A couple of Sundays ago, page two of the Providence Journal featured photographs of seven personalities highlighted during the week.
Bruce Springsteen was being introduced to President-elect Obama’s young daughter. Singer Amy Winehouse was pictured on the day her husband was released from prison. Rapper Diddy Combs was seen exiting a poll booth. New James Bond actor Daniel Craig spoke from a red carpet. Musician Pete Wentz boasted that he too had voted. Another actor was shown at a political rally. Leonardo DiCaprio arrived for a London premier. Seven pictures, seven celebrities, seven entertainment personalities.
Apparently no firefighter rescued an old lady from a burning house that week. No policeman stymied a bank robber. No one arrested a terrorist in Afghanistan. No surgeon saved a mangled limb in Iraq. No businessman secured a contract that would guarantee jobs for scores of workers.
What is this cult of celebrity, this obsession with entertainers, this preoccupation with music, movie and major league stars? James Bowman, in his book “Honor, A History,” observes that formerly heroes were precisely those persons who were uniquely different from the average person: Teddy Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill; Charles Lindbergh flying solo to Paris; Gertrude Ederle swimming the English Channel; Marines and a Navy man planting the flag on Iwo Jima; Dr. Jonas Salk discovering polio vaccine; astronauts landing on the moon.
Nowadays heroes have sadly been forsaken for celebrities. And today’s celebrities must strive to show that they are the same as everybody else. Consider the recent presidential campaign. John McCain was already a hero by his endurance in Vietnam. Hilary Clinton undeniably waged a heroic campaign to become the first serious woman candidate for president. President-elect Obama was equally heroic in his successful campaign as America’s first black president. Sara Palin was a hero to some for her undaunted embrace of family life. Yet all of these heroic persons felt compelled to bring themselves down to earth by joking late at night with Leno and Letterman, by pouring their hearts out to Oprah Winfrey, or, gasp, allowing themselves to be ridiculed on Saturday Night Live. God forbid that there should be any pedestals in the 21st century.
Although government is not without its scandals, these politicians are certainly not the worst manifestation of lowered expectations in today’s society. The entertainment industry unquestionably merits that award and apparently thrives on the squalid attention accorded its excesses. Casual sex, addictive drugs, alcohol, multiple divorces, cohabitation, rehab, excessive wealth, exhibitionism, overdosing — very often joined to obvious talent — have not been the qualities that previous generations have sought in their heroes. Only the truly modern fan could reflect on celebrity suicides by singing, “… Hendrix and Joplin – my whole world is topplin.’”
Contemporary society makes a great mistake in denying pedestals to its genuine heroes. To insist that great people are no different from the rest of mankind is to refuse greatness to them and also to preclude greatness for ourselves. Recall that Ignatius Loyola was converted reading the lives of heroic saints. Horatio Alger inspired the first decades of the last century with his tales of commercial success through hard work. “It’s A Wonderful Life” continues its annual holiday cheer by its portrayal of perseverance under pressure. This willingness of earlier generations to be inspired by heroism is dismissed nowadays as naiveté. All heroes are expected to have clay feet and Achilles’ heels. Modern man cannot accept greatness in others and thus dispenses himself from greatness in his own life.
John the Baptist was the last hero of the Old Testament. He was indeed a celebrity: “People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him.” John was also heroic in his discipline: “John was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He fed on locusts and wild honey.” And he was certainly heroic in his humble dedication to Christ. “One mightier than I is coming after me. I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.” Society needs heroes. The Church needs heroes. True heroes summon men beyond themselves, affirming the strength of the human spirit and the effectiveness of God’s grace.