‘A Star Is Born’ and Our Obsession With Celebrity

‘A Star Is Born’ and Our Obsession With Celebrity

The early reviews of A Star Is Born are in and they’re glowing.

Any movie starring Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga has a decent shot of doing well at the box office. But it’s not like we haven’t seen this movie before – this is the fourth time Hollywood made this film. The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaynor. A few decades later, Judy Garland landed the lead in the 1954 version, followed by Barbara Streisand in 1976.

Why do we keep watching this movie? Maybe it’s because the plot taps into a shared, primal fantasy. We want to be stars. We want to be famous. We want to be celebrated. Of course, most of us – hardly any of us, in fact – will ever be celebrities. Instead, we’re left to reconcile our celebrity obsession with the reality of an unremarkable life.

But an unremarkable life may not be so bad. For thousands of years, people have found spiritual and emotional significance by avoiding fame. In some cases, they have aggressively rejected the celebrity others tried to force on them. Here’s what we can learn from their example.

The psychology behind our desire to be famous

A Star Is Born ticks off all the elements of a great story. But behind the story, there’s psychology – a deep-seated desire for fame.

More than half of those who becomes famous achieve celebrity status before the age of 30. Since the odds of making it big drop with each passing year, a high percentage of young people are willing to sacrifice traditional goals for fame.

In a recent study, a third of millennials said they would rather be famous than become a doctor or lawyer. One in 10 would opt for fame instead of a college degree and one in twelve would abandon or disown their families.

Those statistics probably aren’t unique to millennials. We were all young once and previous generations harbored secret fantasies of becoming the next Joan Baez or George Clooney. Truth be told, on a bad day I still want to be Bono and I’m well past the 30-year cutoff for celebrity.

There’s no single motivation behind our desire for fame. Researchers have found that on the surface, there are three primary reasons why we crave fame:

  • The desire to be seen or valued
  • The desire to live an elite lifestyle
  • The desire to make others proud or help them

But when we dig a little deeper, we discover that our shared yearning for celebrity comes from our shared experiences of injury, humiliation and neglect. Maybe it was a parent with high expectations and a reluctance to offer praise. Or classmates who made us feel like we were never good enough. Or a friend who treated us cruelly.

Whatever the source (and it’s usually more than one), we want fame because we think it will insulate us from harsh realities of our experience. But that’s not how it works. The kindness we expect to find in celebrity never materializes. Actual celebrities are often incredibly wounded and vulnerable people – and their woundedness only gets worse over time because they experience a constant barrage of criticism and nastiness.

In the end, all celebrity really means is that people know who you are. Understanding, appreciation, love, kindness – all the things that motivate us to desire celebrity are illusions.

A spiritual alternative to celebrity

From social media to politics, celebrity culture permeates every nook and cranny of our lives. It’s even found its way into the church. Worship gatherings have become stage shows, pastors have become celebrity wannabes and congregants have become groupies, constantly chasing the next big thing.

In fairness, not all churches or pastors have embraced celebrity culture. But even those who recognize the dangers of celebrity culture talk about it and toy with the idea of incorporating certain elements of it into their worship events and ministries. Celebrity culture has apparently become the new normal in Christianity – a prerequisite for growth in organized religion.

Yet, for thousands of years, spiritual leaders across religions have actively shunned the idea of celebrity and the desire for fame.

  • In the gospels, Jesus routinely walked away from crowds of people – not toward them. And when people randomly discovered his claim as the messiah, he urged them to keep it to themselves.
  • In the fourth century, the desert mothers and fathers – spiritual rock stars who devoted themselves to lives of prayer and asceticism – left the cities because people started viewing them as celebrities. When the crowds followed them to the desert, they migrated to caves or lived on top of poles to escape attention.
  • Born a prince, Siddartha Gautama abandoned the trappings of royalty to live as a mendicant, begging in the streets. Moved by the suffering he saw, he began a spiritual quest that transformed him into the Buddha, or enlightened one.

Saint Francis. Mother Teresa. Gandhi. There are plenty of examples of men and women who sacrificed the pursuit of celebrity as part of a spiritual calling. Ironically, some of them became famous, even during their own lifetimes. But it wasn’t because they pursued fame or even desired it. They became famous because they proved you don’t have to be a celebrity to live a meaningful life.

When it comes down to it, we all want to be celebrated. Appreciation, love and kindness are basic needs that validate us as human beings. They are signs that our lives have value, that somehow the world is a better place because we’re in it.

But the way we find our value is by celebrating others. When we recognize the inherent, God-given worth of everyone we meet, we experience an exchange of the love and appreciation we crave. Through the validation of others and the gifts they bring, we find our own validation as human beings and as children of God.

