Spirituality, politics, and fame; the saint, the sovereign, and the celebrity. At first glance, those seem like clearly separate categories, just as surely as Hillary Clinton, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Beyoncé have very different roles in society. However, upon closer inspection, one will surely find examples where there are similarities and points of overlap at least in two if not all three categories. For instance, although Barack Obama does not exhibit much spiritual authority, his appeal to the world of celebrity played an integral role in his election and reelection as president of the United States. Similarly, a Catholic cardinal generally is not celebrated as a celebrity, but there is a good chance that he gets involved in political issues (e.g., women’s reproductive rights). An even better example might be an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. In that case, the power, charisma, knowledge, and influence involved in politics, spirituality, and fame all exist in one person. There are many other examples, but in what follows, I want to focus only on one: Jesus Christ, specifically with reference to the depiction of Jesus in two musicals, one that is well-known (Jesus Christ Superstar) and one currently in development (Spears: The Gospel According to Britney).
I suppose some people might find it unduly irreverent or maybe even blasphemous to associate someone like Jesus with the world of celebrity, with its superficial and licentious values. Why would they find it offensive? Would they prefer it if they could prevent the impure values of celebrity from contaminating the otherwise pure message of love that was the focal point of Jesus’ preaching? Things are not so simple though.
Religion, politics, and all human interactions are conditioned by the dynamics of fame. From Latin, fama (rumor, reputation, and renown), fame involves a mixture of information and noise (rumorem) that comprises repeated practices or repeated communication, like the telephone game: the more a phrase is repeated, the more it is translated and transformed. That is the double-edged sword of fame, and it cuts through all modes of communication, whether oral, print, or electronic. There is no truth that can be communicated without some change or distortion to the original.
While the cult of celebrity delights in rumors, hearsay, and opinion pieces, some believers and scholars seek the certainty of Truth. Fundamentalists as well as people obsessed with “the historical Jesus” share a desire for a Jesus purified of the superficialities of superstardom. They want access to the real Jesus underneath the distorted repetitions and multiple interpretations, not entirely unlike stalkers who desire access to the real celebrities underneath their repeated media images. Living with the dynamics of fame, we should be critical of any desire for simple solutions and the certainty of unmediated contact.
To be human is to be immersed in a world of celebrity, a crowded and populous (celeber) world where some names are mentioned more than others, some practices more regularly repeated, some places more highly frequented. Along these lines, Jesus is undoubtedly a celebrity. His success in spreading a theologico-political message of love and the forgiveness of debts means that his name, ideas, and practices were and continue to be repeated: name recognition, renown, reputation, fame. Long before the Nike swoosh or the Apple apple, Jesus – the logos (“Word”) of God – was one of the original logos. Jesus is a globally recognizable brand. He is his own business, like Jay-Z: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man” (from the remix to Kanye West’s “Diamonds of Sierra Leone”).
The life of Jesus is not just that of a spiritual person practicing love and not just that of a political revolutionary fighting Roman imperialism, but also that of a famous person – a superstar. That point is expressed in the 1970s rock opera and Broadway musical Jesus Christ Superstar. In that musical, the story of Jesus is told as one wherein the tasks of attaining spiritual fulfilment and political emancipation are entangled with the dynamics of fame, such that the ultimate truth of Jesus is highly discussed yet uncertain, circulating with rumor. Is he really our savior, the Messiah? Does anybody know? A line of the chorus in the title song raises the question: “Jesus Christ Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Moreover, the question is not whether Jesus “really” is the Messiah. The question is whether Jesus thinks (not knows) he is, as if his superstardom has so saturated his message with rumors and opinions that not even Jesus himself could know the truth. Even if Jesus says that he’s God incarnate, that is just what he thinks, one drop of opinion in an ocean of rumor.
Is everything that Jesus taught about his theologico-political message of love and forgiveness ruined or somehow compromised by his superstardom? Or does that juxtaposition indicate not the ruination but the fulfillment of that message? In other words, do the fake and frivolous facets of fame prevent us from performing authentic acts of love, or could it be that the superficial shine of superstardom spreads positive messages and empowers acts of love? Another way to ask this question would be to inquire whether Jesus’ message could be authentically expressed by using the messages of a contemporary pop star. For example, consider the music of Britney Spears, a pop icon who came to fame during the explosion of teen pop music around the turn of the century, beginning with her first hit, “…Baby One More Time,” the titular song from her 1999 debut album.
At first glance, Spears clearly belongs in the celebrity category and not in politics or religion. However, if we look closer, we can discern profound religious and political elements intertwined with her worldwide popular renown. Indeed, one could even argue that her fame resonates with a message not unlike that of Jesus, considering that a lot of her songs are love songs and that she even situates herself in relationship to the economically exploited and to the worker and proletariat (“I’m a Slave 4 U”; “Work B**ch”). I doubt though that Spears herself would make any such claim. Unlike many pop stars, including Kanye West, whose latest album bears the title Yeezus (a portmanteau combining Jesus’ name with his own moniker, Yeezy), Spears has not expressed any explicit comparison between herself and Jesus. Is that humility indicative of her Christ-like tendencies? In any case, we need not look to Spears herself for a creative juxtaposition between her and Jesus. We can look to a musical that follows along similar lines as Jesus Christ Superstar, except it does not juxtapose Jesus with superstardom in general but with Britney Spears in particular.
The musical is Spears: The Gospel According to Britney. Created by Patrick Blute, the musical tells the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus by using songs from Britney Spears, with no additional words or changed lyrics. It is the story of Jesus set to the music of Britney. Still in its early development, it first staged in 2012 and was shown a couple more times in 2013, and it seems to have generated mainly positive responses, appealing to Christians and to fans of Spears without being offensive or overly provocative. By telling the story of Jesus with the music of Britney, this musical does not authentically communicate the theologico-political message of Jesus. Rather, it indicates that there is no pure authenticity, no story free of the trappings of celebrity, no transcendent position uncontaminated by the rumors circulating in the pop culture of our populous and crowded (celeber) world.
It is possible to take this musical to mean that we can let go of ideals of authenticity, translate traditions to fit our liking, and attain spiritual fulfillment and political liberation by deciding as individuals which musicals, churches, movies, and yoga studios we do or do not want to go to. Perhaps the musical glorifies, intentionally or not, such individualized, commercialized, and apolitical forms of spiritual-but-not-religious life. However, that interpretation gives a one-sided resolution to the tension expressed in the Jesus-Britney juxtaposition. The juxtaposition illustrates the dynamics of fame: the inextricable intertwining of image with reality, authentic with inauthentic, truth with rumor, individuality with tradition, faith with commercialism, noise with information.
The attempt to purify religion and politics from celebrity is either an attempt to find a transcendent high-ground from which one can judge and control the enthusiastic celebrations and noisy clamor (rumorem) of pop culture, or it is an attempt to find a trivial low-ground from which one can simply let the noise of consumer culture drown out the theologico-political call to care for the world. Perhaps Jesus Christ Superstar and Spears can help us find a virtuous middle.
Jesus’ theologico-political message of love and forgiveness would be blind and out of touch if it had no brand-recognition or celebrity, no appeal to the multitude: a message cannot do much good if nobody notices it. On the other hand, being noticed cannot do much good if you have nothing to say, nothing to communicate, nothing to share with a community, nothing to contribute to a tradition. Celebrity is empty if it is not oriented toward some tradition and community. Celebrity without love is empty, and love without celebrity is blind.