In our hyper-connected culture, we have easy access to the rich and famous, access that could be mistaken for intimacy. We are in-tune to the details of their lives: their wardrobe choices, their song lyrics and sound bites, their loves and their loves lost, and eventually their demises. As we watch from the screens of our televisions, computers, and phones, we've developed a language for talking about them, ascribing motives, and attaching meaning to what they do, as if we know them.
Now, culture is meant to be engaged, and should be done with discernment, wisdom, and even at times, humor. But problems arise when we begin to view celebrities as symbols, as vehicles for our commentary, instead of the complex, priceless, fallen human beings that they are (and we all are).
Over the past year or so, we've seen Beyonce dance seductively, and Miley Cyrus and Duck Dynasty shock audiences worldwide, granted, for two very different reasons. We've watched Amanda Bynes unravel on Twitter, gazed at Justin Bieber's mugshot, and heard the news of countless celebrity splits. Most recently, Philip Seymour Hoffman died with a needle in his arm, leaving three young kids and a creative world that relished his talent.
While we sift through dance moves and skimpy outfits, we easily forget that there is a deep, dark underbelly to the life of a celebrity, a place that demands our compassion, and even our humility. If we are too busy trying to understand if a celebrity is a worthy role model, or even if they are upholding or failing to uphold some variety of Christian morality, we forget to see them as the people they are. And to be honest, celebrities have the odds stacked against them in a way we probably won't ever be able to fully understand.
The trappings of celebrity elevates a person to—indeed—God-like status. Look no further than Kanye West's interview with the New York Times for an affirmation of such a belief. He says, "I got the answers, I understand culture, I am the nucleus." Research shows that fame is not unlike being glorified. Except that instead of the glory of God, which is for our benefit and his honor, the glory of a human is bound within our fallen nature, carrying with it an addiction to the glorification complicated by an unfathomable fear and insecurity.
Adding to this, fame isolates an individual, where "larger-than-life persona interferes with the development of desirable relationships." Fame also comes with gifts and symbols of such opulence, gifts like drugs, guns, alcohol, and cars, often the same things that abruptly end these lives-at-the-top. So although celebrities are not excused of responsibility for their actions, the fact remains that their lives are often riddled with temptation, trouble and isolation.
Relative to the lifestyles of the rich and the famous, my life is good. I live within a community that I trust and that trusts me. I have a sweet marriage to a man whose respect for me is only rivaled by his selflessness to me. I get to exist in a quiet corner of this earth and experience a certain kind of richness I assume a celebrity would crave.
Considering my own quiet life against the pressures and temptations of fame, I'd say celebrities don't deserve to be the subject of our casual criticism. By the very inhibition of interpersonal relationships, coupled with a paranoia and distrust of others, celebrities are disadvantaged against community and the maturation and growth that happens within them. By the nature of their status and surroundings, they struggle to form the kinds of personal relationships we take for granted, with intimacy, trust, loyalty, and humility.
And we have made it this way. It's easier for us to impose our belief system and interpret the actions of a celebrity than to actively engage the complex machine our culture has created. It's a machine that fosters a deep well of sadness, loneliness, pride, ego, and vulnerability. Celebrity and celebrity culture are what we collectively make them, and perhaps were we more aware with how we fuel their fame, we wouldn't stand so ready to cast the first stone.
There are two different cultural worlds to engage, the one that matters within our time and context, and the other that is absolutely life or death. We devote our energy to the clothing or the sound bite, and miss the person behind it. But, "this world in it's present form is passing away," and as we "were made from dust... to dust we will return." So when the dust actually does settle, in the form of broken marriages and suicides and car wrecks, any casual criticism looks shortsighted. This world of fame demands our compassion and prayer, not just disappointment and judgment.
I am not advocating for a comprehensive restraint of cultural commentary, nor am I saying that celebrities are above reproach or culpability for their decision-making. Many of these individuals could very well make the same decisions if they weren't famous, and many seem thirsty for the attention that the limelight brings. Still, we need to carry an understanding of the weight of the issues before us, and of the forces that are acting upon a person of fame at any given time. My heart is for the family and loved ones left by celebrities whose lives ended all too soon, people like Heath Ledger, Whitney Houston, Cory Monteith, and of course, Philip Seymour Hoffman.
My burden is for the celebrities who will not know the beauty of an honest and vulnerable marriage, or a loyal and loving community. And I ache for the celebrity that is judged by a sound bite or a poor decision instead of by the quality of their character.
Celebrities do not need our pity, and they also don't need our judgment. They need, as we all do, need to be seen as children of God. And our response to them should be his: compassion, patience, grace, and an understanding that true intimacy, trust, and loyalty are found in the arms of a Savior who desires nothing but for us to flourish within his unfailing love.
Rebecca Parker Payne is a writer, wife, and a baker of pies from Richmond, Virginia where she writes about all things concerning food, faith, community, and place. Occasionally, she tweets, instagrams, and blogs, too.