Monday, September 1, 2014

The (Individual) in the Post-Christian, Celebrity Culture

­The Individual in the Post-Christian, Celebrity Culture

Originally published under "Anonymous" in Charter: Gonzaga University’s Journal of Scholarship and Opinion. No. 1 (Spring 2012): 19-24.

I have a close friend who lives in Canada, who was studying to become a music professor. A year ago his father, who worked in South Korea, disappeared without a trace. The mother hired private investigators to search for the missing father but in vain. My friend had to withdraw from his university to help his mother pay the bills. I don’t know how this crisis will turn out, but it raises the interesting questions that particularly press the modern, technological age, steeped in the celebrity culture: how do visible people become suddenly invisible, and how do invisible people become suddenly visible?

I want to look broadly at that question of visibility, invisibility and relate it to what may be called an authentic life of Christian spirituality. Perhaps one may smirk at that quaint phrase, “authentic life of Christian spirituality,” for the concept seems strangely alien. Even in a place like Marin county, Latinos waiting on sidewalks for work is not so alien; it’s what I have grown up seeing, at least. Rather, an authentic life of Christian spirituality strikes us as alien because as Arthur W. Hunt III noted, “The Christian conscience is fast fading.”[1]

The Christian worldview is fast receding, disappearing like the distant echo of a dark and overbearing past. What is replacing it? When Saints today seem seriously doubtful,[2] what gives color to an otherwise mundane life? Jim Carrey, on his regularly-updated Twitter page, put it pithily: “If future historians look bck 2 the blogs of our day 4 reference material it'll be a piss poor account of who we r. Or is that who we r ?;^\”[3] Or as Adorno and Horkheimer put it in the Dialectic of Enlightenment:

Talented performers belong to the industry long before it displays them; otherwise they would not be so eager to fit in. The attitude of the public, which ostensibly and actually favours [sic] the system of the culture industry, is a part of the system and not an excuse for it.[4]

That is, our culture would not exist without the “our.” We have produced this culture of superficiality,[5] sexism,[6] and materialist consumerism,[7] this culture that the intellectuals complain about (and the corresponding politicians who promise to do something about it but in fact are just as caught up in it as anyone else[8]), this culture in which every daily event of our lives becomes necessary and useless by oodles of social networking,[9] this culture in which we communicate everything and nothing at once, this culture that, for the sake of profit, abandons the so-called humanitarian values and rights that it supposedly champions,[10] this culture that we participate in to startling degrees, on the one hand criticizing its obvious vanity, but on the other hand participating (zealously) in it without a second’s thought. This situation is our reality, and to that extent it must be understood in order (if one wishes) to transcend it.

Francis Schaeffer, the Christian philosopher, predicted, “When the memory of the Christian consensus which gave us freedom within the biblical form is increasingly forgotten, a manipulating authoritarianism will tend to fill the vacuum.”[11] Politically, one may say that this authoritarianism has taken the form of the modern, secular state. Acknowledging truth to that claim, I wish, however, to go deeper, to the psycho-spiritual level. It’s easy to write about a feeling of mass existential aimlessness when one has had little-to-no direct experience with the hopelessness that suffocates the suicidal’s psyche. When one faces that very real question, “What is my purpose, if I have any at all?”—that question that brings us face-to-face with death—then one suddenly sees the mass illusion that constitutes our modern world, especially the celebrity phenomenon.[12] It is, as Carl Raschke observed, “a collective form of transference.”[13] It is a symptom that expresses itself through a fantasy mechanism, where “[f]antasy designates our ‘impossible’ relationship to the person or thing that we most desire.”[14] Hunt stated it this way: “We pour our own meaning into them [media/electronic images] and receive that meaning back,” and “The image exalts itself not only against words but ultimately against the transcendent Word (Logos)” (emphasis original).[15] Jacques Lacan put this dichotomy between seeing and hearing in this way:

The root of the scopic drive is to be found entirely in the subject, in the fact that the subject sees himself […] in his sexual member [….] Whereas making oneself seen is indicated by an arrow that really comes back towards the subject, making oneself heard goes towards the other.[16]

It is the authoritarianism of the narcissistic fantasy, the domination of ego in a world of atomic meaninglessness, the desperate projection of a “unique” mind where only matter is to be found, to be grasped fleetingly, like the latest intrigue or hit song, a jumble of stuff (meaning?) reducible to…. With the displacement of God, the fundamental fantasy of society becomes focused on the celebrity, promising what cannot be fulfilled, brokenness deified, a repetition through symptoms of that existential aimlessness, passed down in a way described so disconcertingly by Philip Larkin in his 1971 poem “This Be The Verse.”

