The Cult of Celebrity

How the Cult of Celebrity Inevitably Leads to Scientific, Ethical, Religious and Psychological Distortion...

Certain people still cannot get enough of 'The Diana Phenomenon.'

The television news was almost finished; the young lady newsreader seemed to hurry the last few items in order to get to a favoured final spot. Somewhat breathlessly she stated, "Now here is what we have all been waiting for: the Oscar nominations!!" This caused me to ponder on why some people think that celebrity, entertainment and the Hollywood film industry are so important! This area is not even 'news' in any real sense, yet it is of passionate importance to certain people.

A new "illness" has just been diagnosed in our modern society; it is 'CWS,' or, 'celebrity worship syndrome.' It is an obsessive-addictive disorder, affecting both males and females.

As several have pointed out, whilst the 20th century did not invent the cult of celebrity, it surely was the first to elevate it to the status of an industry. Problem is that certain people cannot take this whole celebrity media circus in a light-hearted fashion, it becomes a sort of excessive fixation, often just for certain personalities.

How did it all start? Some cite the case of Lilly Langtry (1853-1929). In Victorian times an ambitious young English Channel Islands girl called Lilly Langtry decided to engineer her rise to prominence by having her portrait painted by noted artists and having her undoubted beauty displayed on penny postcards which were sold all over London. Eventually this ambitious young lady became a noted British celebrity; her heyday as a society beauty culminated in her becoming a semi-official mistress to the Prince of Wales, Queen Victoria's son Albert Edward ("Bertie"), the future king Edward VII. But it is said that her relationship with Edward cooled when she infuriated him by becoming intoxicated at a party and slipping and falling after stepping on a piece of ice.

Of course, the publicity exploits of Lilly Langtry were absolute 'small fry' compared to much that would happen later. Nowadays, a performer like Madonna has a regiment of publicists, paparazzi, pressmen and assorted agents ready to emblazon her image around the world within minutes - due to the wonders of modern mass communication.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was possibly the first to receive 'celebrity cult' adoration. This distorted - and continues to distort - his true status as a scientist. As a science lecturer friend said to me, "It was like the whole world fell in love with him. But, even now, society seems to be too emotionally-attached to a man who was not without flaws and who made many mistakes in his Origin of Species."

(Picture copyright of the Natural History Museum, London)

But, truth is, this whole modern media celebrity circus started even before Langtry.

John F. Schumaker of the New Internationalist puts it like this:

"Celebrity worship first emerged in the 1880s when the notion of 'cultural hero' began to shift from a serious, duty-driven upholder of standards and virtues (scholars, inventors, great political leaders, 'captains of industry') to a person celebrated primarily for being well known. According to Smithsonian Institute historian Amy Henderson, this was spurred on by new mass communication technologies of the 1920s and 1930s as well as by 'a staggering machine of desire' created by the ballooning entertainment industry. All this formed part of a wider consciousness shift from character to personality, substance to image, and community to narcissism.

The decline of organized religion has also played a role - as the level of religiousness decreases, the tendency to celebrity worship increases. One 42-year-old, born-again Barry Manilow disciple summed up her experience this way: 'It's the same kind of thing people get out of religion. They obviously get something from God and Barry is the same sort of thing. He helps me get through my life.'"

(John F. Schumaker, New Internationalist, Dec, 2003).

Unfortunately these fixations of public personality always quickly lead to distortion, moreover, it is often a distortion which is freely acknowledged as such - yet that fact rarely seems to lesson the hold of the particular obsession. A man who is obsessed with Madonna said this, "I know she would not make me the ideal wife but she is already the ideal wife in my heart where she will always live. My home is, and always will be, her home as well." This man's home is full of pictures of her, and her music automatically plays the moment he turns his key in the latch when he returns home from work.

The Cult of Celebrity is Broad

But the 'cult of celebrity' is much broader than some suppose! Nobody doubts that personalities like Tom Hanks, Madonna and Nicole Kidman are adored by millions but some of the very first subjects of the personality cult were Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. These men too have been adored by millions; these men too have been held in reverence and their statements and comments have been held up as the "answer" to almost every human condition from mumps to mental illness, and from poverty to sexual deviancy. These men, who were afflicted with a not insubstantial pride and arrogance, were quite prepared to tell the rest of the world how important they were, and how correct it was that they should be held in such reverential awe. The world believed them and the 'cult of celebrity' was born.

Lilly Langtry (1853-1929)

The same 19th century which saw the birth of these men (and several others) who sought to overturn the status quo in economics, health, large sections of history, science, religion and philosophy, also saw the rise of certain other men who would work tirelessly to - more specifically - overturn previously widely-accepted Christian understanding; they would set out to do this from a faith/theology pespective. This attack appears to have been three-pronged: 1. Liberal Protestantism (a new form of theology which left no room for a transcendent, omnipotent God), 2. Rationalist Bible Criticism (the same outlook as the former, these men attacked the integrity of the Scriptures every way that they could), 3. Heretical Adventism (this is much bigger, of course, than purely Seventh Day Adventism, per se, it would include the work of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, Christian Science, Scientology and numerous other cults and sects; these groups started to take millions away from authentic Christianity, just as the aforementioned influences would do, but the latter influences would do it more directly). Yes, the founders of these sub-Christian alternatives also greatly enjoyed the 'cult of celebrity' - millions would be (and still are) drawn to their every word and statement and continue to love them even when it becomes obvious that they were massively wrong in some quite major areas. Such founders, who would enjoy such unmerited adoration, would include Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Taze Russell, Joseph Smith, Ellen G. White, Herbert W. Armstrong, and numerous others.

Root Causes

Root Causes? Initially one might say that it is the deep-seated human desire to look for strong and inspirational leaders able to lead ordinary people out of their often humdrum and tedious existences towards that bright and shining star of fulfillment, deepest satisfaction and (ultimately) spiritual ecstasy. Ultimately, of course, this is that deepest human need to worship.....well, worship almost anything or anybody if the genuine article is unavailable. The problem is that people were made to worship God - take God away, and people are going to find something or somebody to worship: it is either God or idolatry - just as the ancient prophets thundered to Israel - nothing changes! As C.S. Lewis used to put it, 'God is the fuel that people were made to 'run on' - if the correct fuel is taken away and some lesser fuel is 'put in the tank' there will be running problems.' G.K. Chesterton also 'hit the nail on the head' with his now famous comment,

"If people stop believing in God, the problem is not that they will then believe in nothing, it's that they'll believe anything."

So the 'cult of celebrity' vividly demonstrates people's deepest need for worship. It also - quite superbly - demonstrates the foolishness which people will immediately be drawn into when modern culture dictates that it is no longer fashionable or 'enlightened' to worship and serve an omnipotent God.
Robin A. Brace, 2008.