The Idols We Worship
I hardly ever listen to the radio anymore, at least not to top-40 type stuff. Aside from the deficiencies of the music on offer, I can’t stand the mindless advertising, the idiotic banter between the morning hosts, and… well, it’s mostly the advertising. Today, however, as we were having lunch with the kids at a local eating establishment, I couldn’t avoid the radio, and I happened to hear something very peculiar called the “Daily Hollywood Gossip Report.” At first, I simply consigned this to the “stupid things you hear on the radio” category of my brain, and dismissed it quickly. But I found myself returning to it as the day went on.
I was thinking about the cultural artifact that is the “Daily Hollywood Gossip Report” as I waited in line at the grocery store. Here I was presented with yet more interesting cultural artifacts: endless rows of glossy magazines filling me in on all the juicy details of who is cheating on whom with whom, how I can get “beach-ready abs,” have mind-blowing sex (again… I sometimes wonder if Cosmo readers ever clue in on, say, the thirtieth consecutive issue promising to uncover the 10 techniques which will usher them into carnal paradise, that maybe, just maybe, the magazine is a little short on content), discover this or that famous person’s workout regimen, diet tips, yoga recommendations, home decorating guidelines, voting advice, parenting suggestions, or pop philosophy/religion pointers. There were certainly no shortage of opinions—publishers and advertisers practically queuing up to inform me of how best to have the hard body, amazing sex life, and uplifting and inspirational religious experiences (without all of that distasteful stuff like consistency of thought, moral absolutes, etc) that I have always wanted.
Of course, most reasonable people don’t pay a great deal of attention to the “Hollywood Gossip Report” or the magazines at the grocery store, much less pontificate about the theological significance of these ordinary features of every day life. But I wonder: what do these cultural artifacts say about who we are as 21st century postmodern inhabitants of Western civilization? About what we value? About our priorities? About the level of our cultural discourse? About the quality of our own lives? About what we worship and what we hope for?
I came home and I read these words in Psalm 115:2-8:
Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
Is it too much of a stretch to see our cultural obsession with the inane trivialities of celebrities’ lives as a form of idolatry, and that by bowing down to these idols we are inexorably becoming like what we worship? In this Psalm, and throughout the prophets and beyond, Israel’s idolatry—their bowing down to the “works of human hands”—turned them into a people who did not and could not do/be what they were called to do/be as God’s covenant people. Just as the lifeless objects they worshiped lacked the sensory capacity to act and react as purposive agents, so Israel found her God-given capacities to hear, to see, to speak, to walk—all basic and essential faculties of proper image-bearing—dulled and eroded over time, and ultimately found herself in exile, far away from home in a strange land, having to once again learn what it meant to be God’s people.
What about us? What are we becoming like as we worship our idols of celebrity, our gods of superficiality, greed, banality, confusion, sensuality, transience, and sheer stupidity? Well, the easy answer would be to simply say that, as a culture, we are becoming more superficial, banal, confused, sensual, and stupid (among other things, no doubt). Yet for everything we are becoming in our idolatry there are also many things we are actively moving away from, things we are failing to become. Every unpleasant adjective above has a more positive antonym that our idolatry blocks us from: depth, contentment, creativity, insight, commitment, patience, and restraint. How will these important qualities be cultivated on a broad scale in a culture that worships the embodiment of their opposites?
Ultimately, of course, the chief problem with idolatry is that it renders worship where it is not due. I suspect that our obsession with the senseless minutiae of the lives of celebrities and our apparent willingness to look to them for advice in any and every area of life they are willing to dispense it, is because they represent a form of salvation to us. In a world shorn of any kind of meaningful horizons—a world where we have great difficulty believing in any kind of a hopeful future, in this life or the next—the cult of celebrity offers up a kind of (pitifully meager) substitute. It is salvation through physical appearance, juicy rumours, sexual fanaticism, and acquisitiveness. It is distraction as salvation.
And like all the forms and the objects of idolatry in Israel’s day and in all the days between then and now, it cannot save.
The idolatry you describe, the exaltation of celebrity, is a interesting monster. Not only does it distract us non-famous people from what is really important, the mass produced photographs, magazine articles, gossip columns turn human beings into items for consumption… eventually dehumanizing the object of our “worship” (perhaps a modern day incarnation of human sacrifice??)
It reminds me of Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych – The more her image is reproduced, the more distorted it becomes.
I think you’ve pointed to another important (and tragic) dimension of our idolatry. Ironically, in our obsession with the lives of celebrities (real human beings), we reduce them to commodities that can be bought, sold, manipulated, distorted, etc. We worship human beings, and in so doing we reduce them to something far less than human.
I live a little more than a hundred miles from the epicenter of the culture you are describing. My sister has lived in it and I have a friend who lives there now. To some extent, the culture you describe is found all over southern California, but it is most intense around Beverly Hills and other areas west of downtown LA where the epicenter is found. It is an amazing place to visit.
It is ironic that so many people, even near the epicenter, are overweight and out of shape given the emphasis on physical appearance.
We do have other cultures in southern California. Concerns for fitness, healthy food, and good friendships are also found here. And we do have religion here too. But the culture you have criticized is clearly a big thing here. I think it is ultimately an expression of despair. It is hard to overcome.
“How will these important qualities be cultivated on a broad scale in a culture that worships the embodiment of their opposites?”
Answer: In the same way they have always been cultivated – through arduous counter-cultural examples observably (publically) lived out.
The idols worshiped today are almost identical to those worshipped since the dawn of time. The vehicles/media through which these idols are offered have changed. Moreover, it seems to me that counter-cultural expressions are far more common in the pluralistic millieux that we find oursleves in. The “COSMO”-culture seems an all to convenient foil both for our guilt over occasional indulgences in this culture or as the comparative paradism through which we can justify our own moralized counter-culture.