This is the radical question: how can a human being with real, unique dignity disappear or appear so easily and inconsequentially in a world that raises the self to divine heights, that pursues the celebrity status with such desperate vigor? How can one so simply flicker out like a small star disappearing forever in the vast cosmos? I’m not so much asking how this phenomenon is actually possible but rather drawing attention to the shocking fact that it is happening. Consider the photograph collection of Belgian photographer Mishka Henner called No Man’s Land. Putting together a series of photographs through Google Map’s “Street View,” Henner stumbled upon, all across Europe, images of various lonely women by the roadsides… These women are prostitutes, victims of the European sex trade, utterly exposed all day and stripped of their womanhood and any decent dress, their stories unknown, untold, captured by the automatic recording process of the ubiquitous Google street cars.[17] Their faces, as with all faces in the Street View, have been eerily blurred out, further emphasizing their total isolation and anonymity. This phenomenon is possible with and because of our celebrity culture, which imprints its totalitarian stamp on everything[18] and leaves everything else—i.e. whatever is actually valuable but deemed otherwise by the culture machine—“to be discarded after a short while like empty food cans.”[19] The culture that emphasizes the pursuit of fame on a global scale inevitably will and has in fact created and unconsciously (if not consciously) encouraged an entire underworld of hellish slavery, a sub-culture symptomatic of modernity’s gluttonous hedonism and so-called progress. This sub-culture hides behind a very thin veil, and anyone who has eyes to see will indeed see the horrors produced, as a “by-product” (or in other words, as a “waste product”), by this celebrity culture of ours.

Now, obviously the basic cynical response is: “Dude, that’s the world. That’s life. It just happens.” I’m perfectly aware of this type of answer, but obviously that sort of answer is itself a symptom of the terse puerility of the culture machine and lazily encourages the vitality and “virility” of this impotent social state of affairs.[20] It’s the same sort of answer that regards a “facile” musical like Jesus Christ Superstar as “plain-and-simple entertainment,” but the insightful critic, whether approaching the celebrity culture from a political, economic, or psychological angle, never takes the output of the establishment at face value. The self-referential—“joking”—hypocrisy of The Simpsons and the satire of South Park are, similarly, mere cogs that keep the culture machine running while maintaining the passing smug satisfaction of the cynical masses who never go past the superficial.

Even though one must live in the world, there are several ways to be not of it. Perhaps the most repugnant solution to the modern person, even among those who desire to transcend materialist culture, is the authentic life of Christian spirituality mentioned above. Karl Löwith, summarizing Jacob Burckhardt’s view on modern Christianity, wrote,

Primitive and genuine Christianity stands in complete contrast to the standards of the world. […] “The humble surrender of self and the parable of the right and the left cheek are no longer popular.” People want to maintain their social sphere and respectability; they have to work and to make money; hence they cannot but allow the world to interfere in many ways with their traditional religion. “In short, for all their religiosity, people are not disposed to renounce the advantages and benefits of modern culture.[21]

Nietzsche famously had this to say:

You [Christians], however, if your belief makes you blessed then appear to be blessed! Your faces have always been more injurious to your belief than our [atheists] objections have! If these glad tidings of your Bible were written on your faces, you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book. (s.98)[22]

And Marx wrote this:

Does not every moment of your practical life give the lie to your religious theory? Do you think it is unjust to appeal to the courts if somebody cheats you? But the apostle says it is wrong. Do you offer your right cheek if somebody slaps your left cheek, or would you rather start a lawsuit? But the gospels forbid it. Do you not […] grumble about the slightest increase of taxes and become excited at the smallest violation of personal liberty? But it is said unto you that the sufferings of this saeculum do not matter in comparison with the future glory.[23]

Indeed, to any moderately perceptive person, the fact that many so-called “pious” Christians seem to have no grasp of true love is as obvious as the sun that shines. The lukewarm, inauthentic Christian, the “modern Christian” who has lost all conception of the eschaton and the existence of objective good and evil, will either experience true conversion or disappear, according to the terrible prophesy of the Jesuit Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”[24] The Christian conscience, or consciousness, is fast fading, but I propose that it is the development of this consciousness in a person’s psyche that would allow them to transcend the celebrity culture.

The Christian response to the allurements of celebrity culture is quite simple:

Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever [sic].[25]

St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, “But we urge you, beloved, […] to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, […] so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one,”[26] The authentic Christian life is a quiet one, a humble one. In the eyes of the world, the Christian life is boring; that’s why the Romans made a sport out of killing Christians—it turned Christianity into something exciting.

