Much to my kids’ chagrin, I hardly ever listen to top-40 radio. Aside from the deficiencies of the music on offer, I can’t stand the mindless advertising, the idiotic banter between the morning hosts, and… well, it’s mostly the advertising. But a while back, as I was having lunch at a local restaurant, the radio was too loud to ignore. I happened to hear something very peculiar called the “Daily Hollywood Gossip Report.” At first, I simply consigned this to the “stupid things you hear on the radio” category of my brain, and dismissed it quickly. But I found myself returning to it as the day went on.
I was thinking about the cultural artifact that is the “Daily Hollywood Gossip Report” as I waited in line at the grocery store. Here I was presented with some interesting cultural artifacts: endless rows of glossy magazines filling me in on all the juicy details of who is cheating on whom with whom, how I can get “beach-ready abs,” have mind-blowing sex, discover this or that famous person’s workout regimen, diet tips, yoga recommendations, home decorating guidelines, voting advice, parenting suggestions, or pop philosophy/religion pointers. There were certainly no shortage of opinions—publishers and advertisers practically queuing up to inform me of how best to have the hard body, amazing sex life, and uplifting and inspirational religious experiences that I have always wanted.
On one level, it’s fairly easy to ignore things like the “Hollywood Gossip Report” or the magazines at the grocery store. But I wonder: what do these cultural artifacts say about who we are as inhabitants of twenty-first century Western culture? What do they say about what we value? About our priorities? About the level of our cultural discourse? About the quality of our own lives? About what we worship and what we hope for?
In Psalm 115:2-8 we read:
Why should the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel;
feet, but do not walk;
and they do not make a sound in their throat.
Those who make them become like them;
so do all who trust in them.
Is it too much of a stretch to see our cultural obsession with the inane trivialities of celebrities’ lives as a form of idolatry, and that by bowing down to these idols we are inexorably becoming like what we worship? In this Psalm, and throughout the prophets and beyond, Israel’s idolatry—their bowing down to the “works of human hands”—turned them into a people who did not and could not do/be what they were called to do/be as God’s covenant people. Just as the lifeless objects they worshiped lacked the sensory capacity to act and react as purposive agents, so Israel found her God-given capacities to hear, to see, to speak, to walk—all basic and essential faculties of proper image-bearing—dulled and eroded over time, and ultimately found herself in exile, far away from home in a strange land, having to once again learn what it meant to be God’s people.
What about us? What are we becoming like as we worship our idols of celebrity, our gods of superficiality, greed, banality, confusion, sensuality, transience, and sheer stupidity? Well, the easy answer would be to simply say that, as a culture, we are becoming more superficial, banal, confused, sensual, and stupid (among other things, no doubt). Yet for everything we are becoming in our idolatry there are also many things we are actively moving away from, things we are failing to become. Every unpleasant adjective above has a more positive antonym that our idolatry blocks us from: depth, contentment, creativity, insight, commitment, patience, and restraint. How will these important qualities be cultivated on a broad scale in a culture that worships the embodiment of their opposites?
Ultimately, of course, the chief problem with idolatry is that it renders worship where it is not due. I suspect that our obsession with the senseless minutiae of the lives of celebrities and our apparent willingness to look to them for advice in any and every area of life they are willing to dispense it, is because they represent a form of salvation to us. In a world shorn of any kind of meaningful horizons—a world where we have great difficulty believing in any kind of hopeful future, in this life or the next—the cult of celebrity offers up a kind of (pitifully meager) substitute. It is salvation through physical appearance, juicy rumours, sexual fanaticism, and acquisitiveness. It is distraction as salvation.
And like all the forms and the objects of idolatry in Israel’s day and in all the days between then and now, it cannot save.