Materialism and obsession with celebrity
Regular Network Ipswich and Network Norwich columnist James Knight looks at our modern society with its materialism and obsession with celebrity and how Christian principles can override it.
As the summer approaches I really do sense some magic in the air. The strangeness of ‘now’ feels like no other time in the history of living. It is not always easy to define, but I can sense in this country some of the really wonderful things that God is doing in people’s lives. Precisely why the magic can be sensed in such a way has, I think, much to do with what society has become. Magic sort of wafts through the present reality like the scent of roses wafting through a dusky open window. On the one hand as Christians we have every reason to embrace the world of technology such as the Internet, the mass media, our ability for greater communication, and our prodigious opportunity to travel anywhere on the planet, all of which gives us the perfect platform from which to reach out to the whole world. But there is a price to pay, one that even George Orwell himself failed to predict, the profound threat to human dignity that resulted from this modern way of life - the crude and vulgar exhibitionism to which people subject themselves and the crass ways in which people want to be famous or in the public eye for no other reason than the fact that ‘being famous’ and ‘being rich’ seems to be for many the apotheosis of human ambition. Yet if we are quick to recognise the myopia of much of our generation, we must be equally quick to recognise those in a media-laden world who are so good at taking advantage of people’s myopia.
The ‘world state’ in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World consists of a system where social stability is based on a scientific caste classification, and in this time of reproductive cloning and nanotechnology one might be forgiven for flirting with the idea that many people of today are assuming the role of God for themselves – some even think they can create a ‘Heaven on earth’ way of life. Much of what we see happening now was prefigured in the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, and outside of the church there seems to be no real cognate word for ‘togetherness’ anymore.
To many people the present world is a paradoxical world - a world in which the portentous works of Huxley and Orwell are taking root in a way not wholly expected by either author. That is why I must insist that the dystopic metaphors in the works of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are not misunderstood - in actual fact there are probably more dystopic metaphors (although much more subtle ones) in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (easily the best book ever written about the Spanish Civil War) than there are in the whole of 1984 (one could easily miss the point of the cost of leaving Spain in grave civil unrest and make comparisons with what the so-called ‘leftist revolutionaries’ wished us to do to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan).
The mist of the paradox can disappear over the mountains quicker than you can reach it. If Brave New World was an exemplary caricature of the present (the present of the early thirties) it tells us plenty about our own present. If Huxley’s rather prescient telling of past societies gone by consisting of people learning by methodological conditioning to accept their social destiny, the opposite seems to be happening now; there is a celebrity culture that promises the most ordinary, untalented people fame in return for unfettered access to their lives - it is parasitic and, moreover, an indictment of how those cheering them on live vicariously through others instead of making something of themselves.
If it were ever thought that hedonistic generations would bring about their own downfall and debasement through loss of Judeo-Christian values, morals and spiritual vitality, the present trend might tell us that a kind of god of hedonism has slipped in to rule with a prurient fist (what T.S Eliot referred to as ‘pneumatic bliss’) – it’s all superficial thrills and pleasure without any lasting substance. This, in fact, seems very unsurprising - a quick look in 1 Timothy** should give you some idea what God says the world will be like when the Huxlerian, Orwellian, Burgessian, Powellian world begins to scramble to its feet.
** There is a very good book of 1 Timothy annotations by Philip H. Towner which I recommend.
A man has to be more than a little self-conscious before he can step out of a situation of bad influence, thus one must also draw the distinction between the kind of materialism and daily covetousness that Huxley contemplated with revulsion and the oppressive and restrictive states of governance that Orwell contemplated with revulsion. If much of the present climate is about displacing thoughts of history with a pneumatic utopia fixed on both the present and the inward tendencies of the self, its biggest ally is concomitantly making young men and women gods of their own future. To many who live this way, history will be seen as something which has no practical relevance - the consequences of which will lead them towards an almost total disregard for the future as well. Roughly, if you can’t see it, it has no practical relevance. In the past year alone, I have seen on the Internet, people that say ‘No man is an island’ and think they’re quoting Hemingway rather than Donne; there are people that think Kurt Cobain wrote ‘The Man Who Sold The World’; and there are those who do not realise that when Aldous Huxley spoke of ‘The Doors of Perception’ he was borrowing from William Blake and that ‘Brave New World’ is straight out of Miranda’s speech in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’. The point I am making is that our culture is laden with associate images and opaque references to past things, and perception of great art and authentic talent has been shuffled in with a heart-rending myopia towards all things beautiful and authentic, including, of course, the Bible.
