To Be Someone
Worshipping false gods is not a folly confined to Old Testament times.
It is alive and well today. Indeed, as human beings move away from believing in and serving God, the more easily they seem to fall into idolatry.
Tui Motu has invited some of its regular writers to write about their ‘favourite’ idol of today.
Mike Riddell fires the series off with a reflection on false gods in general – and his own particular choice, fame.
To Be Someone
Idolatry is popular, if recent television history is anything to go by. In 2004, one of the highest-rating shows in New Zealand was the glorified talent quest, NZ Idol. The holy grail of this series was instant fame – the promise of both stardom and a lucrative recording contract for a previous unknown. Copying the format from other equally popular contests around the Western world, the spectacle demonstrated both the universal hunger for recognition and the willingness of contestants to be humiliated in order to achieve it. Of course the show had nothing to do with religion. Or did it?
The business of idolatry has been the main game in town for many a millennium, and has attracted bad press in both Judaism and Christianity alike. Scripture wastes little time on providing arguments for the existence of God. True atheists are about as hard to find as unreconstructed Marxists, and as unlikely to be changed through argument. The focus of the Bible is on monotheism, that opening gambit of the Creed from which all other confessions of faith issue. We believe in one God – one amidst a cast of thousands. The question is not, and never has been, whether God exists; rather it is the question who God is.
A key attribute of Christian faith therefore is discernment. We must distinguish the One who is worthy of worship from the many false gods that claim our allegiance but are inadequate to receive it. Traditionally, idols have been thought of as ‘little wooden gods’. There is certainly some of this allusion in the book of Isaiah, which roundly mocks the manufacturer of ‘carved images’ who uses half a block of wood to burn on the fire and the other half to kneel before. This accusation has at times in history been turned on Catholics with the claim that crucifixes and statuary represent a form of idolatry.
But the deeper intuition of both Isaiah and subsequent theologians is that the issue of false gods is a great deal more subtle than the presence or absence of visual aids. True idolatry is a matter of the heart. In consists of giving that which rightfully belongs with God to some other recipient. It is the spiritual equivalent of adultery, and frequently treated as such in Scripture. An idol is that which we mistakenly regard as ultimate. Whenever we devote ourselves to anything less than what we’ve been made for, we might legitimately be described as idolatrous.
Jesus tells us where our treasure is to be found our hearts will be also; which may be about as concise a definition of idolatry as it’s possible to find. The question then becomes whether what we treasure is substantial enough to fulfil our hopes and sacrifices – or whether it is altogether too transitory and ultimately futile. Such icons of fealty may not be as readily identified as the golden calf of Exodus, but they are able to hold sway over masses of people in much the same way. The false gods of our age may be less obvious, but they are as prolific and influential as ever they have been.
Fame is the spur
One of the more pernicious is the culture of fame which burns like a fire in the heart of our culture. Andy Warhol memorably described our era as one in which “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”. Later he changed his prophesy to the ironic: “in 15 minutes everyone will be famous”. There was a time, of course, when very few people were deemed worthy of fame. In such times, the great mass of humanity did not aspire to that which was so clearly beyond their reach. Respect and acknowledgement from a person’s organic community was sufficient to maintain self-esteem and a strong sense of identity.
This has rapidly been eroded with the widespread collapse of such communities in the techno-industrial world. The rise of what Alain de Botton describes as ‘status anxiety’ is a complex development. (Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety, London: Penguin, 2004) But the symptoms are commonplace: a neurotic fear that our lives are worth nothing; a desperation to lift our heads above the mass of our peers; and a gnawing doubt about our reason for existence. The trivial manifestation of this social disease is that frantic waving for attention which takes place at sports grounds in the vicinity of television cameras. A more serious expression is the rise in suicides.
At root level, the malaise is driven by a hunger for recognition. We all want to be noticed and valued; to have our uniqueness affirmed. This is a legitimate human aspiration. In a society of mass consumption, however, such desires are largely futile. Paradoxically, as the need to be noticed escalates, the possibility declines.
It becomes increasingly difficult to do something new or better than what has been done before, and those seem to be among the few grounds on which public attention can be attracted. Desperately unloved members of the community, the David Hinckleys of our world, sometimes resort to such extremes as murder in the attempt to win an audience. After all, to be visible is the essence of fame – ‘I am seen, therefore I am’.
