Celebrity Culture and Social Media

This article by Dr. A. J. Higgins M.D. (New Jersey, USA) takes a discerning look at the celebrity culture of 21st Century Western society. Reality TV, chat shows, social media, selfies, tabloid gossip. How can Christians live in such a culture without being subtly and negatively influenced by it? Read on.

As I write, the media is lamenting the sad situation of an Olympic gold medalist who, due to his drunken behaviour, has lost several lucrative endorsements. The magnitude of his actions is being measured in terms of dollars lost, and not the character which was displayed. At the same time, they are opining on the likelihood that he will eventually be able to gain other endorsements and recoup some of what has been lost.

There is a frantic and competitive race by companies, politicians and even religions, to have their products or beliefs endorsed by celebrities. Scientology, one of the many cults around us, boasts in the famous celebrities who have joined its ranks over the years. All this is to suggest that if a celebrity thinks you are a good product, religion or commodity, then you must be worthwhile and desirable.

Now, before I am labelled as an iconoclast, it must be emphasised that, as Christians, we are to give honour to whom honour is due (Rom 13:7, Phil 2:29, 1 Pet 2:17). It is not a mark of spirituality to disdain everyone or to belittle others. There is nothing evil in recognising the talent of an individual if used in the proper manner. We can appreciate giftedness, but above all we should value godliness.

Honour was once reserved for those who displayed virtues which were for the benefit of others: self-sacrifice, courage, humility, fidelity, etc. In contrast, in western society today, honour is given to those who entertain and amuse us; arrogance, self-centredness, boasting, disregard for all moral boundaries, and large multi-million dollar contracts are what we honour today. We are a society which is controlled in large measure by celebrities.

You may feel that you are immune to this and occupy a higher moral ground. Test yourself, however, to see if you are influenced by the celebrity cult which exists in our world. Do you have to buy designer clothes? Do you need running shoes endorsed by an athlete? Does the fact that a particular celebrity wears a particular brand of clothes, drives a certain type of car, follows a special diet and vacations in a particular spot, make you want to do the same thing? Subtly (or not so subtly) we are all influenced to some degree by this.

The Spirit of God addresses this in Romans 12:1-2. Worldliness is not primarily what we do, but how we think. It involves our attitude to life and the values we espouse. Ultimately, it controls our actions. But the call to a “renewing of your mind” is dealing with seeing things as God sees them and not as the society around us does. Bombarded daily by the values of our society, we must refocus on “things that are more excellent” (Phil 1:10).

Its View of Life

Whether or not we would have agreed with their conclusions, intellectuals and philosophers were once the source of society’s view of life. From ancient time, men debated the relative merits of different philosophies, searching for the ‘good’ and the ‘right’ by their reasoning. Of course, those enlightened by Scripture were guided by its truth. However, the point is that worldviews were established by thought processes and not by emotional impulses or lifestyles of rich and popular people.

In our current society, the new philosophers and establishers of worldviews are the talk show hosts whose guest celebrities discuss their approach to life and their views on everything from morality to spirituality. An addicted audience hangs on every word, and soon begins to discuss it as though that which has just been distilled to them were the wisdom of the ages. Social media only enhances the communication of the newest “philosophy” for life.

Its Virtues

A necessary corollary to this is that every worldview is built upon an assumption that certain forms of behaviour – certain character traits – are virtuous, and others are unworthy of emulation. What have we based our moral values upon in modern society? Having rejected the morality of the Judeo-Christian basis for western society, we have turned to the lifestyle of celebrities to inform us as to right and wrong.

Many different forces were at work to bring us to the gender-confused state of 21st century western society, and to its re-definition of marriage. Among the most effective has been the endorsement by the celebrities which occupy the media. A large percentage of the steady stream which issues forth from television and Hollywood has alternate lifestyles as either the theme of the story or an obvious sub-theme. Their portrayal gives tacit approval to these abnormal and immoral lifestyles, communicating to their audiences that they are normal and acceptable. There can be little doubt that the media is agenda-driven as to morality and virtue. And celebrities are employed to endorse it all. And because celebrities approve, the mass of viewers applaud and condone it as well.

Its Values

Linked with this is a shaping of values for life. An expression which became popular in the last generation is that you could have your “fifteen minutes of fame”. Everyone wants to be famous. To become famous, to be a celebrity, is to be a success. Little thought is given to the broken lives, broken marriages and tragic ends of most of those who have become ‘famous’. To become famous is all that matters. As a result, the insatiable quest for happiness through fame and fortune is the ultimate value which drives many people. Little wonder that depression has reached epidemic proportions as people awaken to the reality that they will never achieve stardom fame in either the media or the sport’s world.

Generations back, honour was afforded to those who sacrificed for country, or who courageously stood against the tide of human opinion to do the morally virtuous thing. Those who took high moral ground were applauded despite what it may have cost them. Consistency, devotion, honesty and similar values and virtues were what we honoured. Those very same values are now seen as dispensable if they stand in the way of personal ‘happiness’ or fame. To quote one celebrity of recent note, “I would rather be known as a liar than a failure.”

