RELIGIOUS ASPECTS OF AMERICA’S COMMERCIAL CULTS OF CELEBRITY
By Edward Burke
The Montréal Review, January 2024
Under its content banner “Psychology and Relationships”, CNBC offered a first-person account posted on Wednesday 13 September 2023 from a woman who attended a Beyoncé event held in Las Vegas earlier in the month.
The author confessed to having dropped just under $2,600 USD “on tickets, travel and hotel” as the main ingredient of her 24th birthday celebration. With equal candor, she confessed: “Never had a concert inspired me so much that I wanted to change my entire approach to life.”
Perhaps by her 25th birthday in September 2024, the author will have begun to effect substantive changes in her entire approach to life, and perhaps possibly maybe by that time her behavioral alterations will entail no longer dropping $2,600 USD for a single solitary celebratory event. (With inflation huffing at its present velocity, she’d be out something closer to $2,700 USD by then.)
Price or cost is not the main ingredient of her candor, as adduced here so far: I take the key word of her candid account to be the single word “inspired”.
Beyoncé inspired her. The 42-year-old’s dance routines and vocal executions over the course of a show lasting almost two-and-a-half hours thrilled this devotee to the roots of her . . . psyche, apparently, if we dare defer to CNBC’s content categorization. (With costume changes, the performance perhaps lasted a bit closer to no more than two hours total, which in terms of the package expense comes to roughly $1,000 USD per hour of psychic uplift.)
Admittedly, an “unshakable sense of awe and inspiration” in the year 2023 CE may well be worth the (self-)investment, and certainly it should contribute however modestly to the survival of the performer’s commercial cult of celebrity.
“Put simply: It made me want to be the best at my job, get in the best physical shape of my life, and execute my goals and passions to the best of my ability.” After the show, a brief scroll on X, formerly known as Twitter, revealed that others felt the same. “Beyoncé’s show left me feeling so inspired and motivated to do more with my passions,” one person wrote. Beyoncé “makes me want to better myself every single day,” someone else posted.
The author then adduced the psycho-chemical underpinnings or constituents to these “inspirational” affects and went on to quote a psychologist’s (a logician of psyches’) assessment of the roles played by neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine in producing affects of inspiration and admiration.
I did not find the account odd for its invocation of a pop performer of Beyoncé’s stature or for the candor with which the author admitted the amount of one-time expenditure in her devotion to this one commercial cult of celebrity or that she offered a “scientific” explanation of the transactions (monetary and psychic) with specific references to brain physiology (an area that logicians of psyches seem seldom keen themselves to invoke): I did find the account notable for its complete failure to invoke the name of John Calvin.
Not that I expected to see the name “John Calvin” in the CNBC item, of course, but I argue here that his name could well have been invoked, since as I’m about to argue Calvin’s career helped presage the advent of the numerous commercial cults of celebrity that flourish in the late modern era (in the United States, let us say since a generation after 1865, activist actors having earned notoriety as a consequence of Booth’s assassination of President Lincoln).
According to one informed reading of history, that of Eric Voegelin in his History of Political Ideas, John Calvin (1509–1564) can be said to stand at the very headwaters of the modern era: arguably, it was Calvin’s brand of “reformation” that proved far more influential and far more consequential across the modern era he helped usher in than that of, say, Martin Luther (1483–1546).
Calvin’s singular combination of Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone” with Calvin’s own doctrine of “predestination” was the heady brew that led more directly and more powerfully than Luther’s modest career to what it is not too late to regard as “the Protestant Deformation”: for it was Calvin’s genius that largely set up conditions for the gradual degeneration and cumulative decadence of Protestantism into schism, sectarianism, heterodoxy, heresy, and atheism among Western European Christians over the three (if not also the four and five) centuries following.
By the respective dates of publication of the Latin edition (1559) and French edition (1561) of his Institutes, Calvin had “devised a plan for transforming (Luther’s idea of) the remnant into the ruling class of a universal church that would supplant the Catholic Church . . . The Institutes, we may say, is primarily a political tract.” (For his sympathies we might observe that Voegelin did not write as a Roman Catholic.) “The ‘circumstance’ that gave rise to the work, furthermore, was not a minor event but a civilizational catastrophe; and the suggestion that the event stimulated was no less than a plan for founding a new universal church. . . . The Institutes is a work of pragmatic politics.”
The unsurprising history of Protestantism ensued, given the periodic outbreaks of heresy, schism, and speculation that afflicted Catholic Christianism across its first millennium. Whether Calvin’s program is styled as “repudiation” or as “divorce”, generation after generation of disaffected Catholic Christians who migrated to the Protestant cause, then generation after generation of Protestants migrating through their self-imposed wildernesses of sectarian doctrine and severe or permissive piety, embarked on a course of separation that cut them off utterly and entirely from the roots of the history of the Catholic Christian faith.