If the majority of people cannot locate in their own minds what true beauty and self-worth really are, how are they supposed to recognise the true beauty of salvation and redemption? When Huxley described himself as an ‘aesthete’ he was undoubtedly referring to the Hellenistic influence - asserting that a judgement about truth should be suspended if it happened to touch the last insane limits of reverence for beauty. Thus Brave New World vicariously approves of such a position; that is to say, we have an open endorsement of aesthetics over objective truth, and this is very much reflected in today’s fame and celebrity culture.
In the sense that this unspeakably ugly way of life masquerades as progression (for there is little beauty in falsehood), it will remain palatable - but all the time you will find yourself using things like ‘stem cell research’ and ‘avarice’ as interchangeable facts about what we are moving towards – this Heaven on earth that many at the top of the scientific caste system are trying to create will naturally become more intensely felt as science progresses, and it will tear the moral fabric even more as people sense better and better opportunities to assume the role of God over their own lives. Even the most fastidious contempt for infidelity will be overlooked in those moments when promiscuity allows one to be servile in front of the god of hedonism; for the culture in which they live makes these demands of them, and their own egocentricity happily allows them to play along if it helps with reputation mongering or confers upon them prestige, status, or kudos – most of which will be hugely undeserved and unjustified. And of course, any criticisms of this are met with scorn and anti-elitist derision; that is, they complain that a worldview which intimates that only talented people should be famous and have the best opportunities is elitist, selective and discriminatory. But this is egalitarianism taken one step too far, for it encourages false hope and yields self-delusion, as any who have seen Pop Idol or The X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent can testify.
We saw with the story of Jade Goody that a certain sort of faux ironic fame emerged via the medium of reality show Big Brother - a fame that had nothing to do with even the remotest vestiges of talent or any degree of likeability, but to her (and others) unerring propensity to lurch towards controversy and discordance every moment she was on camera. The show that, as a one-off, was a novel idea soon turned into a platform for vulgar, salacious and talentless people to make an exhibition of themselves and court lucrative careers in the spotlight. Many examples (such as the broadcasting of Jade Goody being told "You’ve got cancer") are among the most foul examples of human behaviour ever shown on television, yet equal derision must be directed at the millions of people that get their kicks from such vicariousness.
And yet what emerged from Jade Goody’s story were two significant things. In the first place, when all the controversial associations were rife the whole vicarious business reminds us how gross we are and how one way or another we have the potential to feed off suffering and controversy like vultures feed of carrion. Yet in the second place, the cries for public support after news of her terminal cancer was disseminated and the way in which people overlooked her faults and affirmed her as a brave icon had the twofold result of a) our looking through the media clamour and zooming in on her real and genuine emotional humanity, and b) being faced with the stark realities of death and mortality at the height of fame and fortune – a reminder, should one be required, that whatever peaks one reaches, be they fame fortune or fan-base adulation, these things can be lost in a matter of moments (as this week’s death of Michael Jackson has shown)– a true fact that lies right at the heart of the Christian message. The two are almost diametrically opposed; courting Big Brother or X Factor celebrity status involves for most a voracious desire to be popular and admired and to be like one’s heroes on television and in magazines – its very essence is about wanting to be like someone else. Christianity is the opposite – its essence lies in realising that each one of us is specially created by God – in His image – being proud of who we are, and delighting in the fact that it is through a relationship with Him that we can change, because the glory belongs to Him not to us.
