The Idol Monster
group magazine: September-October, 2011
The catalyst and leader of the UK's resurgence in youth ministry explores how the culture of celebrity has invaded and overtaken all of culture—how it's impacting teenagers, and what we can do about it.
by Pete Ward
THE latest American Idol winner is teenager Scotty McCreery, a country singer with a great back-story. He's got a great voice, a clean-cut image, and his favorite quote is from Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through God who strengthens me." Post-Idol, Scotty's debut single has risen high on the country music charts—he looks set for a lengthy career in the music business.
Weary of the corrosive effect a host of celebrities-behaving-badly have had on our young people, McCreery's story is a breath of fresh air, right? At last we have a positive role model to chip away at the pervading influence of the Charlie Sheens and Kanye Wests and Lindsey Lohans of the world. But maybe there's a bigger issue hiding in plain site—maybe we're so acclimated to the word "Idol" that we no longer pause when we see it, not even a little. Words and catchphrases like "celebrity worship" or the "cult of celebrity" or "rock god" or "diva" pepper the routine way that we talk about celebrities.
But "idol," of course, means "false god"—and the producers of American Idol are not at all attempting to mislead us. The show's title tells us exactly what it's about. On the night of the finale, Idol fans cast an incredible 122 million votes—all of them playing an active role in the fashioning of an idol, a god who is fake.
A SHORT HISTORY OF WORSHIP
Of course, we've all been worshipping idols for quite some time. The journalist Leah Caroll reveals that, as a teenager, she idol-ized a notorious rock star: "I am going to tell you a deep, dark secret. When I was 14 years old, Courtney Love was my idol. I got dressed every morning before high school by carefully layering ripped fishnets over purple tights, fastening the clasps on my vintage baby doll dress, combing out my peroxided hair, and adjusting my nose ring." Caroll's aim was to be ready if Courtney ever came to her school in Rhode Island to pick the coolest person in the cafeteria. In her mind, it would be clear to Courtney who was most deserving from the way she dressed.
Caroll's idol-worship may seem like an innocuous rite of passage shared by almost every teenager who ever rolled out of bed at noon on a Saturday, but the impact of celebrity worship on young people has captured the attention of the academic community. In a survey of more than 600 young people, a research team led by Southern Illinois University psychologist James Houran identified a psychiatric condition they've dubbed "celebrity worship syndrome." The Houran team's informal definition for the syndrome is, simply, "an unhealthy interest in the lives of the rich and fabulous."
While most of us go through seasons when our interest in celebrities is high, some young people can become pathologically attached to them. This supercharged attachment can degrade their psychological health and detrimentally impact their self-image. The percentage that falls into this category is small, but the fact of it points to the latent potency of celebrity worship.
As Christian youth workers we most often see the slow drip, drip, drip erosion of a celebrity-drenched media in the lives of the teenagers we serve. A Newsweek poll found that more than three-quarters of Americans (77 percent) believe that celebrities have too much of an influence on young girls, reflecting a growing unease over the influence celebrities have in our kids' lives. One response is to fight fire with fire—adopting a Christianized version of celebrity worship as our ministry ally.
And this is where McCreery comes in—he's prime quarry for those who are hunting for acceptable celebrities to promote as good role models. Christian Web sites squidoo.com/TeenCelebrities) introduce us to the virtues of celebrities who've cleared the Christian bar—imperfect but relatively wholesome idols that include The Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus, and Bristol Palin. But the problem with a strategy that's fueled by acceptable role models is that they are sure to let us down—the short list above is ample enough evidence, even without the addition of Tiger Woods.
Because we've bought in to the allure and rhythm of celebrity worship, the Christian community has created its own celebrities to feed our bellies. But the same metrics apply. Whatever we make of the recent hoo-ha over Rob Bell's alleged universalism in Love Wins, at the heart of this controversy lies the problem that comes when we fashion our own Christian celebrities. Role models of all kinds come with strings attached.
WHO PUT THE IDOL IN AMERICAN IDOL?
Maybe the latent message behind the popularity of American Idol is that we need to take the word "idol" much more seriously. The search for role models is always going to be a problem, precisely because it is false worship. The WWJD thing kind of got it right—we're called to be followers of Jesus, not Scotty or Britney or Kate or William or even Barack. Following Jesus should always take precedence over following role models.
To be Christian is to be shaped by the work of the Holy Spirit into the image of Christ. We are in the process of being transformed into the likeness of Jesus. At the very least this surely should make us cautious about any movement toward tacitly and subconsciously replacing Jesus with celebrity role models. But is it realistic to just play the Jesus wild-card and think we have won the game?
We can't opt out of popular culture and its celebrity-obsessed view of the world—living in a sanitized Christian ghetto is not only a bad idea, it's NWJWD (not what Jesus would do). What we need, instead, is a way to encourage teenagers to be faithful followers of Christ while they consume popular culture. Our Christian identity needs to be the way they make sense of themselves in relation to popular culture.
Looking for role models is off-trajectory—in fact, it basically misunderstands the way that celebrity culture works. Celebrities are never really role models in the way that the Christian Web sites seem to suggest. Let's look again at what Leah Caroll says about Courtney Love. The hard-partying widow of Curt Cobain was her idol, she vows, but her "worship" was never much more than a brief fantasy. She may have worn the T-shirt for awhile, but she didn't join a Church of Courtney.
