“Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.”
-The Apostle Paul, ca. 50 AD
“Every lament is a love song. Will love songs one day no longer be laments?”
It’s been completely impossible to ignore the media frenzy and hype surrounding the recent death of pop sensation Michael Jackson. Even as a young man he had a profound influence on the music world, and videos such as “Thriller” changed the way an entire generation consumed music and media. He was a man of great influence as well as controversy, and the recent coverage has only illumined the public’s fascination with celebrity culture.
This post does not focus on his career, his death or even what comes after (shamefully, there are far too many writers out there arguing over Michael’s spiritual state – a subject from which I will refrain from uninformed and unkind speculation). Rather, this post seeks to address two things: (1) America’s fascination with celebrities and (2) the way people deal with the subject of death.
Cult of Celebrity
With the passing of Michael Jackson, a nation once so quick to mock him now turns their hearts to mourning. America has an undeniable sense of fascination with celebrities. Why? Because these individuals offer a sense of significance, even if only vicarious. People have an innate spiritual need for identity, and often this identity is shaped through the identities of famous figures. Thus, the “cult of celebrity” becomes a powerful influence in the lives of so many. Gary Laderman of Emory University observes this same phenomenon:
“When you look around and see how people invest in these [celebrity] idols—and I’m using a broad understanding of investment—it’s also a spiritual investment. It’s more than just material, or financial. People draw from that spiritual connection 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. Whether in traditional religion or pop culture, you find the same kind of motivation, the same kind of meaning-making, through celebrity.” [usatoday.com, 6/26/09]
It is little wonder, then, that the passing of these icons (very much spiritual gurus in their own right – whether intentionally or otherwise) leaves such a wound in the hearts of so many. Michael Jackson’s influence has been so far-reaching as to leave many with a profound sense of loss, and I suspect that for many, though never having even met him, feel a real sense that a piece of themselves is missing as well.
This sense of loss is only exacerbated by the inability of modern culture to deal with the grim subject of death. This has a variety of causes, not least of which is the loss of influence of the church in matters of everyday life. Where once the church offered spiritual answers to these deep issues, now people are turning elsewhere for answers. The apostle Paul tells us that there are those who grieve “as those who have no hope” (1 Thess 4:3). “Hopeless grief” doesn’t just mean despair and sadness. For a society looking for answers, hopelessness can often manifest itself in the absurd, and the surreal.
The phrase “designer funeral” is just what it sounds like. For the right price, the family of the deceased can have professionals design a “theme” for their loved one’s funeral, ranging from western rodeo themes, hobbies such as hunting and fishing, to sports memorabilia. Columnist Gina Gallo writes of this absurdity, describing a “gaming theme” funeral:
“For a nominal deposit and low monthly payments, a ‘gaming theme’ funeral offers authentic slot machines discreetly positioned around the neon-lit casket, gambling chips the size of manhole covers, and a jumbo deck of cards in lieu of a flower spray covering the deceased. Instead of folding chairs, jumbo dice scattered about the viewing parlor will serve as ottomans, cocktail tables or the perfect surface for a memorial craps game….Bartenders and cocktail waitresses can be provided for a small additional fee, but the wake has a stringently enforced three-day limit. Anything longer, and the guest of honor tends to get a little gamey–and not the gambling variety. As the song goes, ‘you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.’”
Everything about this is weird. Here’s what’s even weirder (and stop me if you’ve heard this one before): in Dallas, right on route 75, there sits a store called “The Casket Store.” I know this because the bright red neon letters are hard to miss. What does one do in a casket store? I mean, do you try them on? Take them for a test drive? Go in the back where a guy with slicked-back hair leans over a cheap metal desk and asks you, “So what’s it going to take to get you in one of these today?” Of course, it gets better: right next door to The Casket Store, literally in the same shopping complex is a store called “Boxes to Go.” So if one can’t afford the prices of The Casket Store, there is a lower-cost alternative (though I hear bubble wrap is extra).
What’s more is that I’m told that you can rent caskets. Rent them. As in, bringing them back. I suppose that if you had need of a casket, and suddenly found yourself not needing a casket, you’ve got better things to do than worry about returning it. But I’m told that people often rent them for parties (what???), usually for Halloween – and often put cases of beer in them.
Even Michael Jackson’s memorial service – however well-intended – became a garish spectacle at the hands of a consumer-driven nation, with tickets showing up on Ebay at prices in the thousands.
All joking aside, these and similar trends all serve to suggest the ways that people attempt to domesticate death. To turn something frightening into something manageable, even trivial. And so from designer funerals to Tim Burton films, death is given a stylish veneer that seeks to mask its true violence.
Leaving Eden’s Wasteland
But against this cult of celebrity, against the fears and jeers of death and dying, the church breathes the word “eschatology.” Eschatology refers to the study of “last things,” something of a misnomer. To speak of eschatology is not merely to speak of the end, but also the new beginning. That there will be a day when the Savior returns from “a distant country” (Lk 19:12), prepared to restore humanity and all creation to its original splendor. N. T. Wright calls resurrection “life after life after death.” “In my end is my beginning,” writes T. S. Elliot, and nothing could be more true. It is in eschatology that we are promised that death need not have the final word, but rather we are instilled with the hope of future resurrection.
We may therefore shrug off the confines of the cult of celebrity, confident as “sons of the light and sons of the day” (1 Thess 5:5). Our identity is found not in Eden’s present wasteland, but our hope is found on the horizon which stretches out before us, a distant light that beckons us home.
Celebrity culture, designer funerals. These things mean little in light of the value and vitality of true hope. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says it this way:
“We are paying more attention to dying than to death. We are more concerned to overcome the act of dying than to overcome death. Socrates mastered the art of dying; Christ overcame death as the ‘last enemy.’ There is a real difference between the two things; the one is within the scope of human possibilities, the other means resurrection. It is not from ars moriendi, the art of dying, but the resurrection of Christ, that a new and purifying wind can blow through our present world…If a few people believed that and acted on it in their daily lives, a great deal would be changed.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 132)
The cross of Christ, having shattered the “last enemy,” offers us the promise that by placing faith in Him, we need never fear an inglorious end. The good news of Jesus Christ stands beyond the cult of celebrity and the fear of death, and compels us to follow Him toward that “lasting city” (Heb 13:14). My prayer for you is that even amidst the shifting sands of American culture, that Christ would be vividly real to you in a way that impels you to follow Him in this life, even as you trust in His grace for the life that is to come.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,…
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.