Celebrity Cult-ure versus Stories of the Bible


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The appeal of modern celebrity is something we have all encountered; its imprint is unavoidable across all forms of media in our global culture. The prevailing idea is that celebrities are somehow beyond the day-to-day norm; they’re often described in such terms as 'star,' 'superstar' or 'idol,' evoking stratospheric or even divine attributes.

In his work titled Film Stardom, Myth and Classicism: The Rise of Hollywood's Gods, British author and academic Michael Williams makes the connection between the phenomenon of modern film celebrity and the gods and heroes of ancient myth, who were also celebrated as both stars and idols. In fact, Williams identifies Classicism as the foundation for modern stardom as invented by the Hollywood film industry of the 1920s.

The fact that modern star makers look back to Greece and Rome to define stardom has been "curiously neglected." Williams cites an excerpt from a 1928 feature in the fan magazine Photoplay, suggesting that "Hollywood is the new Olympus. Hollywood is bringing back the glory that is Greece." He describes the accompanying images of youthful actors Richard Arlen and Joan Crawford, posing as 20th-century incarnations of the ancient Belvedere Apollo and Venus de Milo sculptures. Sometimes pitched as tongue-in-cheek or playful, such images nevertheless constitute a very real foundation for the nature of stardom today.

According to American cultural historian Leo Braudy, the cult of celebrity has clear lines of connection to the ancient past. In The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and its History, Braudy draws attention to the fame cult as used by figures such as Alexander the Great, Julius Ceasar, Napoleon and Hitler, among others. Writing in the pre-Internet-infused world of the 1980s, Braudy says "the impact of the face of Alexander the Great on a coin where only those of gods and mythical heroes had been before becomes thinned out in a million fleeting images on the evening news, images that reach a larger audience than Alexander could touch in a life time—or for long after." Williams points out that this "paradoxical and somewhat perverse situation speaks to a need for something beyond the everyday, and something in which one can become passionately invested" (emphasis added).

The Hollywood scandals of the 1920s marred the divine aura in which star makers were seeking to shroud their young actors. Inevitable human fallibility quickly tarnished the grand illusion. Williams relates that in more recent times the "divinising language" applied to celebrities has gone underground, although "the discourse is still there." So, too, are the audiences. Indeed, "there can be no idol without an audience," he points out. If shows such as American Idol or Pop Idol are to be taken as modern embodiments of the star-making phenomenon, then human beings are still searching for "something beyond the everyday" and something to "become passionately invested in."

That being the case, why not consider investing time in the lives of real-life celebrities of the Bible? Unlike ancient mythological gods and modern-day Hollywood demigods, who can do little more than offer a temporary escape from the mundane, their words and their example have real relevance for society today.  

DAN TOMPSETT

 

 

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