This attitude may express itself in assembly life by a competitive spirit – a desire to be prominent and acknowledged because of my gift, my position of leadership or even my family ties. A lack of ‘fame’ may afford me a sense of justification in going elsewhere to attain the significance which I think I merit. The antidote for this, as for most of our inflated sense of self-importance, is an appreciation of the grace of God to sinners worthy only of eternal banishment. Joseph’s brothers did not envy Benjamin having five times as much as they had; to be in the presence of the lord of the land instead of in prison banished all thoughts of envy (Gen 43:33-34).

Linked, as well, with the quest for fame is the need to “show yourself” or to publicise yourself. Social media has made this exceedingly common for most people. The temptation offered to the Lord Jesus in the wilderness by Satan was exactly this – show yourself to the crowd. “Cast Yourself down from the pinnacle of the temple and think of the buzz it will cause among the crowd!” The temptation to “show yourself” has been presented to every generation in one form or another. The difference in our society is that it has now become the driving force in many lives. Reality television programs, programs which search for the next ‘idol’, or that display talent in the hopes of making it ‘big’ all present to a yearning public, the opportunity to be known and famous.

Social media can be used in a positive manner to communicate and to maintain contact with other believers. But when the various social networking sites become an avenue for me to broadcast the thrilling life which I lead and to display my most recent ‘selfies’ for all to view, it has become a venue to promote self. Tragically, friends attempt to outdo friends in describing their lives; the result can be an unrealistic presentation of reality.

The pursuit of happiness has become an obsession with our generation. Any relationship, any commitment, any responsibility is dispensable if it thwarts my quest for happiness. It has become the overriding value in all decision making for most people. It is the justification for the most selfish of decisions and acts. Paul wrote how that in last days, men would be “lovers of pleasure” (2 Tim 3:4). While this is true of the unsaved, is it possible that we have been infected with this thinking? Is the value of a conference how much ‘fun’ you had over the weekend? Is the value of a message measured by how entertaining the speaker was, or rather by the spiritual help you received? Speakers must be engaging; but that is vastly different than being entertaining. The ‘trickle down’ danger of this is that it may influence how we present the gospel and our methods of evangelising.

Vicarious Living

Have you noticed the headlines and featured stories on your computer or in newspapers? Have you overheard the conversations at work? They centre on what so-and-so wore on the red carpet. They reveal who is embracing whom now. They might be all about the latest breakups and scandals. People flock to read the tabloids or listen to media that recounts the latest sordid detail in the life of their favourite celebrity. People once used entertainment to escape from reality. Entertainment has now become their reality. They live vicariously through the lives of those they idolise. People literally live on the accolades laid at the feet of their favourite star.

One of the sobering lessons of history is that humankind is an idolater at heart. Removed from the worship of the true God, we descend and worship the creature more than the Creator (Rom 1:25). Man was made for worship. We have an innate sense of our own insignificance and the awareness of something greater than ourselves worthy of worship. The choice is not if I will worship, but Who I will worship. Having rejected the worship of the true God, we now prostrate ourselves at the feet of new idols. Some worship mother nature, whoever she is; others find satisfaction in worshipping science. Some may object and feel this is too strong a view of the honouring of celebrities; listen, however, to the conversation of your friends at school, your fellow workmates and the constant stream from the media. There can be little doubt that those at the top of the celebrity ladder are thought of in worshipful tones.

People living their lives vicariously through a celebrity follow that life with intense interest. The latest song, movie, appearance or interview is eagerly consumed. Every detail is rehearsed, the clothes that were worn, the body language displayed, the tone of the voice, the latest bit of gossip and the latest success enjoyed by their star is that upon which they feed and live. The removal of the celebrity cult from their lives would leave a cavernous vacuum that would make life unbearable for many of them.

Its Vanity

We can easily become caught up in the maelstrom of the media circus. Deluged each day by the media with scandal, gossip, immorality, and the details of their private lives, we cannot help but be influenced…and defiled.

Centuries ago, James asked one of the most searching questions found in the Scriptures: “What is your life?” (Jas 4:14). It was asked in the context of the mass pursuit of material treasures, and movement without a sense of the sovereign hand of God in one’s life. How much more applicable it is when it comes to the pursuit of entertainment. James teaches us that life outside the will of God is only a vapour which vanishes away. It has little staying power, little substance and little influence.

In contrast to all the vicarious living which marks the society around us, Paul could speak of his life: “For to me to live, Christ!” (Phil 1:21). Elsewhere he could say, “Nevertheless I live; yet not I but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God Who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Paul lived Christ before the world. It brought him none of the fame men crave; it was seemingly marked by sorrow, burden and hardship, rather than happiness. But it was a life which brought pleasure to God, blessing to the world, profit to the assemblies and future honour at the Bema. It was, as well, a life which was supremely satisfying and fulfilling to him. Listen to his words on the eve of his departure: “I have finished my course” (2 Tim 4:7). Another, John the Baptist, on seeing Christ honoured, could say, “This my joy, therefore, is fulfilled” (John 3:29). Paul, John and a long line of saints have found their joy and fulfillment in living for the Lord Jesus Christ. We follow Him, feed upon Him, and remain faithful to Him and to His Word.

Life is too short not to invest it in an eternity which is exceedingly long!