For all the talk of worship and cults and idols and gods, there's really no serious celebrity religion. Even though the media uses these religious words to "big up" the whole celebrity thing, a close and ongoing identification with a single celebrity is quite rare. Very few young people build their sense of self around a relationship with a celebrity role model. What actually happens in celebrity culture is that teenagers are treated to a steadily changing parade of gods that are just passing through, using up their allotted 15 minutes of fame.
Celebrity watching is very like what happens when a teenager picks up a fashion magazine or clothing catalog. As she turns the pages there's a conversation going on inside—as she look at each fashion item she's asking, "Is this me or not me?" The conversation is not so much about clothes, but about herself. And celebrities are just like the models in the magazines and catalogs. Some are little more than models—they don't make the transition to celebrity until they're attached to a story. Celebrity stories allow us to take positions and form opinions. Here's what I mean….
To some, Paris Hilton is the height of taste and fashion—to others, she's a spoiled rich kid with the morals of an alley cat. Because kids live in a celebrity culture they're inexorably drawn into a relationship with these stories. They feel sympathy, outrage, indifference, and envy—they seek to copy or merely admire. Celebrities represent symbols for the different possible identities kids can take on. Celebrity stories entice them to ask questions like these…
• What does "living the good life" really mean?
• What does it mean to be a good student?
• How do I know if I'm attractive?
• What does it mean to be a good friend?
• How do I know if I'm a success or a failure?
• What does it mean to be a Christian?
The celebrity stories our kids are drawn to offer answers to these questions. When they hear about the lives, loves, mess-ups, and triumphs of celebrities, they're really working out their own identity.
THE TRUE CHALLENGE OF CELEBRITY CULTURE
So celebrity culture represents a great challenge to the young Christian, but not for the reasons we typically assume. We should not feel threatened by this celebrity world. Rather, celebrity stories reflect ways of living—so how do we help teenagers make sense of these ways? This goes to the heart of what it means to be a follower of Christ in daily life. Role models are avatars for the basic moral dilemmas that lie at the heart of the celebrity world.
Here again, American Idol gets it right. Kids are asked to make a choice—to vote these aspiring celebrities on or off the program. One week they might be at the top, the next at the bottom. What matters is not them, but the teenagers who are watching and voting. They're the "deciders," but who goes or stays is not really the point. The stories of celebrities push kids into the complex dilemmas of life. And this is precisely the kind of leverage we should take advantage of in youth ministry. We can help teenagers best by studying celebrity culture harder and deeper, not by ignoring or dismissing it.
Dr. Ward teaches at King's College London and was a primary catalyst in the rebirth of youth ministry in the UK. His latest book is called God's Behaving Badly: Religion Media and Celebrity Culture (Baylor University Press).
THE PRO’S AND CON’S OF CHRISTIAN CELEBRITY
By Walt Mueller
As Pete Ward has so perceptively said, idolatry is so pervasive that we fail to recognize it anymore. Excessive self-love—also known as "Narcissism"—has moved from vice to virtue, as high-profile celebrities more often than not selfishly promote themselves. They point to a path we all too often embrace—style and appearance over depth and character. And when teenagers hear adults talking about their "personal brand," it's no wonder that they feel commodified. This narcissistic feeding frenzy also rages in our Christian culture. But buried among the obvious cons of Christian celebrity there have to be pros, right? I've struggled to come up with any pros, except for one….
When a Christian celebrity has not sought the spotlight but has, instead, been thrust into it, then it's a good thing. It's still worthwhile to have heroes to look up to, but not to worship—people like Tony Dungy, John Stott, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham. All would recoil at the tag "celebrity"—they want nothing more than to serve as signposts to Jesus. The cons? Well, my list is much, much longer. The culture of Christian celebrity…
• Has fostered a momentum that creates followers for ourselves rather than followers of Christ. We can tap into the image-making machines (Facebook, YouTube, the blogosphere) to build our brands, rather than spending the time we should on quietly going deep in our faith while letting God do the rest. The cult of Christian celebrity might just be one of the most effective tools in the enemy's arsenal.
• Has created an environment where we worship and follow people, sometimes at the expense of worshipping and following God. This is idolatry. Could it be that we are more ready to blindly embrace and accept what so-and-so says than we are to pursue and embrace what God says?
• Has led us to value some more highly than others. Didn't Jesus talk about the error of playing favorites? Do we value those who simply have the best marketing and branding plan? We've created a pecking order that is anything but biblical.
• Has caused us to follow the lead of the culture. Christian celebrities can offer a subtle alternative path to the one carved out by our humble, suffering Savior.
• Had led us to believe that our calling as Christians demands a high-profile image, fame, and all that goes with it. It's not about faithfulness, humility, and obedience.
Rarely is Christian celebrity good for the celebrity, or for the church. The Bible is clear on the seductive dangers that accompany money, sex, and power. It's sadly ironic that those thrust to the forefront, with a broadening platform to speak the truth about these things, are often most prone to fall victim to the very temptations they lambaste. As I wrestle with these issues, I try to remain true to a few rules I've set up for myself.
Rule #1: Never think too highly of myself—I'm no different than anyone else.
Rule #2: Pursue the Savior, not the stage.
Rule #3: Be myself.
Rule #4: Be faithful and obedient to Christ—my calling is NOT to please people.
Rule #5: Carefully choose my words, because some people will believe anything I say.
Rule #6: Surround myself with people who will always remind me of these rules!
Walt is president of The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding in Pennsylvania (cpyu.org), and he's a track leader at our Simply Youth Ministry Conference. His latest book is 99 Thoughts for Parents of Teenagers (Group/SYM).