The constant testimony of the mystics was something like this: I experienced a love in my heart so profound that I thought it would burst. This experience was deemed more valuable than anything else even their very lives. The mystics and martyrs bore witness to this same spiritual reality: it towers above the physical.[27] It is the tough work of mysticism that Christians, and all others, shy away from. They sense its power, its reality, and they are afraid. They balk, gawk, snicker, and cry out, “I can’t do that! That’s stupid. I’ll die if I give up [frivolous entertainments, such as certain TV shows, movies, sports, games, gambling, radio, or secular music, sweets and junk foods, soda, sexual promiscuity, coffee, Facebook and other useless forms of social networking, tobacco, habitual alcohol use, drug use, immodest dress, body piercings, useless reading, such as certain magazines, books, and newspapers not necessary for professional purposes, etc.]. Besides, that all sounds like Dark Age Puritanism!”—as if the accusation of Puritanism somehow reduced real spirituality to something confront-able and hence dismissible.[28] And that’s the point: genuine Christianity is uncomfortable; it dis-comforts. It dis-lodges our common perceptions and assumptions.[29] Forget about magick! Real Christianity is dynamite! Nietzsche mentioned the human tendency to spiritual inertia when he remarked,

At bottom, every human being knows very well that he is in this world just once, as something unique, and that no accident, however strange, will throw together a second time into a unity such a curious and diffuse plurality: he knows it, but hides it like a bad conscience why? From fear of his neighbour [sic] who insists on convention and veils himself with it. […] The human being who does not wish to belong to the mass must merely cease being comfortable with himself.[30]

C.S. Lewis also pointed out the awesome quality of authentic Christianity in a stirring passage on the nature of God from his book Miracles:

It is always shocking to meet life where we thought we were alone. ‘Look out!’ we cry, ‘it’s alive’. And therefore this is the very point at which so many draw back—and I would have done so myself if I could—and proceed no further with Christianity. An ‘impersonal God’—well and good. […] A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap—best of all. But God Himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband—that is quite another matter. There comes a moment when the children who have been playing at burglars hush suddenly: was that a real footstep in the hall? […] Supposing we really found [God]? We never meant it to come to that! Worse still, supposing He had found us?[31]

The authentic Christian, who has found herself in God, seeks to disappear while helping everyone around her to find themselves amidst this mass of aimlessness. She no longer needs nor craves to be seen by you or anyone, for she is seen and loved infinitely by God. The authentic Christian’s presence is felt everywhere, yet she is oddly nowhere, just like Christ. The joy radiating from her smile lingers in an empty room somehow, and it affects those present even though she is gone. Her view of the world is refreshing and piercing yet never cynical because it is full of love for those caught up in that world. However, to achieve this sort of spiritual radiance, a transformation so radical must occur that to describe it here would be impossible. All I can say is a short prayer given to me by someone who I believe is an authentic Christian: “Without the grace of your love, Lord, I would have been swept away in the wickedness of this world.” Amen.

