Celebrity Deaths in a Celebrity Species
End of this year commemorations will include George Michael, Carrie Fischer and Fischer’s mother Debbie Reynolds. Many will profess that their deaths, even though they didn’t have a face to face relationship with these individuals will be significant mostly because they feel they had a relationship with these people’s art.
The dynamic of “celebrity” is an interesting one. I don’t think there can be a human culture without celebrity. Nearly anyplace you find human civilization you will find celebrities. The ancient myths from Gilgamesh or Homer had celebrities, people or demigods whose stories invade our lives to shape our ideals, our morals, our definitions of what is good. These people, real or fictitious inhabit and may even dominate our lives and imaginations, shaping our decisions and desires.
We would have never known George Michael if it had not been for Andrew Ridgeley (left of him in the picture) and his mom who taught in their school. She suggested Andrew take the young shy, overweight, awkward George under his wing. They discovered they both loved music and so with Andrew’s guidance they started their first band “The Executive” which failed and then the second “Wham” with a fresh new sound and their hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” put them on the map. George, however, had the talent for song writing and performance so eventually left Andrew behind, and now mostly forgotten.
George because the celebrity. Andrew met and married a women from another flash-in-the-pan band, settled down, founded an advocacy outfit for cleaner ocean water and has lived quietly off of the money that his few hits with Wham continued to generate. George had a famously celebrity, rocky life only to die at 53.
Last week we noted that the “American Dream” (even though George Michael is British) involves a dual belief in equal opportunity and rewarded meritocracy. George Michael’s life as a celebrity embodies that story. He begins from little and through hard work and talent becomes wealthy, famous, beautiful, desirable and celebrated. Our story telling naturally edits out the comparison with Andrew Ridgeley who is forgotten.
We might wonder who we’d rather be, however, Michael who lived a famously unsettled life of greater fame, power, wealth and cultural significance or Ridgeley whose story is perhaps one of failure but whose rewards were more modest and settled.
Carrie Fisher’s story is different from George Michael’s. Fisher was born to celebrities Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fischer. Chaos had been with her right from the start.
In her 60 years she produced three successful memoirs but her celebrity seemed almost a function of luck than talent.
Cringe-worthy truth about being a onetime A-list Hollywood star: “What would I be if I weren’t princess Leia? A great big nothing without one piece of fan mail to call my own.” Later in life, when a family brings its daughter to meet Fisher, the child wails: “No! . . . I want the other Leia, not the old one.” Washington Post
If we check Carrie Fischer’s life against the values of the American Dream it contradicts it. The connection between her celebrity and her birth seemed more like birthright than equality. While she had considerable talent as a writer she is best remembered for being a young adult in a space western donning a golden bikini. Part of her contribution is actually highlighting the ironies of her own life. Being both born into wealth and fame and falling into it she proceeded to drink it away dying young, her mother outliving her, probably because of the wear and tear she put on her body.
Our Culture of Celebrity and Wanting to Have it All
The reason human civilization naturally creates celebrities is because as Ecclesiastes 3:11 says “he has placed ‘eternity’ in our hearts”. What does that mean?
What sets human beings apart from any other living thing we know?
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals could previously say, ‘Careful! A lion!’ Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
Harari, Yuval Noah. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Kindle Locations 413-415). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The Greeks had their gods and demi-gods. The Sumarians had Gilgamesh and Enkidu. As a culture we have created a torrent of stories with heroes and celebrities, demi-gods in our midst who live in ways that we ordinary folks aspire to. We don’t know it only in entertainment. We do it in politics, Trump and Obama were elected because they represent as much as they can possibly fulfill. We do it in sports, in business, in every area of human endeavor. By the stories of these people we live vicariously and aspirationally.
By these celebrities humanity attempts to push its boundaries. Celebrities show “how high” we can climb, live, ascend, aspire to. They are our pioneers. We endow people with celebrity status so that we can live vicariously through them. We naturally inhabit stories and so we furnish our stories with villians, heroes and celebrities.