It is common to separate ourselves from the cultural paradigms that we find particulariy offensive. The ‘otherness’ of the Hollywood culture is easily constructed. I will suggest that it is a less powerful destructive force in the moral direction of our culture than we give it credit for. At the same time the idols that this cosmo-culture begs us to worship are flagrantly prevasive in our culture – not specifically because of the influence of this cultural ‘department’ but because these are the idols we have always worshipped.
Just a minute…
I’ll be right back this guy named Aaron just showed up and asked if I had any gold to melt down…
So you think I’m setting up an easy target, do you Dale? I don’t know… I suppose I see it as more of a cultural commentary than anything. I think we are creatures who will worship something or other—it’s simply how we are made. The question I was exploring had less to do with trying to separate myself from this or that “cultural paradigm” or constructing some “other” to define myself against than it did with the question of what we (in the broad, cultural sense) are becoming like and how it relates to what we worship.
Hollyweird culture is problematic.
I think that an oppositional angle is fairly easy to construct and you (and some of the other commenters) have pointed out several important points that justify such a position. I wonder if there is a different and more effective way for the church to engage popular culture than as its enemy. One of the striking things about Jesus is that he took into his camp people who represented various aspects of the culture at the time. The scriptures give some evidence of how connected he was to the various elements of the culture.
It is not my suggestion that we create a Christianized version of the Hollywood culture (I actually think that is already being attempted). I do think that engagement with problematic cultural trends has to begin with legitimizing the drives and desires that sustain these paradigms as naturally human. For me that means that un-moralizing the intrinsic motivations behind these trends. That probably means that while I can identify the problems certain trends enhance I can also see the potential that underlying motivations present for transformative engagement with the culture.
It would be my evaluation that one of the underlying drives that sustains the hollyweird culture is the desire for significance. We can offer significance in significant 🙂 ways. But asking people to plunk down in a pew every Sunday to become the ever absorbing crowd is likely not the best way. Highlighting the compassionate service of individuals in a public setting might be…
I think you make a lot of good points, Dale. I’m all for trying to find common ground and rooting out the motivations/needs being met by whatever gods we happen to be worshiping. I absolutely agree that there are basic human needs that must be met in some way or another, however inadequate this or that attempt is deemed to be (and I certainly think the cult of celebrity is profoundly inadequate!). The church certainly has to find ways to engage people at the level of their deepest need; it will not do to offer solutions/answers to questions no one is asking.
I think HighestForm’s insight here is right. I think the consumption metaphor – humans as consumables – expresses this phenomenon well. The Warhol connection fits.
Here in southern California, especially in western LA, every thing is a mass-produced consumable or else it has no relevance, no meaningful existence. There are thrills in such life. I don’t think the pursuit of this thrill is worship. It is not religious. And this is not like worshipping Baal in hope of rain. It is something much more secular than that. It is more like the opposite of religion in the way Eliade wrote about religion. In a nonreligious world everything is a commodity, everything is homogenous, including humanity. Warhol expressed this in his work.
I see your point Ken. I guess everything depends on how you define the terms “religious” or “worship.” I’m taking a fair bit of latitude in how I use them, I suppose, but I do think our relationship to celebrities as a culture—our fascination with them, the salaries they are able to command, their ubiquitous presence on any and all kinds of media, etc—functions as a kind of religion. It may be “secular” and it may be qualitatively different in expectation than the worship of Baal, but I think the word “religious” still works, on one level. It provides meaning and purpose, an orienting story to live by. It may not hold out the hope of rain or fertility, but it does offer distraction, which may be all some are inclined to hope for. It’s not much, but I guess it’s something.
Worshiping this type of garbage simply makes sense on one level. The secularization of society leaves a void for something to strive for. The material world is the easiest answer to locate and this has been exploited by advertising. They are simply not selling a product to meet a need or a want, they are selling a product to define and essentially create a lifestyle. Without religion many of us are left with some form of moral relativism and developing a belief system on that is a difficult task. This difficulty is why I believe we have turned into such a consumer culture. One can only hope it is a transitional phase.
You’re probably right about the vacuum that needs to be filled, Tyler. I wish I were as optimistic as you are that this is a transitional phase; I think (unfortunately) that it’s got some staying power.
I see your point too and it is certainly valid.
I remembered that I have known pastors of churches in the epicenter. I never thought about discussing this with them. And I have a friend who grew up in the epicenter, in the entertainment world, and who also attended church there. She describes the religion she grew up with as very conservative. As an adult she has rebelled against the religion of her childhood. She seems uninterested in the life in the entertainment world as well, and wants to be away from it. But she does not speak as negatively towards it as she does religion. It would be interesting to discuss this with her, although her feelings towards religion would make that difficult. She, a scientist, believes that religious sentiment is a genetic problem that we can overcome.
Where I live, in a bohemian area of many highly educated professionals (with very little liberal education,) there tends to be much anti-religious sentiment. Religion is seen as an inferior and dangerous way of approaching life and the world. Conservatives, especially, are considered to be dangerous idiots. Dawkins fits here, except that his language would be considered over the top and embarrassing. There is also much disdain here for the entertainment culture and for mass-produced anything. I think we have less idolatry in the area where I live, but more gnosticism.
Interesting to hear more about your context, Ken. Up here, the general sentiment toward religion would probably lean more towards apathy and ignorance or some combination of the two as opposed to the hostility you seem to describe. It’s at least encouraging to hear that your fellow citizens are as skeptical about the cult of celebrity as they are about organized religion…
Currently in Italy, I can really observe how consumerism has been affecting the church for hundreds of years. So its not a new problem…. So it may be unfair to describe Hollywood as the epicenter.
It was very helpful. thank you