For people my age, the untimely death of Whitney Houston brought to light the concept that our parents might have actually been teenagers who loved cheesy pop hits. Fans fell in love with her debut album in 1985, and that spotlight hasn’t yet faded, even now weeks after her passing. As with most celebrities, the attention she received was a mix of genuine admiration, bandwagon jumping, and tabloid exploitation. We’re aware that few people were able to know her personally, but can the rest of us claim that we treated her like a person? I believe that the reactions to her death exposed some of the darker attitudes that the individual people that make up our culture have towards popular icons.
One of the most fascinating places to see normal people speaking their brashest opinions without a rational filter at all is on an online forum or comment section. People are as perceptive as they are argumentative at times, and I’m often struck by what I read. The following image comes from a car enthusiast forum, out of a “funny picture” section that I read from time to time:
This image shows the infamous Charlie Sheen supposedly mocking two recently deceased vocalists, Amy Winehouse and Whitney Houston. All three are suspected to be (or have been) heavy substance abusers, and the joke plays on Sheen’s nearly eponymous over-self-confidence and reckless behaviour. Posted only hours after Houston’s reported death, we read the following responses:
- Ouch, too soon.
- That’s what you get for doing coke. No sympathy here. Poor little rich girl popping pills.
- I don’t know why society feel sorry for drug addicts just because they are famous. They are the same as the scum that live under the Gardiner [Expressway], but they are just rich and famous. Nobody would miss a homeless crackwhore.
- any death is tragic, she had a problem.. I wouldn’t throw her under the bus because she died from her addiction (if that’s even true).. she was a pretty amazing performer.
These guys have given us a not-too-uncommon response to Houston’s death; she was a worthless, spoiled celebrity who deserved what came to her. I find the last response interesting for a few reasons. For one, this person comes to Houston’s defence with a pretty common argument: that addiction is a monstrous thing, and any death is tragic. A great start, but then he seems to unintentionally validate the previous poster’s rant, noting that she was a famous performer. If that’s what makes her life valuable, then maybe our rude friend is right – maybe she shouldn’t get more regard than a “homeless crackwhore.” One attitude suggests that even famous addicts are worthless; the other suggests that her merits as a performer give her life value. Both, however, are built around the idea that some people are more valuable than others.
I think some of these attitudes come from a strong, deep sense of frustration with the way our culture idolizes people who turn out to be terribly undeserving in our eyes. We’ve been given all kinds of supposed role models, and we get ourselves interested in the personal lives of all the A-listers, but we miss out on good leadership, and it’s pretty easy to become dismissive or even cynical. The jokes we tell become equal to parody, minus humanity.
I think as Christians, we get that there’s a problem with our culture, but we can’t pinpoint the spot where it truly breaks down, and we feel powerless to change it. That’s where we become reactionary. This can range from relatively innocent Christianized lyrics for music hits (here you’ll find another lively comment section) to hostile anti-war protests. It can be equally damaging, however, to just do nothing. When we feel powerless to change our world, we retreat and blend in.
I have a friend who is looking into shifting from pastoring a church to becoming a chaplain for sports clubs. He was telling me about a meeting he had planned with the former chaplain for an NBA team, and I jokingly quipped, “You’ll have to freshen up on your basketball knowledge.” He replied, “You know what? I think they’d probably prefer I knew nothing about basketball.” He went on to say that he thought that people in the spotlight might want to just be heard and treated like a normal people. Their value as basketball pros is expendable – they can be traded, praised, or berated from one day to the next. But their value as human people, made in the image of God, is unshakably founded in His love and grace. That’s a place where Christians believe everyone desires to be.
I think we should try to stop treating real people like fictional characters. We should mourn the deaths of the Houstons and Winehouses of our time not because of their accomplishments, but because of their humanity and their share in bearing the image of God. The jokes that become taboo only once a person is dead (and often not even then) signify, I think, how little we think of the way a kind of mob-mentality of fanscontributes to the downfall of broken celebrities.
There’s another possibility, and it’s made clear in one of my favourite videos from this past year. It’s a recording of former Hollywood hotshot, party animal, and addict Robert-Downey Jr., advocating for his mentor from that dark time, Mel Gibson, at an awards show. Gibson, who brought us The Passion of The Christ, has battled with public scandal and his own fight with alcoholism since mentoring Downey Jr. back into health and success. As you watch this, don’t think of it as another big, showy Hollywood story in progress, but as a friendship between two mere men.
Downey Jr. is advocating for the renewed favour of industry executives for Gibson, but he might as well be speaking to his deserting fans, too. Grace isn’t something that we have to plead for, the way Downey Jr. does — it’s freely given to us. So let’s freely pass it on in the way we speak, and make jokes, about undeserving strangers, even celebrities.
The mission of Intersection is to help our readers to see how the gospel of Jesus intersects & transforms all of life in a very real way. Our goal is to destroy the false & harmful dichotomy between 'the sacred' & 'the secular' by presenting a wide range of perspectives that focus on different aspects of life in the city. These stories, reflections, observations, & opinions all have one thing in common—the shared conviction that every arena of life can be holy & beautiful when it is lived out in full awareness of the gospel & in full submission to the leadership of Jesus. Although the Intersection team loves, values, & supports all of its contributors, the views expressed in their posts are ultimately their own & may not necessarily reflect the beliefs & values of New City Church.