Ecclesiastes and Celebrity
When I look around at all the fan geekdoms in our world, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel universe I have to recognize again that this is a very old dynamic. Homer, Gilgamesh and the ultimate geekdom book the Bible. The Bible is beyond question THE most published, printed, translated, studied, significant book in all of human history. There is nothing that is even a close second to it. Right in the middle of the Bible there is a small book that is a commentary on all of this written by a pseudonymous author called Qoholeth, “the assembler” or “the teacher”.
This teacher has endeavored to cross every frontier in his world. He has gathered wealth, wisdom, pleasures material and sexual, attainment, political power, great projects, you name it he has done it. This is why many who read the Bible often identify this person with King Solomon even though the book itself never connects them. This person pursues limitless living “under the sun” and writes about what they learned. In short, what they learned is that the hope and struggle to live beyond limits doesn’t fulfill as it seems to promise.
Celebrities seem to validate Qoheleth’s point every day in People magazine. Their lives are filled with boundary crossing freedom powered by fame, money and public approval. Yet with all of these things they also regularly and publicly succumb to the pain of broken relationships, drug addiction and in many cases early death. They enliven our imagination that if we are diligent, or fortunate, or beautify, or smart, or strong, then we can transcend any boundary that our desires push us over to finally, fully arrive. Along the way they also illustrate what our limits are, limits that money, beauty, power and status can’t transcend. Celebrities can become horrible people, self-obsessed, entitled, arrogant and impossible to live with. This is why they are always divorcing each other no matter how wealthy or beautiful or desirable they are to everyone else watching. It is an image of CS Lewis’ hell in The Great Divorce.
Those who climb to the top realize that there’s no there there. Robin Williams, another celebrity to die young constantly harried by drug addiction noted that the thrill of “arriving” when he won an Oscar lasted about a week. When he left a club someone yelled “hey Mork” and the illusion vanished.
Jim Carrey expressed the exact same thing at his 2016 Golden Globe presentation.
The Teacher cries “vanity of vanities all is vanity” and our celebrities in their honest moments agree. We are awash with Qoheleths and they are constantly before us in tabloids at the checkout stand, on the TV, movies and the Internet, yet none of it stops the mad dash to overcome whatever obstacle it is that offends your pretense at being the ultimate.
The Byrds in 1965 set a beautiful poem from Ecclesiastes 3 to music which became for them a huge hit.
Ecclesiastes 3:1–8 (NIV)
A Time for Everything
3 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
Ecclesiastes 3:9–14 (NIV)
9 What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. 14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
What does this beautiful poem mean? Scholars debate it. Could it be any other way to again validate the book itself?
I think Derek Kidner gets it right in his small book A Time to Mourn and a Time to Dance.
Time pushes us forward, the daily rhythms and necessities push us in places we do not choose and to experiences we welcome or avoid. Time does this for all creatures of course but we have “eternity” in our hearts. What does that mean?
Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NIV)
11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
The contrast is between the two sentences in the verse. On one hand we can see the beauty, the fittedness of individual things “in their time”. We see their glory. We see George Michael in his beautiful young self singing a little ditty to liven the hearts of people and fill their imaginations with pleasure and goodness. We are then haunted by the reality that we cannot put “time in a bottle”.
It is right there in the middle, that we live, and we don’t know what to do about it. We feel it when we hear that George Michael died and we watch he and Andrew Ridgeley sing their silly, pretty, fun song. We feel it when we see aged Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford make an appearance at Comic Con, when Fischer devulges the youthful, tawdry little affair between her and Harrison many years ago.
CS Lewis called this sehnsucht in German or something like longing/nostalgia in English.
Verses 12-14 say that all of this is intentional “so that people will fear him.” What does that mean?
Every few years the Freedom from Religion Foundation will put up a billboard like this. Notice it doesn’t say “of course there isn’t a God. You don’t see him do you?”
