Empire their images are sent around the world….This 'repeated apotheosis' makes our popular culture 'more like paganism than it is comfortable to admit.'" Hollywood, Ward concludes, has become our Mt. Olympus. "They sport and play, and we check them out from time to time….Through People magazine, the National Enquirer, Hello!, and Heat, we are given a window into the Elysium of the gods."

One of the strongest parallels between yesterday's paganism and today's culture of celebrity is the obsession with image. Statues of gods and goddesses in their idealized forms were chiseled into stone, reminding people throughout the Greco-Roman world of both their fame and beauty. Today's movie screen divinities have their images sent around the world through a ubiquitous media, and are perfected not by means of a chisel but via Photoshop. According to Ward, what's at stake here is "not so much what we think of Meryl Streep or Sharon Stone or Elizabeth Taylor, but what we think of ourselves." In other words, the celebrities are attractive to us because they represent the human ideal, which is what we are all striving to become. But it goes beyond mere image. Gossip columns regularly feature stories about a particular celebrity's new romantic dalliance, spectacular wedding, or sultry affair. "What is being debated," Ward writes, "is the kind of life we should live and how we should live it. It is the intersection of style and ethics, decorum and discipleship. We are asked to choose our gods and then we are invited, or indeed enticed, to sit in judgment upon them." That last line about sitting in judgment of the gods we choose is a theme that Ward takes up at length elsewhere:

The condemnation of celebrities who are tempted into "sin" takes us into the heart of the theology of the sacred self. We are the ones who judge….We have the all-seeing eye. We decide who goes and who stays. We sit in judgment on our own gods. And we judge our gods because they have so much and yet fail to "make the most of themselves"’a key value in celebrity worship. After all, if this is a religion of the sacred self, what greater apostasy could there be?

At points, Ward's book becomes a little repetitive, but the overall thrust of his thesis is one that has stuck with me. There are fascinating parallels between today's culture of celebrity and yesterday's cult of divinities. It's good to remind ourselves of these things and of the clarity of our own confessions. "The chief end of man is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." God is at the center of the universe, not idealized forms of our own sacred self. We need to realize that Narcissus is among us, and he desperately needs a better story than the one he's currently being sold.

Friday, March 1st 2013

“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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