If Huxley was composing Brave New World at a time when modernity was beginning to commingle with the dust, we are now in a time when the dust has begun to settle - the god of vicariousness and hedonism wants to sweep it away so one barely notices it, the same is true of the quasi-omnipotent industries, and the masochistic parts of people want to let them. I said at the beginning that I think there is magic in the air and of course I haven’t changed my mind in five minutes. The saving grace is this; anyone who has ever been ensnared by this superficial dream of stardom and status-grabbing knows deep down the futility with which it is afflicted; the pneumatic utopia is not all that it promises. It has the power but not the resources to design and control humans from the cradle to the grave; for if a man has no concept outside of his immediate concerns he has no way of recognising alienation - he has no way of knowing how far he has been cut off from the magic, and thus his chances of recognising the glorious news of eternal salvation through Christ will be blinded by clouds of transient fog. His impassioned search for genuine emotions that he can savour is enough to keep him enthralled in the transitory; in that sense none of us are impervious to the dystopian metaphors found in the works of Huxley and Orwell – we all have the potential to be ensnared if we do not the court the best things for us.
The culture of the transitory will cause those it ensnares to be quite protective of it; that is, they will soon attack those who tell them that the preservation of their own contentment is only found in things related to the deeper mysteries of the Heavenly. In this sense, I think Brave New World had great prescience but at the same time it overlooked our own awareness of what we really are and deep down know ourselves to be - our knowledge of the inner-desire to escape the habitual self for some greater magic, and our awe for the transcendent (Ecclesiastes 3:11 – God has set eternity in the hearts of men). It is here that Huxley and I would depart, for I do not think he is right to suggest that we need any encouragement from the ruling bodies or the overbearing media to search for our own propensity for avarice and covetousness. On this point I find that I agree with Karl Marx, or at least what he said about capitalists I can attribute capitalist preferences to a sub-division of a bigger need - I’m not quoting him verbatim, but the gist of what he said is that regarding his victims, the capitalist looks for all possible ways of stimulating them to be consumers by making his commodities more attractive and by filling their ears with murmurs of new needs.
Now doubtless this will lead to increased pressure for new commodities and fresh innovations - it will breed competitiveness, but it will also arouse discontent with the status quo. But one would be wise to think of it as a sub-division of an even more controlling impulse to depart from its thrall - the allure of the magic; the magic of being free. Lust for escaping the status quo should really be, in the wise and healthy person, manifesting itself as an escape from the tendentious self to the self that looks for the deeper meaning in life - an ascension to the magic and a recognition of the transcendent. Instead in these fanciful circles of pneumatic utopia the gravitational pull is able to suggest people into submission - into finding all the thrills and spills of the transitory.
If the strategy of those who can rule the mind is to show the allure of the transitory while at the same time invoking an impassioned longing for that which is coming next with the demand made by the domineering influences, the mandatory litmus test is going to be how quickly we can come to realise our need to escape this circularity - how attuned we can be to the real needs of the self while at the same time catching a good strong whiff of what ‘the world’ is doing to human beings. We are all cartographers when it comes to utopia - we draw our own maps and hope to navigate to somewhere better; but like the proverbial fork in the road, one way will lead to the real utopia (God’s way) and one will lead to nothing more than pseudo-contentment (the Devil’s way) until the mask of deceit comes off.
The reality is very simple; much of it depends on how clear our thinking is, how much we want to know the truth, and whether we are tenacious enough to pursue clarity and leave behind the tendentious self. Whichever choices we make on the outside, the ‘doors of perception’ always look the same. Our fluctuation during this time will present us with God and no God; we will see the universe both deterministically and randomly; we will find comfort in suffering but also pain and unrest; we will see creation as nothing more than the result of irrational laws and we will see it governed by a force of omniscience and benevolence. We can make most things real to the self if we do not wish to know the truth - it is easy to become narcoleptic when reason demands that we stay awake. But the truth is stronger than all of us - not because its force is thrusting us forwards (it often follows us very subtly) - but because it will not let us down in the same way that falsehood will.
