Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Idolatry

I am currently reading Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. I happened upon a remarkable quote. I share it with you to as a symbol of how our culture has been transformed in the last century. It might actually be impossible for anyone born in America to think this thought again. Not long after we become aware of the world outside our own small sphere of influence, we are exposed to the celebrity of actors and actresses. Can you imagine a world that did not celebrate the likes of Brad Pitt or Kate Winslet? Can you imagine a magazine rack without Entertainment Weekly, People, or TV Guide? It is difficult, is it not? It may not be altogether undesirable thought, but it is surely a difficult one to imagine. Enter Oscar Wilde:

"As a rule, people who act lead the most commonplace lives. They are good husbands, or faithful wives, or something tedious. You know what I mean—middle-class virtue and all that kind of thing."

Preposterous, is it not? The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1890. Now is it not difficult to imagine Brad Pitt or Kate Winslet as possessing middle class virtue—living modestly because their incomes were modest?

Surely it is obvious to us all that the advent of film, television, and now the Internet has transformed our perception of actors and actresses. The craft of acting had once been limited by time and space to one theater and one relatively small audience. Each performance of Hamlet was once by definition a new one. One audience would see one performance of it and a new audience would see a new performance of it the following night. The actor would have to repeat the performance over and over in order to continue to be paid. The nature of local theater made acting a modest endeavor. Of course there have been exceptions to this rule, but it is not difficult to see how a small audience would provide for small income for actors.

What kind of fool would pay an actor for a performance of Hamlet the previous night's performance? That is the sort of bargain we routinely make with actors these days. The actor now plays a part once, and receives payment for it for months and years worth of performances in theaters and DVD players across the globe. This new means of distribution established a market for celebrity actors and actresses. As a result the local theater would be all but extinct were it not subsidized by local and federal governments.

As I said, this is obvious. What is not obvious is how this has transformed our culture. I've recently written on idolatry after interacting with Thomas de Zengotita's article Culture as Anesthetic. Idolatry, as I said is "our fundamental sin." Has it ever occurred to you that we have applauded Hollywood for giving us new gods to worship in our pantheon? The theater has become holy, each actor a god, each actress a goddess. We receive a new god with great fanfare—a messianic reception. We sit in awe and reverence as we are invited to join our gods on Olympus for the Academy Awards and celebrity specials where the gods gather to applaud one another and encourage their faithful in the faith. And we receive their ethical exhortations on matters like environmentalism, war, poverty, and morality with gratefulness.

What are the stories and ideas that give meaning and shape to your life? Who is it that you emulate, imitate, and hope to be like? When is the last time you have been as moved by an experience with God as you were with the last movie you watched?

One might object that it is not fair to argue in this manner, for of course one can watch a film or TV show without worshipping an idol. This is true. Yet, ponder this: Dictionary.com defines idolatry as "excessive or blind adoration, reverence, or devotion." This is a helpful start to define the term—particularly for my purposes here. What are those things that are central to one's life? How much time does one devote to the pursuit of honoring, adoring, or loving the pantheon of gods that Hollywood has given us? How many hours have you spent in your lifetime watching television and movies compared to worshipping the god you say you believe in? I am ashamed to answer myself, for I know that the balance in my life is rather one-sided.

It is easy for us to define idolatry in such a way that we become innocent of it. We are in great peril when we think this way. Let us be ever vigilant of idolatry and seek it out that we may purge ourselves of it.

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