How does one shine Catholic clarity on the complex story of Michael Jackson, whose untimely death at the age of 50 monopolized our national conversation, seized control of the 24/7 cable news networks and nearly, at one point, brought down the Internet from the unprecedented deluge of traffic?
The easy -- and wrong -- answer is to simply dismiss the hype and hysteria as obscene indulgence in the cult of celebrity. It very well may be that; but for Catholics, there are other important lessons to explore, too.
The first is to recognize, and give due appreciation to, the need for people to make a spiritual connection to those outside and somehow above the rut of our daily lives.
Of course, it makes a difference whom we choose to "connect" to, or resist connecting to. That point seemed lost in the avalanche of talking head commentary. One professor even opined that Americans probably do just as well or better by pursuing the cult of celebrity as a substitute for traditional religion.
In an interview with USA Today, Emory University's Gary Laderman said: "People draw from that spiritual connection [with celebrities like Jackson] notions of identity, a sense of the sacred, the potential for transformation, a set of moral values, the sense of possibility of transcendence or overcoming the limitations of life."
"They can be just as powerful and can make the same kind of impact -- if not a stronger one [than traditional religion] -- on people's morals and values," he said.
It takes a certain cynicism and relativism to make such claims. Does anyone really think Jackson, as undeniably talented as he was, provides his fans with a worthy model for "transformation" and "moral values"? Consider his apparent desire to remain ever young, a Peter Pan at his 2,800-acre Neverland ranch in California's Santa Barbara County. In a slightly creepy twist on Jesus' injunction to become like little children, he wrote in a 2000 article for a faith website, beliefnet.com, that spending time with his children was a taste of heaven because they, like all children, "are the very form of God's energy and creativity and love. He is to be found in their innocence, experienced in their playfulness."
There are elements of truth here, and that is the real reason for Jackson's appeal: He points, in however distorted a way, to another, happier world.
That aura of being tapped into "otherworldliness" also explains the near-universal popularity of recent Church figures like Pope John Paul II or Mother Teresa -- what we find attractive is their embodiment of a reality that offers joy and meaning to life, even in the midst of suffering. Unlike pop icons who self-destruct through narcissim and addictions, they lived authentically human lives, finding salvation in self-giving. "Connecting" to them through prayer and study can transform us, too.
For Catholics, the most important -- in fact, essential -- spiritual connection to make is with the greatest person to ever walk this earth: Jesus Christ. Not only does he make himself present to us in personal and communal prayer, he is physically present in every Catholic church we pass daily. Do we act like his fans?
The truth is that without consciously focusing on developing connections to saints, both living and dead, we unconsciously will substitute with less edifying fare from pop culture. What are you doing to help promote the Church's own "cult of celebrity" in your life and in those around you?
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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