Protestants thereafter continued to remove themselves from all notions and practices of Catholic Christian sacramental theology: they were compelled to, since by their Protestant affirmations they were disowning the Catholic tradition of the apostolic succession (in which the historical succession, continuity, and lineage of episcopal offices had maintained both sacramental and spiritual continuity with the earliest communities of Christians of the first century of the Christian era). In short order Protestants were disdaining and disowning the ancient practices and the pre-medieval rules of Catholic Christian monasticism, depriving themselves substantively of access to many of the very deepest roots of Christian spirituality. By adhering to Calivin’s program, they soon found themselves compelled to turn away from “the cults of the saints”, including at the top of that list veneration of the Holy Virgin Mary as the Mother of God. By decades and by centuries, Protestant theology, Christology, pneumatology, ecclesiology, and soteriology degenerated by degrees into occasions and opportunities for schism, sectarianism, heterodoxy, heresy, and atheism.
Eventually, with the spiritual and cultural repudiation that Protestantism expressed and embodied, unsurprising events began to transpire in the very America that through its colonial era had been Europe’s favorite dumping ground for disaffected Protestant sectarians and schismatics, heretics and “freethinkers”. Protestant degeneration may not have accelerated through America’s history, but it thrived and continued. —and just as Calvin’s program was formulated and adopted to “replace” the Catholic Church in its entirety (no one is able to say that Calvin ever secured authorization for his program from the Triune Godhead), so latter-day Protestantism has been replaced in the modern era—if only in part—by “commercial cults of celebrity”.
I am arguing here, yes, that commercial cults of celebrity qualify as crypto-religious and pseudo-religious entities. (The construction “commercial cults of charismatic celebrity”, while more specific, is a tad unwieldy as a nominative, but charismatic individualism will be treated later in this essay.)
The candor of the CNBC “Beyoncé Confession” begins to bear out my argument sufficiently. Here I cite again salient quotes from “the Beyoncé Confession” of September 2023:
Because Americans now live in a post-Christian, post-Protestant era, the categories of what can be understood as “religious fervor” (perhaps of Pentecostal Holiness affective intensity) are today rendered commonly by America’s unelected public discourse managers in terms of “psychology” (the logos of psyches), without substantive reference to religion or spirituality: but commercial cults of celebrity in our late Modern/post-Christian era—as the CNBC item makes plain—elicit affective responses and behavioral adjustments that could once be encountered perhaps only or chiefly among religious communities of whatever doctrine or piety. Commercial cults of celebrity, whether by accident or intent, have come to replace Catholic Christianism’s “cults of the saints”, just as Calvin’s program was designed to replace the Catholic Church in its entirety with an ersatz religion of vague and vaguer “Christian philosophy” conceived as “a brotherhood of man without a father” (Voegelin, in another context).
That a twenty-four-year-old devotee of the Cult of Beyoncé would plop down $2,580 for such a heady dose of “inspiration” and psychic uplift could be deemed an inordinate amount of investment. (We are not informed whether the Cult of Beyoncé encourages tithing.) That a two-hour performance (with all its production values itemized) could elicit what I am willing to take as a sincere response of inspiration and psychic uplift is no more than a part of what could be an issue: the $2,580 expense in tickets, travel, and lodging, that is, very likely was not being dropped into any philanthropic plate being passed aisle to aisle, pew to pew—the entire expense of “self-investment” was paying the salaries of ticket agents, hotel managers and clerks, stage hands and technicians, wardrobe consultants, make-up artists, hair stylists, and corporate music producers—and Beyoncé herself. The “investment” of $2,580 was shelled out in order to accrue the benefits of inspiration and psychic uplift, an acceptable economic transaction by the reckoning of many.
Unelected American media tycoons and public discourse managers (American logicians of psyches, too) have no problem or issue with the phenomena of “commercial cults of celebrity” as I depict them: to America’s ensconced elites, commercial cults of celebrity are regarded purely as legitimate brands of entertainment, innocent frivolity and fun, and if anyone can be said to derive immense satisfaction, inspiration, or psychic uplift from such an encounter with such a thriving commercial cult of celebrity, surely no harm can be imputed to the transactions.
—unless perhaps you begin to recognize these commercial cults of celebrity as transmogrified “cults of the saints” and begin to observe the ersatz religious qualities inherent to these contemporary cults and sects of charismatic celebrity.