I know only too well that before I became a Christian, stabs of joy were like faint echoes from beyond the glorious background melody, a humbling call from the deep mysteries of living – a call for all the prodigal sons and daughters to come home to the One who loves them and can offer them extrication from this overbearing earthliness. It was St Augustine who famously professed, "Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." How true that is for any man or woman who can proclaim Jesus as Lord or their life.
The terror, however, is that people will embrace these modern day Orwellian and Huxlerian dystopianisms – that the allure of the transitory may, for some, be enough of a thrill for them to remain wilfully prodigal. This blissful preoccupation with the present and the kinship with the god of hedonism that many young people have created for themselves perhaps have a greater appeal to our masochistic nature than either Huxley or Orwell ever realised. That is to say, the way that one knows deep down the real sinfulness of the self can, when opportunities for distinction come along, manifest itself as a masochistic form of self-indulgence. You see it happening with so many people nowadays in the bubblegum celebrity culture – they are only there because they think there is nothing better for them; they do not believe the hype about themselves, peddled by venal and manipulative agents and publicists and promoters, and seem rather embarrassed by the fan base adoration. Desire for idolisation is a form of masochism, so is the desire ‘to’ idolise, for I do not believe ordinary men and women belong on pedestals. Consequently the culture of image and status and celebrity kudos, when sought for the wrong reasons, amounts to little more than a capitulation – an admission that that is the very best that one thinks of oneself – the highest plane that one imagines oneself reaching.
If you want to know what I think this greater appeal to our masochistic nature is really like, a simple backward glance into your childhood should tell you. Do you remember when you were young and you spent some time diligently constructing the most palatial of sandcastles on the beach? No detail was left to the imagination - the stones made up doors and windows, a drawbridge was carefully designed, flags were placed on top, and a bucket of sea water carefully made up the moat after you dug it out - you get the idea. At the end of the day you watched as the tide came in and submerged the castle you had spent so long building. There was no equivalence between the building and the destruction; for the latter took no time in comparison to your efforts in constructing it. The brief few minutes that the sea was destroying your castle brought to your mind a strange sense of satisfaction - it’s a shame all that work is soon going to be a thing of the past - but better to watch the sea destroy it than never watch its destruction. The thrall and allure of the hedonistic way of life over something more deep and meaningful is synonymous with that feeling - that is our attempt to witness the sea finish off our sandcastle; that is the masochistic element in our make-up; that is our propensity for erraticism - the surplus value of devotion, the bits we add on that will steer us off course and turn themselves into gods if we let them.
But all who know Christ know that better things lie in Him. He provides a panacea that the false and misleading world of ‘pneumatic bliss’ can never endow us with. Clarity will come for those who realise that our deepest insecurities are not really inadequacies regarding lack of success or lack of iconic status; our deepest insecurities emanate from those hints of the magic – the most daunting thing - fear is not our darkness but our stupendous potential for light. Given that we were created to have a relationship with God Almighty, and called to be world-changers – a light to the world - it is hardly surprising that we are coy about our potential, we are, after all, made in God’s image, and I suppose that is quite a perturbing reality to face, particularly when we are not feeling up to the challenge, and seek solace in the easier ways of life. We were all created to shine as individuals, but also to receive the shining light of God’s love. Sadly the present way of living is, for many, not conducive to this realisation; for almost every facet of the restrictive Orwellian states, and the correlative culture of courting fame and power and exposure with tawdry exhibitionism, is inimical to sound Christian principles.
As Christians we would be wise to use the current world of Internet technology, widespread potential for communication, the mass media, and our prodigious opportunity to make ourselves known anywhere on the planet, as motivation and encouragement in spreading the good news and being more like a city on a hill. The semi-Orwellian world can be used to our advantage in propagating the great news we have to share. Let us join together in making sure that the light of Christianity reaches every dark corner of our world.
The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Ipswich, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. You can also contact the author direct at firstname.lastname@example.org
James is a Norwich local government officer, author and Proclaimers church member in Norwich.