“If there is indeed an instinct to emulate what appears before us, then at present we must be emulating celebrities. Observation confirms the inference. Celebrities are trendsetters. Who first models our hairstyles? Our skirt lengths? Our eyewear? Now this is not itself objectionable. Nor do I protest that so many celebreities, stained by riotous living, are decadent, unworthy of emulation. The problem is more fundamental. It is that celebrities are not heroes – that is, they are, even when upright, too small to do us any good. Celebrities are, as their numbers necessitate, average people. This is why their sins – extramarital affairs, multiple divorces, drinking binges – are so humdrum. They are just like us. But to look at ourselves is to emulate ourselves, which means giving up ‘ought’ for ‘is.’ To look in a mirror does not expand one’s horizons. We need rather to dream, which is what heroes and poets, not celebrities, make us do.
Christopher Lasch is right: celebrities are welcome in the culture of narcissism because the narcissistic individual lacks the courage and imagination to change the self into the not-self; and whereas this is precisely the helpful demand implicitly made by traditional heroes, celebrities are not imperatives. With them there are no surprises, and we can be ourselves – a frightful notion, if one is honest. Celebrities do not encourage the humble thing, which is the reasonable thing: finding our lives by losing them. As Meister Eckhart observed, ‘Those who would be what they ought to be must stop being what they are.’
Where is the sanity in attending to the ordinary when the imperatives upon us – ‘Go the extra mile,’ ‘Do not let the left hand know what the right hand is doing,’ Be perfect in love, even as the heavenly Father is perfect’ – are so extraordinary? The chief objection to Jesus’ moral injunctions has always been that they are too difficult: the Kingdom of God is Utopia. As the Jew in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho remarked, the Gospel teachings are ‘so wonderful and so great that I suspect no one can keep them.’
Leaving for another occasion defense of Jesus’ ever-receding moral ideal, one thing is evident: the pious require models of old-fashioned heroic proportion, and narratives that reveal the possibilities and obligations of being ‘in the law of Christ.’ If democracy, historical criticism, the hermeneutics of suspicion, an exaggerated belief in progress, our doubts about the value of adventure, and the incessant distractions of the mass media take these things from us, then the game is up – we have lost our souls. These dragons that have captured our heroes must be either tamed or slain, so that our moral imaginations can, once again, be pressed down, shaken together, and running over.
Hebrews 11 says this: ‘They conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, received promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.’ We should, against the modern habit, hold these for memories, that they might hold us. Our amnesia should not be for heroes, whose virtues are our sunlight, but for their modern usurpers, who represent the ordinary condition of humanity, which so obviously tends toward sin and sloth and mediocrity. Celebrities do not conquer kingdoms, enforce justice, receive promises, stop the mouths of lions, quench raging fires, escape the edge of the sword, win strength out of weakness, become mighty in war, put enemies to flight. Why exchange gold for pyrite?”
- Dale Allison, The Luminous Dusk