To enlarge upon recognition of the “charismatic”, I now quote Eric J. Sharpe, professor of religious studies, formerly of the University of Sydney:
Sharpe’s articulation of “charismatic leadership” in the context of Protestant denominationalism resonates remarkably with Orthodox Catholic views expressed by Greek Orthodox bishop and scholar of theology John Zizioulas when discussing understandings of “charism” (Greek “charisma”, gift [as an expression of divine grace], in New Testament usage) in the primitive Church:
The “charismatic individualism” characteristic of commercial cults of celebrity marks a wholesale rejection of models provided as early as the first century of the Christian era, just as the “spirituality” modeled in commercial cults of celebrity offers no references to or reverence for the Holy Trinity, the Catholic Church, the Cross, the Resurrection, or the communion of saints, and entails no disciplines of penitence, fasting, or prayer. Commercial cults of celebrity instantiate ersatz “replacement religion”.
Further, it could be observed that commercial cults of celebrity have been crafted and refined in the United States over the past century of film, radio, television, stage, music, and sports entertainment to model Calvin’s “replacement” approach, that is, to engineer commercial applications for religious affect and inspirational enthusiasm (the social satire provided in 1927 by Sinclair Lewis might not have been possible otherwise). Thus, “Elmer Gantry” models of commercial cults of celebrity have been crafted upon models of fervent and charismatic “religious hucksterism” (chiefly of American Pentecostalist lineage and late-stage Protestant decadence) for their commercial appeals and their entertainment functions: they serve as marketing vehicles to encourage “conspicuous consumption” and consumer aspiration among devotees and acolytes (“God has been good to me”), stimulating appetites for celebrity merchandise, videos of celebrity concerts to augment celebrity recordings of music, the latest in tech gadgetry for keeping members of the celebrity cult or sect connected with each other (and with the celebrity, putatively), costly fashions and the costly jewelry to go with them, the latest buzz in automotive brands, designs, and fashions, photography of the restaurants and clubs to be seen in with fabulous friends and other celebrities, the expensive houses to buy in chic neighborhoods and the glamourous real estate holdings to find only in the toniest of tony locales, and at this late stage private planes, jets, and helicopters, et cetera.
Here is where public debate could properly begin.
If my resort to Voegelin’s arguments has any merit—if “commercial cults of celebrity” can be seen as “replacement cults” substituting a grubby materialism, populist conspicuous consumption, and relative self-indulgence and self-promotion for attested spiritual disciplines (liturgy, prayer, fasting, solitude, obedience) of ancient Christian lineage that promote self-restraint and self-denial—then we have the opportunity to concede that “religious categories” are far from being outmoded or outgrown or historically discarded but instead have been appropriated for application to “other spiritual purposes”, which could be further construed as confirmation of an insight offered by historian of religions Mircea Eliade in his 1963 essay “Survivals and Camouflages of Myth”:
“Mythical behavior can be recognized in the obsession with ‘success’ that is so characteristic of modern society and that expresses an obscure wish to transcend the limits of the human condition.”
Our contemporary cults of celebrity, it can be said, while hardly celebrating poverty in terms of a monastic virtue, with their diverting displays of glitz, glamour, and gaud strive mightily not to recognize the stark reality of poverty (read: mortality) as sign and seal of the enduring human condition. (Perhaps the advent of Technogenic Climate Change will yet manage to change some tunes.)
On the basis of the foregoing, we can conclude that “commercial cults of celebrity”, with whatever facile similarities to Protestant evangelical or Pentecostalist fervor we may want to cite, qualify as quasi- and/or crypto-religious cults and sects dedicated not to the glory of the Resurrected Christ but to the glorification of one of Christ’s notable rivals, viz., the figure of Mammon.
The testimony found in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 6, verse 24) in both Greek and English is virtually identical to the relevant passage (chapter 16, verse 13) found in Luke’s Gospel: “No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
We live at the end of a two-thousand-year era itself remarkable for occupying the latest third of all of recorded human history (by some reckonings, our global species only now begins its sixtieth century of written chronicles and recorded histories). That we with our Western orientation and experience have “progressed” in two millennia from the foundational values of the Catholic Christian faith to their replacement with quasi- or crypto-religious practices embodying commercial and consumerist values might be taken in stride by sedentary philosophers keen to indulge the intellectual categories of someone like Hegel.
However, while critiques of Hegel’s philosophical positions continue, we are entitled to wonder whether the proffered substitution of “commercial cults of celebrity” for earlier “cults of the saints” is quite as innocuous as advocates, facilitators, and sponsors advertise. We are entitled to wonder whether “inspiration” and psychic uplift are worth every or any economic cost or expense, whether a single outlay of $2,580 USD quite equals—both in currency equivalence and in terms of psychic uplift and inspiration—a widow’s contribution of two copper coins (Mark 12: 41–44, Luke 21: 1–4), the way we were enjoined to observe a mere two thousand years ago.