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When sex symbol Rudolph Valentino died at the age of 31 in 1926, riots broke out as tens of thousands of mourners tried to cram themselves into a public viewing in New York.
It was, says Emory University’s Gary Laderman, “a new kind of sacred attachment, one based on fame and looks, personality and stardom.” Call it the birth of the First Church of Celebrity Worship.
Laderman’s new book, “Sacred Matters: Celebrity Worship, Sexual Ecstasies, the Living Dead and Other Signs of Religious Life in the United States,” probes America’s obsession at the altar of celebrity.
Pop icon Michael Jackson’s death at age 50, he said, brings that faith into “sharp relief.”
Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: If Michael Jackson was the king of pop, is this going to be the mother of all funerals?
A: That’s hard to say. It’s already unfolding like other celebrity deaths that rocked the world — Princess Diana and Elvis. I don’t think it’s going to break the mold, but (it) certainly will bring into sharp relief the kind of devotion and investment people have made in this kind of celebrity.
Q: The public grief over Jackson is obviously a reaction to his death, but you seem to argue that it’s a sign of life for a different kind of American religion. What do you mean?
A: This brings out what people understand to be sacred. Celebrity, and the response to the death of a celebrity, is a source of sacred life for many people. When you go outside of the normal conventional religious places, you see other signs of religious life that are usually tied to ideas of the sacred.
Q: Jackson died at 50, and Farah Fawcett at a relatively young 62 — does that make them particular kinds of pop culture martyrs, dying before their time?
A: The impact is much stronger because they died young and the public didn’t see them age. I don’t think that aging necessarily diminishes the power of celebrity, but it’s a different response than when someone like Ed McMahon dies who has lived a full life.
Q: You write that “celebrity icons arouse the religious passions of followers … who find spiritual meaning, personal fulfillment and awe-inspiring motivation in the presence of these idols.” Tell me more.
A: When you look around and see how people invest in these idols — and I’m using a broad understanding of investment — it’s also a spiritual investment. It’s more than just material, or financial. People draw from that spiritual connection notions of identity, a sense of the sacred, the potential for transformation, a set of moral values, the sense of possibility of transcendence or overcoming the limitations of life. Whether in traditional religion or pop culture, you find the same kind of motivation, the same kind of meaning-making, through celebrity.
Q: So it’s about more than just buying their CDs or watching their films.
A: Yes, you could say that, but the material artifacts — the means of communication, the forms of community — are also very powerful.
Q: In your mind, is the celebrity worship equivalent to, or better or worse than, the kind of worship that occurs in an average church on an average Sunday?
A: I would not try to pass judgment on it. I’m just trying to ask whether this counts as legitimate forms of religious expression. Many people are going to say no, or say it’s some kind of corrupt religion or escapism. I’m just trying to say that if you go outside of the familiar concepts of religion, you will still find behaviors, investments and myths that all have meaning for people. They can be just as powerful and can make the same kind of impact — if not a stronger one — on people’s values and morals.
Q: Do you think pop icons like Jackson are a Golden Calf-kind of false god, or legitimate recipients of adoration and celebrity worship?
A: Again, I’m not making a judgment on whether they’re legitimate.
There isn’t one standard by which to apply criteria and say one is false and one is real. People find the sacred in all sorts of arenas; throughout history, people have found the sacred in forms that don’t have anything to do with God.
Q: You ask in the book whether crowds of mourners fall victim to “false gods because they are seeking spiritual fulfillment” through celebrity icons they will never know. What do make of the crowds mourning Jackson’s death?
A: Valentino’s death created the same kind of mass hysteria and reaction. But those actions and reactions have a deeper meaning than just pure base fanaticism. The lives of these people, and their deaths, have a real ability to empower people to find a sense of meaning that is so dramatic, so strong. They are indications of very deep and strong connection that doesn’t just border on the religious, but is religious– in the sense that these feelings, connections and investments bear on moral value systems, a person’s identity and history.
Q: Jackson was raised a Jehovah’s Witness and converted to the Nation of Islam, and later, mainstream Islam. You’re the go-to expert on death rites. What can we expect in terms of a funeral?
A: I was wondering that myself. It’s hard to predict. I would not expect cremation, if he was really a Muslim at the end of his life. I hate to say this, but his whole life was a circus in a lot of ways, so I don’t know if his funeral won’t be the same.
By Kevin Eckstrom
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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