Why do they feel the need to mention wonder? It is because of what Ecclesiastes 3 is talking about. The combination of “beautiful in its time” and eternity in our hearts. We want the “wonder” of the moment, but please exorcise the longing that the knowledge that we cannot put time in a bottle, that George Michael’s and Carrie Fischer’s and Robin William’s power and beauty and charisma will set them on a path of their own decline and destruction and please always give us the young Princess Leia!
We cannot live here and we know it so we convince ourselves that it is enough. But we betray ourselves again and again. We want the LONG story. We want ever more stories from Star Wars even if every time one comes out we compare it not necessarily to the original but how we remember the original made us feel. We want the long myth book, we want the Marilyn Monroe always young captured in film. We want the song “Candle in the Wind” but we don’t want to live in the wind. We then put it in a cathedral sung to Princess Di appropriating all the religious imagery and language. that we can appropriate in order to make us feel a certain way.
Like time, it slips through our fingers so we keep doing it over and over again never quite capturing that first high, not unlike an addict.
Eternity is in our hearts and that longing is a clue to what is real.
CS Lewis whose mother died young felt all of this and he couldn’t shake that eternity must be more than an illusion or a feeling but pointing to something real. He created what is sometimes called the argument from desire.
Premise 1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.
Premise 2: But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy.
Conclusion: Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever.”
This is the “fear” that Eccl. 3:14 is talking about. It is the recognition that nothing will finally satisfy us besides the source of everything that brings limited satisfaction. God lavishly shares moments of beauty with rich, poor, moral, immoral, young and old but leaves us all longing for “eternity” that only he can satisfy, and not even yet fully here.
The Christian doctrine of suffering explains, I believe, a very curious fact about the world we live in. The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Lewis, C. S. (2001). The Problem of Pain (p. 116). New York: HarperOne.
The Christian faith says all of these point to the deeper reality and the path by which humanity finally comes the the eternity that haunts us. This is not something that we achieve, it is something that must be done for us. He asks us to trust him more than we trust ourselves. He asks us to believe him, and obey him, and live our lives in the world that mother of all fan-doms creates. He says this.
Matthew 11:25–30 (NIV)
25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do. 27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
My cell phone was working increasingly poorly. Pictures it took had the wrong orientation. The battery drained quickly every day. The screen didn’t go off when I put it by my ear and it was always too dim. I knew what I had to do to fix it. I needed to do a “factory reset” and the whole thing would work fine. But…
If you do a factory reset you wipe out all of your data. It all goes away in a second. If I told many of you to do this you might panic. Your contact information, your pictures, your financial information, etc. etc. lives on your phone.
I wasn’t worried though because, as many of you know everything is backed up “in the cloud”. Same with computers. It’s one of the lovely contributions of Google.
In many ways if you are a secular person you and everyone else you know are walking around with their life in their local device. If something happens to your phone that has everything hosted on it it is gone forever.
In Christianity our God knows all through and through. The beauty of the thing in the moment is not lost to God. Eternity in our hearts points to our source and finally Christ will redeem and renew his creation but not all of us really want to have a part in it. We fret about the loss of the beauty that we experience “in its time” but are haunted by the eternity we feel in our hearts.
In Isaiah 60 is a beautiful song to Israel who has been in exile who feels the beauty of the moment is long lost as well as her dead loved ones and lost promise. It is a vision of loss restored, of glory strewn among the nations reclaimed and refined and a reunion of the scattered children of God. Not all will be there. Those who oppose the great king will have no part, nor would they want any part of his reclaiming of his own glory seeded in creation.
The Christian narrative asserts that in the end God will not lose the goodness he desires and through the resurrection it is reclaimed from the age of decay.
New Year’s Moment of Reflection
It is fitting to mourn the loss of beauty, of youth, of glory that shone in its time. Loss deserves mourning. The combination of what is fitting/beautiful in its time with the knowledge of eternity in our hearts, but inability to hold onto it should drive us to God, the one who forgets nothing but is ready to forgive. It should cheer those who know they are secure in his care and encourage us to move forward into that day when the ships of Isaiah 60 come and all glories reclaimed and renewed.