As a work of fiction, A Star Is Born is a great movie. But it’s also a stark reminder that celebrity culture requires a few winners and a lot of losers. Without millions of everyday people cheering them on, celebrities wouldn’t exist. In God’s universe, there are only winners – and it’s your job to celebrate them all.

The Spiritual Bliss of Doing Things

The Spiritual Bliss of Doing Things

Why do we decide who we are by the things we do?

There’s a spiritual bliss about doing things for their own sake. But getting there isn’t as easy as it sounds.

When you talk to strangers, there’s a good chance they’ll ask what you do. It happened to me last week at the airport and I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s an innocent question that people use to make awkward conversations a little less awful, right?

Maybe not.

Because “what do you do” isn’t the real question. The real question they’re asking is, “Who are you?” In our culture, we have a nasty habit of establishing other people’s personal identities based on the way they put food on their tables.

  • If you heal sick people, you’re a doctor. [Translation: You’re intelligent, emotionally cold and you have a Mercedes parked in the garage.]  
  • If you fix broken toilets, you’re a plumber. [Translation: You’re dull, uncultured and drive a pickup truck.]
  • If you don’t have a job, you’re a bum. [Translation: You’re lazy, loathsome and if you’re lucky enough to own a car, you’re probably living in it.]

For whatever reason, we’re obsessed with putting the people we meet (and ourselves) into tidy, little boxes and we have no qualms about using shortcuts or stereotypes to do it.

Time after time, we decide who we are based on the things we do.

But is it possible that we’ve mucked up the relationship between doing things and being things at the expense of joy and personal fulfillment?

“I want to sing.”

A while back, I ran across an article that discussed the characteristics of teenagers who succeed in reality shows like The Voice or American Idol. I can’t give you a link to the article because I don’t remember where I saw it, but the point of the piece revolved around the difference between being things and doing things.

Singing ability is obviously an important part of the magic formula for young contestants who compete in musical reality shows. But surprisingly, it’s not the most important trait.

In interviews, researchers found that nearly all of the unsuccessful contestants identified “being a singer” as their lifelong goal.

But what about the most successful contestants? They didn’t want to “be” anything. Instead, they said that their dream, their singular goal in life was simply to sing.

Here’s what that means:

The doers (the kids who just want to sing) outperform the strivers (the kids who want to become singers).

It may sound like a minor distinction, but it’s not. It’s actually at the heart of a debate that has haunted Christianity for centuries.

Jesus and the debate about doing things

In Luke 10:38-42, Jesus drops in for a visit at the home of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. If you’re familiar with the passage, you know where I’m headed.

The dutiful sister, Martha, runs around doing things, while Mary slacks off to spend time with Jesus. When Martha finally unloads on her sister, Jesus tells her that Mary has chosen the better part. He says that all of the activities Martha was “doing” fell short of Mary’s decision to simply “be” in his presence:

“Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

On the surface, it looks like a straightforward piece of scripture. But as early as the third century, we find church leaders coopting the passage in the debate between active ministry (Martha) and contemplative ministry (Mary).

In some cases, early church leaders even used the passage to illustrate the difference between law (which they identified with Martha) and gospel (which they identified with Mary).

Unfortunately, it’s an understanding of the passage that has carried into present day. Over the years, I’ve heard too many sermons extol the virtues of Mary the “be-er” at the expense of poor Martha the “doer.”

In practice, the passage has sadly been used to downplay the importance of ministries that serve the poor and marginalized to free up resources and attention to liturgical ministries that take place within the four walls of the church.

But if you read the verses closely, you’ll find that they don’t specify either the kind of work that Martha was doing or “the better part” that Mary has chosen. In fact, it’s difficult to determine what was really going on — aside from the fact that Mary was focused on Jesus while Martha was distracted by other things.

And that’s a shame, because in the western world, we’ve used this passage and our own natural tendencies to reinforce the wrong things and downplay the sheer bliss that comes from simply doing things.

Sometimes doing is the key to happiness.

What drives young reality show contestants to want to be something rather than wanting to do something? I think a lot of it has to do with fame, fortune and the other trappings we associate with the “singer” label.

But I think it also has something to do with the security that we gain from being things. If we can call ourselves something, then we gain comfort from knowing our place in the world. By attaching labels to others, we gain the security of knowing how we stack up against everyone else.

The problem with the whole thing is that it’s an arms war. There are never any winners or losers. Just a constant struggle to move up the ladder by acquiring new labels and new identities.

It’s an insane process performed by people who are driving themselves beyond the edge of insanity for no good reason.

When we drop the need to be something and choose to be satisfied by the sheer act of doing things, we find that the act itself is the reward.

What you do isn’t important. Singing, serving, writing, loving — they all take you to the same place. They allow you to discover happiness and personal fulfillment outside of titles and labels and achievements.

Which — not coincidentally — were all of the things that Jesus refused to attach to himself when he walked on the planet.