Of Celebrity and Sanctity

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.

9 responses to “Of Celebrity and Sanctity

  1. Thanks, Steve. This is one of the more Augustinian elements of Marion’s thought (and there are many) and one that speaks to both the first commandment and Christ’s great commandment. While we may hope that our gaze falls upon an icon, we are haunted by the possibility that we gaze into a mirror (for the hiddenness of mirror-aspect is what makes the idol). While without guarantees, one way of proceeding might be to look at the type of sacrifice demanded by the icon — idols often comfort us with the status quo, icons challenge. Saints/icons, though certainly containing an aspect of comfort, resist becoming *mine,* they resist being consumed. There’s always more depth, a greater reach, a thicker reality to be received though them, just beyond the horizon.

    • Thanks Andy, that’s an excellent point. I think the question of what the idol/icon demands of us is useful especially in the context of how both draw the gaze. There’s a beckoning, a calling that both give that draws the individual to them. In Ignatian terms, it might be helpful to think then of vocation construed as the deepest desire of one’s heart. Distinguishing between the idol and the icon could be likened to the discernment of spirits.

  2. The question of idol and icon seems particularly relevant in the recent high-profile situation with Father Corapi, who has been described as a “celebrity priest” representing the Catholic cult of personality. There are those who are fixated so deeply on his charismatic persona that they have been convinced that he points “beyond”. There are also, frankly, many who believe he is only an idol. Therein lies the heart of the controversy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Joyce. In fact, you’ve raised what I think is the most interesting aspect of this question (and what I have been planning to write as a follow-up to this post at some point). I’m not as familiar with Fr. Corapi, but I think a similar comment could be made about Fr. Cutie in Miami or Fr. Pfleger in Chicago. On an even bigger scope, the question could be applied to Billy Graham, John Paul II, or the Dalai Lama. In fact, Gezim Alpion has a book relating to this topic titled “Mother Teresa: Saint or Celebrity?”

      What I find particularly interesting in each of these cases is that the deep attachment that individuals and groups often feel to these particular figures can be a testament to the power these figures have to point to the divine, yet that same attachment can also approach the level of a cult of personality, which risks turning these figures into idols (indeed, the term cult can be quite appropriate in this case).

      In these cases, the further question might be whether saint and celebrity are in fact mutually exclusive, as my analysis seems to indicate, or whether it’s possible that in such cases the only effective criterion of celebrity is fame. I don’t have an answer on that yet.

      • Nice point, Steve. At least as far as Marion’s thought is concerned, he reminds us that the glimpse of divinity in the idol is real. What draws us to them is, itself, good (insofar as it is, it is good). The key here is when our gaze remains on them. It’s funny–I often think of John the Baptist jumping up and down, calling for our attention, pointing at Jesus. Somehow, it’s both the pointing and our gaze following the finger that seems crucial to the whole endeavor.

        I’m not sure fame along is sufficient for celebrity, but a particular kind of fame. And again, I think it’s about us. That we are drawn to “glamour shots, etc.” as well as “celebrities without makeup, etc.”–both the heights and the depths (i.e. what is normal for everyone else) says something about our desire and our self understanding. Although I’m not as of yet sure what.

  3. If I had to point to decisive factors, I would say that whether one is a saint or a celebrity (or perhaps both) is in part whether or not a person’s “charisma” is emblematic of how deeply immersed they are in Christ (holiness) or just an effect of personal charm or persuasiveness. In either case, the truth is an internal quality, which may not readily be subject to external discernment by others. Lack “authenticity of life” will eventually come out, as in the case of Cutie, and possibly Corapi.

    I would say, however, that some saints and holy men and women have been genuine “celebrities” – famous and sought after in their lifetimes through no effort of their own. Earlier, they tended to be local: Julian of Norwich, the anchoress who lived in a one-room hut attached to a city wall, attracted people from far and wide to her window to hear her wisdom. There was Therese of Lisieux, whose own sister followed her around with a camera. With the coming of modern communication, Padre Pio was world-renowned for the stigmata and for his devotion to the Eucharist, and even John Paul II has inspired among people of many nations an almost obsessive devotion that is only partly explained by his wisdom and holiness.

    This is a difficult question. Looking forward to where this takes you next.

  4. Steve,

    I really like the 3rd element of celebrity that you identify in your article- that it is a person we become fixated on. I also really like the introduction of the Marion distinction between idol and icon because it is a helpful way to think through the concept of celebrity. How do you think the concept of narcissism fits into the Marion distinction? In other words, if fixation on the celebrity leads us to some concept of the other (as would be the case if the celebrity becomes an icon of psychological fascination as opposed to an idol of self worship) how does this figure into the idea that the idea of celebrity (and reality celebrities especially) arises out of a culture of narcissism and simultaneously reinforces narcissistic tendencies within the culture? Great post and great comments!

  5. Pingback: The Spectacle of Kim Kardashian and and Image of the Saint « Daily Theology·

  6. Pingback: Thank you, Lance Armstrong (an ode to liberation theology) | Daily Theology·

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