Kim Kardashian is divorcing her husband, Kris Humphries, of 72 days. This is the way I began my “Theology of Love” course yesterday, which also happened to be All Saints Day. I asked my students why they thought Kardashian, particularly, attracts so much attention, and why, in general, celebrities hold our gaze. The two patterns of response were telling. First, there were students who looked at her life as sort of a televised train-wreck. Despite her celebrity, appearance, and wealth, she is as much—if not more—of a monumental mess as any of us. The drama and tension defining her very public life can make us feel better about our own. Second, there were students who argued that we seek in celebrities a sort of redemption. We look to them as icons of hope that there can exist such a glamorous—or better, glorious—life. We ourselves might not have such a life, but the spectacle of the celebrity life gives us a hint of such glory. And deep down, we hope for such glory, for a “happily every after.” Dubbed a “fairy-tale wedding,” Kardashian’s nuptials promised such an ending. However, in the end, the most fairy-tale aspect of it was that she, with all who follow her life, had to put aside the story and face the light of day.
Anytime the promises of love are reduced to entertainment (the wedding was broadcast on the entertainment network “E!”) only to be cast aside when convenient, we as a society suffer. Not knowing the truth of the relationship between Kardashian and Humphries, I cannot, with any wisdom, claim that they did not believe their wedding promises sincere and did not enter into their vows with every intention of keeping them. Yet the public spectacle of their wedding requires that we do, in fact, take into account the impact of its collapse upon our collective pop-cultural psyche. Does such a failed “happily ever after” make us feel better about our own brokenness? Or does the divorce make us all the more hopeless in our search for a glorious life?
And, having had the discussion on All Saints Day, it occurred to me that the question of the line between celebrity and sainthood is a subject well explored (see Steve Okey’s post, for example). Particularly potent here, in light of my students’ discussion of the way the promise of redemption is offered in the lives of celebrities, is the difference between the hope offered to us by the life of the celebrity and that which is offered in the life of the saint. Both lives attract and fascinate, both can hold our attention. We read about the lives. We look to images of these men and women, gazing at them during moments of reflection. Thomas Merton once wrote, “To be a saint is to be myself.” Such words invite us not only to ask ourselves “Who am I, truly?” but also, “What am I seeing in these images of celebrity and of sanctity, each a promised offer of something authentic?” And let’s not be too hasty to accuse the celebrity’s authenticity of being manufactured. The lives of the saints, in particular those saints who lived long ago are packaged in common patterns and popular tales, with miracles distanced from us by time. And so we gaze at a life on so-called reality TV. We gaze at a stained glass window. Each attracts. Each holds our attention. Each can offer us hope.
But hope in what? What is the content of this “self” on display?
To the degree that my students are correct, the celebrity offers hope that despite the inadequacy, limitations, and struggles we experience, there remains possible a life of glory. But that glory finds its source in the celebrity herself. As cited by Steve Okey, historian Daniel Boorstin describes the celebrity as a “person who is known for his well-knownness.” A person famous for being famous. A person we gaze upon in order to see, precisely, her image, radiant and resplendent. It is an image that begins and ends with proclaiming her. And in contrast to that of the celebrity, the lives of the saints are not, at least ideally, about themselves at all. Or, perhaps better, are fully about themselves precisely in recognizing their deepest reality is that they are made in the image of God and are orientated toward a life with God. The glory of such a life does promise redemption: a redemption from the hollow promises of indulgent spectacle and from a self that asserts nothing but itself. Like John the Baptist, exclaiming as passionate as he could, “I am not he!” or like an icon of the Blessed Mother, whose gaze meets my own only to direct me to the child in her arms, the lives of the saints proclaim the love of the one who sent them—the love of the same one who calls us into a deeper recognition of the glory more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.