[1] Arthur W. Hunt III, “The Image,” Christian Research Journal 25, no. 3 (2003), (accessed Nov. 26, 2011).
[2] MsAntitheist, “Mother Fucking Teresa was definitely NOT A SAINT!” YouTube, (accessed Nov. 27, 2011).
[3] Jim Carrey, “Twitter entry for October 5, 2011,” Twitter,!/JIMCARREY (accessed Nov. 25, 2011). Regarding the emoticon ?;^\, Carrey explains, “?;^} The question mark represents my hair, my natural curiosity, and my desire to be a curiosity ?B^•” (Twitter entry for October 26, 2011).
[4] Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” in The Cultural Studies Reader, ed. Simon During (New York, NY: Routledge, 1999), 33.
[5] Cf. Lucas Cruikshank, “Fred’s YouTube Channel,” YouTube, (accessed Nov. 28, 2011).
[6] Cf. Lisa Belkin, “After Class, Skimpy Equality,” The New York Times, Aug. 26, 2011,; cf. also a response to Belkin’s article: Jillian, “Response to After Class: Skimpy Equality. So…what is being taught?” Words of Wisdom from Worldly Young Women,
[7] Cf. the endless Black Friday horror stories that the media publishes; e.g. “Black Friday Shoppers Pepper-Sprayed in Calif.,” CBS News, Nov. 25, 2011, (accessed 28 Nov. 2011).
[8] The most notorious example in our time is perhaps Silvio Berlusconi. Cf. John Hooper, “Silvio Berlusconi: A Story of Unfulfilled Promises,” The Guardian, Nov. 13, 2011,; cf. also “Profile: Silvio Berlusconi, Ex-Italian Prime Minister,” BBC News Europe, Nov. 12, 2011,
[9] I.e. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, blogs, vlogs, etc.
[10] E.g. Dove, which a few years ago promoted developing awareness of the negative and oppressive effects of the beauty culture on growing women, and Lynx/Axe, which is notorious for its commercials that promote gender-typing and sexism, are both owned by Unilever. The Dove campaign was, of course, launched in response to criticism towards the Axe commercials, but to me it seems that the entire affair is profit driven regardless of what Unilever says. Even the non-profit Foundation for a Better Life is suspect since it received funding from Philip Anschutz (cf. the Forbes profile of Anschutz:, whose other financial investments are not so philanthropic.
[11] Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1984), 23.
[12] Regarding the fact that up until the advent of modernity every Westerner regularly thought about the reality of death—“memento mori”—and whether the individual’s soul was ready to face God, I think a very applicable painting to today’s situation would be Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors. Spend some time looking at the painting yourself without reading an analysis of it. See if you can find the two peculiar oddities that stand out among the wealth of the ambassadors depicted.
[13] Tom Ryan and Carl Raschke, “On Cultural Neuroses, Primal Screams, and the Psychology of Celebrity: An Interview with Carl Raschke,” The Other Journal, Jan. 25, 2011,
[14] Andrew Houston, “Views and Reviews: Celebrity as Fantasy Screen,” Canadian Theatre Review 141 (Jan. 2010), (accessed Nov. 28, 2011).
[15] Hunt, “The Image.”
[16] Jacques Lacan, “The Partial Drive and its Circuit” and “From Love to the Libido” in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis (New York: W. W. Norton, 1981), 194–195.
[17] Mishka Henner, No Man’s Land, Apr. 22, 2011, Mishka Henner / Works website, (accessed Nov. 28, 2011). Cf. also Marco Bohr, “Google Street View and the Politics of Exploitation,” Visual Culture Blog,; and Jesus Diaz, “Murder Captured by Google Street View Car,” Gizmodo, (accessed Nov. 30, 2011).
[18] Consider all the young women, especially those who are anorexic or bulimic, who struggle tragically against each other and society because of the demands of the beauty industry.
[19] Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” 32.
[20] Fantastic examples of this attitude are related to and encouraged by, for example, the Jackass reality show with accompanying movies or Borat: Cultural Learnings [etc.]; cf. Adorno and Horkheimer’s insightful comment here: “The people at the top are no longer so interested in concealing monopoly: as its violence becomes more open, so its power grows. Movies and radio need no longer pretend to be art. The truth that they are just business is made into an ideology in order to justify the rubbish they deliberately produce. They call themselves industries; and when their directors’ incomes are published, any doubt about the social utility of the finished products is removed” (Adorno and Horkheimer, “The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception,” 32).
[21] Karl Löwith, Meaning in History (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago, 1949), 29-30.
[22] Friedrich Nietzsche, Assorted Opinions and Maxims, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, (accessed Nov. 28, 2011).
[23] Löwith, Meaning in History, 46-47.
[24] Cf. Karl Rahner, “The Spirituality of the Church of the Future,” Theological Investigations, vol. XX, trans. Edward Quinn (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1981), 143-53.
[25] 1 John 2:15-17. Translation is the New Revised Standard Version.
[26] 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12.
[27] St. John of the Cross wrote: “Gustato spiritu, desipit omnis caro” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, 2.17.5), which translates roughly to, “Once I taste of the spirit, all carnal things become meaningless” (trans. Raymond L. Richmond, “Entertainment,” ChastitySF, (accessed Nov. 28, 2011)).
[28] I suggest that the accusation of Puritanism often comes from those who are themselves too comfortable. Cf. G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, ch. 6: “The Paradoxes of Christianity” (available online for free; e.g. here: “Suppose we heard an unknown man spoken of by many men. Suppose we were puzzled to hear that some men said he was too tall and some too short; some objected to his fatness, some lamented his leanness; some thought him too dark, and some too fair. One explanation (as has been already admitted) would be that he might be an odd shape. But there is another explanation. He might be the right shape. Outrageously tall men might feel him to be short. Very short men might feel him to be tall. […] Perhaps (in short) this extraordinary thing is really the ordinary thing; at least the normal thing, the centre [sic]. Perhaps, after all, it is Christianity that is sane and all its critics that are mad—in various ways.”
[29] Cf. Peter Kreeft, Jesus-Shock (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2008).
[30] Friedrich Nietzsche, “The Challenge of Every Great Philosophy,” in Schopenhauer as Teacher from Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, ed. Walter Kaufman, (accessed Nov. 28, 2011).
[31] C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1996), 150.

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