This is a disorder which affects us all. The last decade has produced a flood of television programmes in which people are either treated cruelly, or volunteer to publicly humiliate themselves as a form of entertainment. Thousands clamour to be part of these ventures, willing to endure mockery or voyeurism in exchange for the tantalising dream of notoriety. To have one’s name a household word, to be known by the masses, to be recognised in the street; these are the rewards which seduce otherwise sensible people into a form of ritual demeaning. It seems that it is better to be famous and ridiculed than to live in anonymous dignity.
It is not possible to understand such behaviour without regard to the culture of fame which pervades society. Having given up for ourselves the possibility of living significant lives, we instead live vicariously through certain representative people – the famous. There is a massive industry in media and entertainment (as much as the two can be distinguished) fuelled by the public interest in such demigods as Princess Diana. The task of the media seems to be to anoint certain chosen ones with the oil of fame, consigning them to both stardom and scrutiny. It is no longer necessary to be great to be famous; fame needs no qualifications. Like winning lotto, it is potentially achievable for all.
Celebrities are only the visible manifestation of contemporary obsession; a product of the disorder which produces them. The devotion given to our ‘media darlings’ represents a familiar habit of the human heart – the tendency to idolatry. We manufacture our own gods, and then seek from them that which they are powerless to provide.
The driving force is a natural one – the need for respect and love – but it is misplaced when directed toward the savage realm of the media circus. In an irony true of all forms of idolatry, that which can only be given in relationship with God is squandered on futile imitations. As Augustine put it, ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee’.
If the worth of our lives is dependent on public visibility, then the vast majority of us are destined to frustration and disappointment. There is some evidence that this is indeed the experience of many, who are dissatisfied with the ordinariness of their existence. We devalue the routine responsibilities which greet us each day, looking instead for something to break in and lift us above the realm of the commonplace, so that we too may be ‘special’. As de Botton puts it: “The more humiliating, shallow, debased or ugly we take ordinary lives to be, the stronger will be our desire to set ourselves apart.”(op.cit p.258.)
The Gospel and meaning
Christianity grew fastest among those who were on the bottom rung of social status, and with good reason. It provided an alternative evaluation of the worth of human life. The dignity of a person was guaranteed not by their wealth or standing, but by virtue of their birth and adoption into the family of God. The apostle Peter assured slaves and street people: “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Peter, 2:10). Through this great theological insight, significance ceased to be a contestable commodity and became instead a universal legacy of grace.
Jesus tell us that God numbers the hairs on our head – a metaphor for the great care with which we are cherished. The good news of the Gospel is that before we have done or achieved anything at all, we are loved. This is the substance of that great reversal by which the dictates of social standing are transcended by faith. Our hunger to be noticed is satisfied by a God on whose palm our name is engraved. The quest for significance is requited by the knowledge that we are created uniquely, each with infinite value. Dignity is given not because of our estimation in the eyes of our peers, but through the fact that each of us bears the inviolable image of our Creator.
When such worth is recognised as a gift bestowed rather than something to be achieved, it enables us to conduct our lives free from the burden of worldly accomplishment. It enables us to revaluate that which is ‘ordinary’ as being charged with the grandeur of God. A sense of vocation may grow, rather than that of career: the offering of that which is within for the sake of others and the service of God. Public perception may be considered, but it no longer needs to dominate self-est-imation. For the first time perhaps, we are able to know ourselves as children of God, and so unplug from the addiction to a culture of fame.
We have been in danger of losing the long perspective on life which is traditional to Christianity. The testimony of faith is that it is impossible to judge a person from the outside. The life we live is played out against the perspective of eternity. Fame is partial and ephemeral; as easily lost as gained. But our inclusion in Christ by which we are redeemed is unshakeable. That which we long for has already been given, even if we must wait for its fulfilment. When our desires find their home in the source of their longing, there is a peace and freedom which idolatry can never bring.
The life hidden in Christ does not need observation to bolster its significance. Our small acts of kindness and mercy can be performed out of faithfulness, without regard to recognition. At all times we know that they are seen and valued by the One who gives us life. As Paul puts it: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28). If the quest for our 15 minutes of fame leads inevitably to despair, these words are the beginning of eternal hope.