Religion and Celebrities: When does a fan become a follower?

Last year I visited the Church of Scientology in London for the first time as part of a university trip. I think it took a total of five minutes after entering the building for one of my friends to whisper to me, “So disappointed Tom Cruise isn’t here”.

You probably already knew that Tom Cruise was a Scientologist. But did you know that Nicole Kidman is a devoted Roman Catholic, and that lead singer of the Killers, Brandon Flowers, is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church)? Maybe not. The way some super fans worship and idolize their favourite celebrities does certainly seem to echo the religious practices witnessed today. In the same way that a devout Catholic might keep paintings or symbols of Christ, a devout Ryan Gosling fan would no doubt keep the same sort of imagery, just in the form of posters in their bedroom.

Pete Ward, the author of ‘Gods Behaving Badly: Celebrity as a “Kind of” Religion’, wrote about the relationship between religion and fame in great detail, and used the image of Michael Jackson performing Earthsong in the 1996 UK Brit Awards to emphasize the intensity fan worship can be: “Jackson was joined on stage by a crowd of people in tattered clothing, and as the song came to a close the singer took off his shirt and his trousers to reveal white robes. Again bathed in light, Jackson stood as if crucified.”

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This powerful language is almost gospel in nature – the image of a pop star blessing his fans in such a ceremonial manner seems ridiculous, but it demonstrates the sheer power fame can have on society. Celebrities like Michael Jackson resonated with many people on what seemed like an almost spiritual level (and his music still does today). His greatest fans did not just admire him, but felt a connection with him, whether it was through his music or simply his unusual persona. The many controversies that surrounded his musical career and personal life made his image all the more captivating.

Of course the idea of celebrity worship is not something new to us. We’ve been using the terms “rock god” and “pop idol” for years now, and we can see from the deaths of John Lennon to Kurt Cobain, the amount of grief people can express for celebrities is almost at times like some kind of religious outburst. The death of Princess Diana was such an immense tragedy for so much of society all over the world that it could have been compared to the death a saint. She was loved by many, but also cursed by fame, which ultimately led to her untimely death. Diana’s death revealed a lot about how our society uses religion as a comforter and a way of bringing people together. Rev Dr David Hilborn said that those who reacted most emotionally to Diana’s death were looking for a “religious reason” for what they were doing. Hilborn believes that such emotional events bring out a “pre-programmed” religious instinct in people.

But is celebrity culture really so powerful that it can actually make us consider faith on a new level? We are all aware of the affect that celebrity culture has on certain people. Ask any One Directioner and they will tell you being a hard core fan-girl is more than just liking someone, it’s about admiring them so much that they become a sort of Messiah in your eyes. You want to like what they like, do what they do as a way of feeling closer to them. Even though they haven’t met them, they feel a certain connection to their favourite celebrity, which is similar to the connection one may feel to a deity. They may not have spoken to this deity, but they nevertheless feel a pull towards them, in a way they cannot easily explain.

However, it could be argued we have not always had this level of worshipping culture surrounding celebrities. Hollywood didn’t realize straight away that selling the personal lives of the most famous actors and musicians would have a huge financial benefit for them. Tabloid magazines, paparazzi and TV news channels all have a lot to gain from our obsession with certain people. It has gotten to the point where we no longer see celebrities as humans, but more as objects to gawk at. When Shia Laboeuf famously wore a bag over his head bearing the phrase “I am not famous anymore” at a film premiere, he said that he was influenced a real desire to withdraw from public attention, and to be seen as a human rather than an object. In the same way that companies use celebrities as a means of funneling their products to the masses, organized religion has also been criticized with using fame to create a more ‘glamorous’ image for themselves. Tom Cruise is a good example of this. He has been essential in promoting the image of Scientology for many years. In his book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief,” author Lawrence Wright wrote about Cruise: “There’s nobody more important in Scientology since L. Ron Hubbard. [Cruise is] the front of Scientology.”

However, being as open about one’s faith as Tom Cruise is can be risky, especially as a celebrity. Having a religion attached to your name can automatically subject you to ridicule and judgment, which you may not previously have been faced with. Lead singer of Mumford and Sons, Marcus Mumford, has commented on how loaded labels such as ‘Christian’ and ‘evangelical’ can be. It was revealed in a Rolling Stone article that Mumford’s parents are the founders and leaders of the U.K. branch of the Vineyard, “an evangelical Christian movement that practices faith healing, emphasizing the power of the Holy Spirit.” The God-themed lyrics of a lot of Mumford and Sons’ songs do call into question just how much is for show and how much is drawn from Mumford’s own religious upbringing. When asked if he would call himself a Christian, Mumford admitted that the word Christian “comes with so much baggage”. This fear is certainly understandable. Any famous entertainer who openly calls him or herself Christian will inevitably face a certain amount of bias from society and even their fans. If they don’t live up to the stereotypical goody-goody Christian lifestyle by refraining from swearing or being seen out drinking, they will be shut down by conservative Christians as well as some liberal non-believers who aren’t satisfied, who might not think being Christian and fun goes together.

Despite the parallels between celebrity and religion, we still don’t immediately think religion when we say celebrity. We have a tendency to forget that celebrities are in fact real people, who also wonder about the meaning of life just like the rest of us. The stereotypes which surround celebrity life – money, scandal, sex – are not exactly things we tend to associate with religion. However, with the increase in social media at an all time high, we are the closest we have ever been to the rich and famous. To be a famous celebrity nowadays means you could be seen by most of the world, and the influence you could have on those people is potentially immense.

Whether it’s Michael Jackson’s biblical imagery in his performances, or the ever-growing number of celebrities joining strange New Religious Movements like Scientology, faith will always be able to connect to celebrity culture in some way, but who knows where our obsession with this lifestyle will eventually lead us.

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