Guest Post—James Danaher on "The Saint and the Celebrity"
Here are the reflections of philosopher James Danaher on saints and celebrities in contemporary culture and church. They are from chapter 11 of his book Contemplative Prayer (Cascade, forthcoming). Thanks to James for permission to post his reflections here.
We are familiar in our culture with the idea of some people being different from the rest of us. In our contemporary American culture, the celebrity is such an individual. The reason for their being different is that mass media gives the celebrity a notoriety that goes way beyond that of the average person. Since the celebrity is identifiable by a great multitude of people, their identity appears to be more substantial than the rest of us who are only identifiable by a handful of people who make up our rather small world. Certainly, this idea that some people’s identity is greater than others because they are identifiable by more people is an illusion, but it is an illusion deeply entrenched in contemporary culture.
In fact, this illusion that the celebrity has a greater identity than the rest of us is so deeply entrenched in our social reality that it should not be surprising that we have replaced the idea of the saintly Christian with the idea of the celebrity Christian. Evidence of this is all around us. At a recent local prayer breakfast, the guest speaker was a movie star who had, two years previously, had a conversion experience. They chose him because many people would be interested in his testimony, not because of his saintliness, but because of his celebrity. Many churches that have extensive standards for a person to be a ministering member, ironically would invite a celebrity to their pulpit with little reservation. Some time ago, I voiced a disagreement to something a television preacher was saying. My mother-in-law’s response was that I was not on T.V., and he was. Obviously, his opinion was more authoritative, not because of what he said but because of his celebrity. Go to any bookstore and you will see that celebrities make up the vast majority of those who are authoring books that purport to instruct us in the Christian life. Publishers know that in order to sell great quantities of books, the author has to be identifiable by a great many people. Consequently, television preachers, sports stars, and every other imaginable celebrity are the ones from whom we take our spiritual direction. Sadly, their spiritual authority comes from their celebrity rather than their saintliness. Our culture has taught us that what we should revere about a person is the fact that they have an identity established by a great many people. Thus, baseball players tell us what coffee to drink and movie stars what credit card to use. How strange! It is, however, more than simply strange when celebrities are the ones we look to in order to understand how to follow Jesus.
It is especially strange that the celebrity has replaced the saint in our culture because the celebrity is the complete opposite of the saint. While the celebrity draws their identity from the notoriety that masses of people provide, the saint draws her identity from God alone. Unlike the celebrity, and all who desire to be celebrities and have their identities established by great numbers of people, the saint rejects such an identity and seeks only to be who God says they are, no more and no less. The saint repeatedly turns from the identity others attempt to impose upon her and only identifies herself as God’s beloved daughter. The saint sees the notoriety and prestige that the celebrity has and the rest of us seek as the illusion that it is. It is an illusion because the masses of people who serve to provide the celebrity with their identity have no real knowledge of who the celebrity actually is. Since our identity is largely the result of our relationship and interaction with others, an identity founded upon our relationship with people who really do not know us is the least substantial identity. The celebrity’s identity may have the illusion of being more substantial because a great multitude of people establishes that identity, but they are people without any personal knowledge of the celebrity.
By contrast, the saint’s identity appears to be the least substantial since it rests upon the saint’s relationship with one person alone. It is, however, our only true source of identity, since that one person is the only one who does truly know us. This is what makes the saint so different not only from the celebrity, but from the rest of us as well. While we form an identity out of our relationships with those people who make up our small worlds, and the celebrity out of their relationship with the masses, the saint’s identity is rooted in the only one whose notice really matters.