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Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Junkie and the Star - Cult of Celebrity

I confess I have been losing my patience with the cult of celebrity more and more lately. Yet, if there is a national religion in America it is not, as the fundamentalist Christians insist, Christianity but rather celebrity worship.

I've long thought it curious that many artists are more famous after they die, especially if their deaths are untimely. Elvis Presley had faded into obscurity prior to his return with a fat, bloated, drug addicted corpus in 1968. He lasted eight more years until finally succumbing to his addiction and shifting in the public perception from a pathetic has been to an icon as the curtain came down on his life in his bathroom. Jimi Hendricks, Jim Morrison, Marilyn Monroe, Kurt Cobain, and countless others were all stars with varying levels of talent before their deaths, and they all saw a rise in popularity to icon status after their untimely deaths. For some reason you get a better bump in popularity if you die of suicide and/or overdose. Mama Cass' death choking on a sandwich didn't really make her immortal, and Stevie Ray Vaughn's death in a helicopter accident didn't give him the same jump that Kurt Cobain (a much less talented musician) got for blowing his head off. There seems to be something in the American psyche that loves self-destructive celebrity in a special way.

And so Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead due to 'acute mixed drug intoxication, including heroin, cocaine, benzodiazepines and amphetamine.' I suppose this means we can't just blame heroin dealers any more. Clearly we are left with a picture of someone who wanted to die, whether that day or a day in the not too distant future. That is sad, that is tragic, and that is a sign of an illness process aided by way too much money to be survivable. What ticks me off, what chaps my hide, what gets my goat is that somewhere in the hood of every major city there was somebody who died of an overdose - probably not quite as elaborate as Hoffman's, those other people lacking the money to purchase the equivalent of an armory of narcotics - that same week and nobody really gave a rat's ass because that person wasn't a celebrity junkie, they were just a junkie. In fact, I guarantee that somebody reading that last sentence won't like that I characterized Hoffman as a junkie, but that's what he was.

What does this have to do with The Buddhist Christian? Everything. You see, in terms of Buddhism both Mr. Hoffman and the unnamed junkies overdosing in the 'hood have Buddha Nature. In terms of Christianity they are both children of God, both have what I call God Nature because they are created of God AND because when we couldn't get that through our thick skulls Jesus came in the hopes that we might understand that the Incarnation meant that the entire of the created order is good. What all of that means is that the value of Philip Seymour Hoffman and all those other people not special enough to be known by three names but in all likelihood known only by one name (and that one not their real name) have precisely the same value. We all do.

The American religion tries to tell us otherwise, tries to tell us that if we are to have value we must be famous - and not just famous, but a celebrity. We must be an actor, a singer, a comic, a dancer, or an athlete and if we aren't we just don't matter. If we aren't our death doesn't get announced on the evening news or if it does our name probably isn't said - and if it is said only our friends and family will remember it five minutes later. That American religion leads three hundred sixteen million people to push to be what only a few thousand will ever be, and when we realize we have failed we are consigned to at best second class status. All hope is gone. At best we can wallow in our insignificance and live vicariously through those relative few who get to be celebrities, who get to buy the good drugs, who get to die of an overdose in a nice joint rather than in an abandoned house - as if one was less dead than the other.

For our children's sake, we need to take the cult of celebrity apart right now. We need to stop buying the tabloid magazines, stop watching TMZ, stop caring whether John Mayer and Katy Perry really broke up, and take the time we are wasting on the cult of celebrity and spend it paying attention to our children and help them, with us, to walk an authentic spiritual path that reassures us all of the value of every human being. We need to stop living vicariously and start actually living. It will be scary at first, but not nearly as scary as the prospect of being discovered dead with a needle hanging out of our arm and nobody to care.

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