The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word “celebrity” has existed since the 17th century – which seems odd, considering its common and sometimes tawdry usage in the media today. The two most helpful definitions in the OED are “A person of celebrity; a celebrated person: a public character.” and “The condition of being much extolled or talked about; famousness, notoriety.” Historian Daniel Boorstin was a bit more pithy, describing the celebrity as a “person who is known for his well-knownness.” When I think of celebrities in contemporary US culture, I tend to think of people who are:
(a) relatively famous (although their relative fame is often categorized as A-list, B-list, C-list, and, in Kathy Griffin’s case, D-list).
(b) usually from the world of popular culture (I have rarely heard well-known politicians, academics, or religious leaders described as celebrities)
There are certainly exceptions to both of these criteria. Russell Brand, for instance, is arguably a celebrity based on his films and his stand-up comedy, but I’m 99% sure my parents, even if I gave them a thorough description, would have no idea who he is. Donald Trump, on the other hand, has been a celebrity for decades, long before he stormed onto NBC as producer and host of The Apprentice. But nonetheless, I think most celebrities fit the above criteria.
Yet there is a third criterion that I think is valuable to consider as well. Celebrities are individuals that consumers of pop culture tend to become fixated on. Not necessarily in an obsessive or stalker-ish sort of way, but rather in the sense that people subscribe to magazines that exist to promote celebrity culture; follow celebrities on Twitter out of some attachment to them; and even make life decisions based on celebrity influences. Indeed, this fixation can become so serious that not only is there a diagnosis for it, but celebrity psychologist Dr. Phil has advice on how to overcome it (think you might have CWS? Take the quiz).
If we wish to think theologically about the issue of celebrity fixation, one useful approach might be the distinction between the idol and the icon. In his book God Without Being, French philosopher Jean-Luc Marion describes the idol as an object that not only draws one’s gaze, but holds onto it. Indeed, the gaze is exhausted in the idol and looks no further. The gaze is fixated upon the idol.
As a result, Marion describes the idol as an “invisible mirror.” The person who sees nothing but the idol does not realize that the idol reflects who that person is. One’s fixation on the idol reveals a deeper fixation on the self.
In contrast, the icon does not fill one’s gaze. Rather, it serves as a pointer; it directs one’s gaze beyond the icon. Indeed, Marion claims that the icon, which is itself visible, becomes saturated with the invisible. The icon always “refer[s] to an other than itself, without, however, that other ever being reproduced in the visible.” By looking through the icon, I get some glimpse of something beyond the icon, something wonderful, something mysterious.
Interestingly, Marion does not provide some sort of chart to alert us that this object is an icon or that object is an idol. My little statue of St. Paul could be either, depending on how I look at it. More poignantly, my pursuit of a PhD in Theology could be an idol (if all I seek is my own fame and satisfaction in the annals of the ivory tower) or an icon (if I seek to serve God and God’s people through my own little project of faith seeking understanding).
If the same thing can be either an idol or an icon, is it not possible to say the same about people? In an earlier post on this blog, Andy Staron wrote about Fr. Tom King that “The more clearly he was himself, the more clearly he was pointing away from himself.” Andy’s gaze, alighting on Fr. King, saw more clearly the profound mystery that animated Fr. King’s life and ministry. Fr. King, in other words, was (is?) an icon.
Thus I suggest that one useful way to distinguish between the role of celebrities and saints in our daily lives is to question whether someone serves as an idol or an icon. More often than not, it seems it’s the celebrities on whom we become fixated and the saints who inspire us to look more deeply.