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June 16, 2014
Richard Handler

I must confess, as your “stubborn agnostic,” the sight and sound of the people in this episode of Context, gladdened my heart, even if I do not acknowledge any religious or transcendental impulses to their good-heartedness.

 At a time when CNN is showing near executions by rampaging brutes in Iraq and Syria, to see modest, caring people, like Tom Hart, executive director of One–North America, Sarah Stone, of One Canada and the singer-song- writer Loreena McKennitt,  is an excellent antidote to the news pouring in, over the borders.

In the news business, “if it bleeds, it leads,” and there is plenty of bleeding to witness, even if you’re sitting thousand of kilometers away, safely watching the bleeding  behind a computer screen or TV.

There were some themes that emerged in the half hour.  No matter how caring you are, you must—MUST--- accommodate yourself to the “fallen” world of economics and brazen attention.  In this society, where “branding” and marketing have become paramount activities, we are told that Bono well knows that his celebrity is a form of “currency.”  

So, while you’re still “hot,” you can turn your fame into a spotlight for the attention you want to give to the cause you wish to celebrate.  For Bono, it is ending world poverty.  And for McKennitt, it is water safety (her fiancée, her brother and a friend died in 1998 in a boating  accident in Georgian Bay).

As McKennitt acknowledges, celebrity opens doors so that others can pass through. So, she established The Cook-Rees Memorial Fund for Water Research and Safety with the proceeds from an album.

It’s clear that celebrity is about attention--- shining a spotlight.  Those who are well meaning and savvy, like Bono, use their celebrity well—and judiciously.  It seems  clear that Bono really believes it--- as a good person and as one raised a Christian.  As for those who employ celebrity as another gear on their branding machine (like a star athlete, visiting a children’s cancer ward), we must be thankful for that too, presumably.  

Social science teaches us that when you don’t believe something, but do it anyway, you may start believing it.  And all those hospitals and foundations need the money, too.

So, virtue now must be marketed—especially in a world where too many great and needy causes compete for too few dollars.   Just check your email box every December for the cries and pleas.

Celebrity is actually based on the idea of charisma.  Being an icon appeals to the religious longing in humans.  In our imaginations, celebrities are god-like, even if they are created, manufactured, marketed or exploited by others.  Something “other” than their sheer personality flows through them. 

 Christian understand this well.  Secularists bury this observation.  For us, celebrities possess “gifts” or “talents” which are unaccountable, mysterious.  Charisma enhances brand power.

Religionists understand the origins of charisma--- these are the gifts of spirit.  But all of us, religionists and secularists, Christians and humanists, can be suckers for the glitter, the renown, the thrilling act of “rubbing shoulders” with the famous.  Hillary Clinton is coming to Toronto, yea, and she’s signing books at Indigo!  People will flock to her, for a glance.   She is not like us.  She is super-human, with her own fall and rise redemption story.

If Judeo-Christian culture warns us about one thing, repeatedly, it’s idolatry.  It’s right there in the Ten Commandments.  Do not worship idols, false gods.  But what is contemporary secular culture but one glorious false god after another?  The market, the ratings, money, fame, even stellar acts of celebrity virtue?  So if Bono uses idolatry in service of his cause, we all must recognize it, cheer, sigh and move on.  Just don’t forget the ironies.

Watch our episode on “Celebrities As Moral Leaders”. Richard shared his thoughts. What are yours? Comment below.

Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.


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