There’s something to be said about a theology and pop culture scholar who takes The National Enquirer and Hello! as serious theological conversation partners. This is exactly what Pete Ward does in his book Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion, and Celebrity Culture. While I don’t think Ward is as “daring” as he could be, his book is certainly a provocative and engaging introduction to both the theological and religious implications of celebrity and the study of religion itself.
The strength of Ward’s book, in my opinion, is that he takes seriously an often reviled aspect of pop culture, celebrity. In what seems like a vacuous world, Ward uncovers several important elements that shed light on changes in and expressions of religion in the twenty-first century. Ward doesn’t look at celebrity culture (stars, fans, adoration, etc.) as religion explicitly but rather refers to it as a para-religion (more on this below). I think Ward makes great points about the differences between celebrity culture and religion which shed light on both. However, I almost feel as if he protests too much. Celebrity culture, while never fulfilling every requirement of one specific definition of religion, does parallel with so many aspects of various definitions of religion that it in many ways it seems appropriate to call it a new religion of its own and dismiss with the “para-” or “kind of like” modifiers.
What is sorely lacking from Ward’s work is any sort of research or look into celebrities’ fan bases…where and how they interact (Facebook, message boards, conventions, etc.)…and how this might lend some formality or organizational structure to a culture that, he argues, lacks it. He also fails to consider the ways in which religion frequently fails to live up to its higher standards and becomes just as corrupt, shallow, and money- and image-obsessed as celebrity culture. While he is convinced that meaning-making takes place vis-a-vis celebrity culture, he argues that it is nowhere near as serious as traditional religious meaning making or the work of religious studies scholars. I would argue that this is what is so attractive to so many fans of celebrity culture…it’s ability to be simultaneously serious and silly. Nevertheless, Ward’s observations of the role of celebrities in pop culture and fans’ adoration of them speaks volumes about what it means to be human and, moreover, spiritual and religious in today’s world. Read on for an overview of his book and arguments.
Ward’s discussion of what celebrities do is as compelling as his debate of whether or not celebrity culture is a religion or not. Celebrities do not exist in a vacuum…they are made by both the media and the public. Celebrities stoke a conversation that spreads beyond the latest fashion, who they’re sleeping with, or what box office bomb they starred in. Ward writes, “[…At] root we are being drawn into a conversation about what we do and do not value” (2). He continues, “Celebrities matter not because of who they are but because of what they represent. […] In fact, they mediate a range of possible ways of being human” (3).
The first and most obvious way in which celebrity functions as religion is through the worship of celebrities. Lest we think this is not the worship of some “immortal deity,” consider the continued pilgrimages to Graceland, the endless tributes to Michael Jackson (for gods’ sake one of them is called “The Immortal World Tour”), or the memorial to Princess Diana. In life, as in death, celebrities serve a divine function as Ward writes, “So celebrities are ‘deities’ only to the extent that they are carrying the projected identifications of fans” (14). While Ward claims that this identification lacks formal (read congregational) structure, he fails to examine ways in which groups congregate and participate in shared meaning-making in a digitally-mediated world. Some of this seems to flow from his limiting understanding of social relationships. Ward seems to me like he would be in the “Facebook connections aren’t real connections” camp. He argues that fans’ identifications and relationships with celebrities aren’t really real because the fan and the star have never met. Of course, we have to ask if an evangelical Christian’s “personal relationship with Jesus” is any more real. What social media and changing forms of communication are forcing us to do is to re-define what constitutes real relationship and is already changing the relationships between fans and celebrities.
In the second chapter, Ward talks about the processes by which celebrities are represented to their fans and the world. We know celebrities because of constant media exposure, but we also know that we know celebrities and that they are in fact fabricated. But we still attach meaning to them in the process by the ways in which we view and “interact” with them. Like theological and religious beliefs, these meanings change across times and locations. All of these, while initiated by the media eventually spin out of the media’s control and morph into what fans need or want. As a result, we could see celebrity meaning-making as far more akin to religious meaning making that it might initially appear.
The third section is the crux of Ward’s book in which he stakes his claim that celebrity culture is not religion but a para-religion. In this chapter, he highlights traditional definitions of religion from essentialist, functionalist or phenomenological perspectives from the likes of Durkheim, Geertz, and Eliade (for example) and describes how celebrity culture both parallels and diverges from them. Of the entire book, this is the chapter that would be great reading for introduction to religion courses in both the classroom and the congregation. One of the more interesting scholarly engagements Ward undertakes is with John Caputo who is “examining the possibility of ‘theology’ that is carried in popular culture in a way that is somehow disconnected from formal religious tradition” (77). Here, I hear echoes of Peter Rollins’ latest book, Insurrection.
My frustrations with Ward’s unwillingness to take that small final step and just call celebrity culture a religion aside, there are elements of his para-religion definition that I find interesting and helpful. He writes, “In fact, the treatment of celebrity culture as a religious tradition, or indeed as a replacement for religious tradition, does not simply do a disservice to religion–it may well also run the risk not only of misrepresenting the lived experience of celebrity worship but of failing to see the religious significance of celebrity” (80). Here, he does leave space for fans to speak for themselves and to deny the religious nature of their celebrity worship…although I would imagine many of them would be of the “spiritual but not religious” set. Later, Ward quotes Marcel Cobussen who argues that “para” is a “dangerous prefix,” which defies “rules of identity, stability, and centricity” (80). One wonders if we are not engaged always in “para-theology” in our struggles to talk about the Divine.
If celebrities are in a sense demigods, Ward takes chapter four to explain what kind of gods they are…which again is far more reflective of us than they are of divinity. Celebrities embody what Ward sees as a transition from the traditional transcendental other focus of religion to the contemporary tendency to locate the divine in the sacred self (be that individual or collective). Of course, divine celebrities are graven images, self-centered, fallible, ordinary, diverse (polytheistic), sexy, saints, imperfect, powerless, and the like. Ultimately, Ward writes, “The theological in celebrity culture represents our conflicted and complex self clothed in the metaphors of the divine and reflected back to us. […] Celebrity worship combines the sacred and the profane” (107). While most of these are negative connotations, they do (or should) force us to re-consider the ways we traditionally talk about God or the Divine.
Finally, Ward devotes chapter five to recurring theological themes that surface in celebrity culture. These are familiar: judgement, sin, fall, redemption, heaven, fidelity, apotheosis, incarnation, etc. The most interesting feature, however, might be the act of judging which, implicitly, reveals what we expect from our celebrities (and ourselves) and what we value in contemporary society. Believe it or not, fans’ obsession with celebrities most often, Ward argues, signifies a desire for family and stability. Ward concludes that celebrity culture and religious studies stand apart from studies of film and religion or popular music and religion because it is trashier and therefore generates moral judgement, which is itself a religious or theological act.