July 7, 2009

A Christian Response to Celebrity Deaths

6 25 09 Bearman Cartoon Michael Jackson Farrah...Image by Bearman2007 via Flickr

I do not spend as much time as I might like reading Christian blogs. I know what you're thinking, but some really fascinating stuff can be found on some of them from time-to-time. I was curious how Christians were reacting to the recent celebrity deaths, and I ran across an interesting post on the subject at DanaPellerin.com. The post was written in late June, so it only mentions Michael Jackson and Farrah Fawcett. In fact, it was written on the day these two died.

Mr. Pellerin comments on how quickly public interest in celebrity deaths turns into anger over how much media coverage is devoted to such deaths. He's absolutely right. I experienced this personally as what started as mild curiosity rapidly turned into frustration and disgust with the media for essentially making these deaths (especially that of Michael Jackson) the only news story for several days. It wasn't that I suddenly turned into a Michael Jackson hater or anything; it was just that the nonstop coverage got old quickly when it came at the expense of every other story.

One part of Mr. Pellerin's post that I found extremely interesting was how surprised he seemed to encounter similar reactions from his fellow Christians.
As I was following the data stream out there on the intertubes, I noticed several rude comments from strangers, but more surprising, from some Christian friends, that implied that following such stories is a waste of time and we shouldn’t be making a big deal about them.
Why would he expect that other Christians would regard such stories as not being newsworthy? His Christian friends were absolutely right to point out that the excessive coverage these stories received was a waste and that other more important news was being neglected. How would the religious beliefs of his friends be expected to change this?
One person started throwing out stats on AIDS deaths as if dying from AIDS is somehow more noble than dying in other ways... One conversation regarding a child dying in a car accident today elicited a response from another who said “i’m glad that you have something worthwhile to pray about now, not Michael Jackson”. Wow. The callousness of these statements, especially those from Christians, amazes me.
Aside from the flawed assumption that being a Christian somehow prevents callousness, Mr. Pellerin seems to be misunderstanding what his friends are likely saying. It seems to me that the message they are trying to impart is simply that people die in unfortunate circumstances every day and are thoroughly ignored by the media. This is a valid point and one which those of us concerned with social justice are often making.
Here’s the deal; Yeah our culture makes a big deal about celebrities. And that’s wrong. It’s wrong to put people on a pedestal and worship them for simply making use of the gifts only God has allowed them to use. But I don’t think it’s wrong to mourn their deaths.
Wrong to make a big deal about celebrities? That sounds a bit simplistic for my tastes, but if we can change "wrong" to something like "inappropriate" or "detrimental to improving the conditions of others," I'll agree. I'll also agree with Mr. Pellerin that worship of other people, regardless of who they are, is absurd. Of course, I'd say the same about worship of mythical creatures like gods, angels, and the like.

But I don't think anyone is saying that it is wrong to mourn the loss of others. At least, I have not heard such a sentiment expressed by atheists or Christians. If Michael Jackson meant a great deal to someone (for whatever reason), it makes sense for such a person to mourn his passing. I have a hard time believing that any of Mr. Pellerin's associates would feel differently.

No, what I expect his colleagues are trying to point out to him is that it bothers them to see the media lavish attention on someone solely because of celebrity while ignoring those who die every day and mean the world to those they have left behind. Perhaps they worry that the level of adulation being heaped on Jackson has started to sound like worship. Then again, they may simply be reacting to a situation that seems unfair.

As Mr. Pellerin suggests, high profile deaths should remind us of our own mortality. But where he insists that we should also be reminded of "our need for a savior," I'd say that what we really need reminding of is our own humanity.

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