Monday, September 3, 2012

Coming into the Presence: Celebrity Worship—Elul 16

If we no longer know what it feels like to stand in the presence of a king or queen, what experience can help us understand coming into the Presence during the month of Elul, the Days of Awe, or any day?

I’ve always been baffled by celebrity worship. I don’t even ask authors I respect to sign their books. Maybe it’s the fierce anti-idolatry I was imprinted with by growing up Calvinist and that has only been reinforced by being a Jew. Like Mordecai, I won’t bow to any human being.

Many years ago, however, I read an op ed piece somewhere that argued that with the death of God and attrition of religion, celebrities have become our gods. That makes sense to me. We need something to believe in, to look up to, to focus our lives on. And our celebrities are indeed like the Greek gods—fickle, misbehaving, at the mercy of their passions, jealous, cruel, violent, vengeful, silly, lawless, all too human—at the same time that they live high above us on a Mount Olympus of wealth and privilege that most of us will never experience. They’re very human ness perhaps is what makes them dear to us. They are like us, yet not like us. Because they are like us, we are able to form a bond with them. Because they are unlike us, we are able to live out our ideal life through them. In identifying with them, their beauty, their wealth, their “highness,” somehow our lives are elevated from the mundane work and experiences we must slog through every day to survive. They perform that function for us: to incarnate an ideal to which we direct our lives. Perhaps not every one of these ideals is one we would choose to direct our life toward, but they are ideals nonetheless, and not to be held in contempt.

Does this metaphor work for coming into the Presence? Think about meeting a celebrity that would inspire a little trembling in you. It could be Barak Obama. It could be Elvis. It could be Toni Morrison. It could be Janis Joplin, Golda Meir, Nelson Mandela, or Desmond Tutu. Whoever it is, you’d want to be your best self in that moment, wouldn’t you? You might be a little flustered, a little jazzed, but you would pay attention, be present, try to drink in as much of that person’s presence, their atmosphere, as you could in that moment, so that their shining, in whatever way it is that they shine, rubs off on you and changes you permanently, makes you be a better person from that moment on, because you had met them, come into their presence. And from that moment on your life would change; it would now be a life after you had met x, and that is what would make all the difference.
So, as silly as it may seem at first, maybe there is something to this way of understanding coming into the Presence after all.

More tomorrow.

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