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FIRST-PERSON: Examining celebrity worship

ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–With the recent death of Michael Jackson, the phenomenon of celebrity worship is on display in all of its strange glory. Fans around the globe are experiencing soul-shaking grief and shedding a flood of tears at the passing of the King of Pop.

Vigils have cropped up in worldwide cities, attracting thousands of Jackson fans who have gathered to console one another. One news organization even reported that some Jackson devotees have committed suicide in response to the singer’s untimely death. “I now believe the figure is 12” [the number of suicides], Gary Taylor, president of an online Michael Jackson fan club, told Sky News.

I have long sought to understand why some people worship at the altar of celebrity. And, while I don’t know if I yet have a handle on it, I do have a theory that might help to explain why celebrity worship is a reality.

It was the 17th-century writer Blaise Pascal who said, “Inside of every man there is a God-shaped vacuum that only God can fill.” Of course, I happen to believe the French philosopher’s premise is correct. That said, if God is not filling an individual’s spiritual vacuum, the individual will seek to fill it with something or someone else.

Pascal’s premise helps to understand why some people are workaholics or obsessed with a hobby. It even might help to explain why some pursue alcohol, drugs or sex with wild abandon. It also helps to grasp how many people fixate on a celebrity as an object of worship.

A life that is void of purpose and meaning seeks fulfillment in emotional experiences. And celebrities — especially those in entertainment and in particular those in music — seem to provide the most powerful emotional stimulus.

“Celebrities tap into the public’s primal fantasies and basic emotions, lifting people from their everyday lives and making them believe anything is possible,” John Lucas, clinical assistant professor of psychology at Weill Cornell Medical College, was quoted as telling HealthDay News.

“What we know of them [celebrities] through People magazine and other media sources fills a gaping and painful void in our lives,” Lucas added.

I am of the opinion that entertainment, as a whole, has achieved religion status. And, like the Greek pantheon of old, entertainers are the gods who are worshiped.

The parallels between celebrity worship and that of religion, in general, are many.

First there is the investment of time devoted to worship and/or education. Most religions expect that adherents will spend some amount of time attending worship services and learning the faith’s tenants. The more devoted the worshiper, the more time he or she is likely to invest.

A celebrity worshiper invests time listening to the music of his or her god, attending concerts or watching movies. More time is spent reading about the “god” in celebrity magazines.

Most religions expect followers to give money to help support the work of the religion. The same is true in celebrity worship. It costs quite a bit to connect with celebrity deities. Music costs money. Concerts cost money. Memorabilia that proves the worshiper’s devotion cost money. It is easy to see that celebrity worship does not come cheap.

Religions offer a sense of community. This is achieved via commitment to a common belief and also through shared experiences. Celebrity worshipers’ sense of community comes from the belief that his or her “god” is the absolute best. Add to the belief the shared experience of attending concerts, listening to the same music or watching the same movies and you have community.

Religions also promote a set of shared values among followers. The same is true with celebrity worship. There is an understanding that certain values are accepted and agreed upon, morality notwithstanding.

Perhaps it is because of the talent the celebrity possesses — talent that escapes mere mortals — that celebrity worshipers elevate entertainers to almost god status. The celebrity is above the common man and to be in his or her presence is to be “blessed.”

“For the most part, star status conveys a sense of immortality and invincibility,” Lucas, the psychology professor, said, “and we are shocked when they die”

Michael Jackson was a gifted and exceptional performer, but like all entertainers he was — and is — mortal. Celebrity worship is fueled by people trying to fill the God-shaped vacuum that exists inside them — a vacuum that can only be filled by Jesus Christ.
Kelly Boggs is a weekly columnist for Baptist Press and editor of the Baptist Message (www.baptistmessage.com), newsjournal of the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

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  • Kelly Boggs