Last summer, outside a California courtroom, a group of protestors gathered, marched, chanted, took lots of selfies, and held signs that read, “Free Britney!” Footage from that day now comprises the opening scene of a newly released New York Times documentary about Britney Spears, the pop music star who rose to fame as barely a teenager in the early 2000s.
Spears is now in the middle of a legal battle over control of her financial estate. Her genuinely tragic story begins with her parents’ insistence on making Britney a star at an extremely young age. Having achieved that goal, her innocent “bubble gum pop” persona turned into something far less innocent. After spending much of her career attempting to outdo her previous sexual explicitness, Britney Spears has spiraled into ongoing and severe mental health issues, worsened by broken relationships, and constantly being stalked by paparazzi.
Objectifying others is not only a sin itself, but it leads to other sins. Pride, contempt, jealousy, adultery, murder, sexual predation, even self-harming behaviors like drug abuse and sexual promiscuity are all rooted in seeing and using people, even ourselves, as objects instead of Image-bearers.
Most Christians, and even non-Christians, would say that treating anyone in any of these ways is wrong. However, objectifying people has become so normal, we do it in ways we don’t even realize. Some of those protestors who gathered outside the courthouse in California were probably genuinely concerned for her well-being. But what of the others, such as those telling reporters over and over how much they “love” this pop star they don’t even know? Aren’t they really using her, too?
After all, they’ve turned her situation – her tragedy and pain – into something to consume. It’s entertainment, or catharsis. They are using a person they cannot practically love, serve, sacrifice for, or even talk to, and making her fill a need they have. That’s objectification, too.
This behavior is different than admiring or honoring a well-known figure. There is a fundamental difference between, for example, the Americans who lined up along railroad tracks to honor the life of Abraham Lincoln as his body was taken to lie in state, and those who gathered for the “Free Britney” rally outside family court. Admiring virtue and being grateful for a life well-lived is different from looking to fill a need that should be met in real relationships.
In a celebrity-driven culture like ours, it is tempting to think we have a celebrity-shaped hole in our hearts instead of a God-shaped one. For artists, this takes the form of seeking to be popular instead of seeking excellence. For consumers, this takes the form of elevating and worshiping celebrities in their prime and then ridiculing them and gawking at them afterwards.
Celebrity-ism is as much a problem in the Church as out. We can be grateful for YouTube access to the teachings, articles, and sermons of our favorite pastors and for the inspiration from our favorite Christian authors or artists through Instagram. But are we idolizing? Are we angry if they say something we don’t like, commenting as if they’re not real people or as if their job is always to agree with us? Do we assume a level of intimacy that is not appropriate with someone we actually don’t know? Do we use them to replace local churches or to provide spiritual authority in our lives, when that is not their place nor role?
The dangerous mistake is confusing our ability to enjoy the consumable goods we get from Christian “celebrities” or social-media influencers with a right to access or intimacy with the people themselves to meet our needs. It is a mistake we make with people we don’t agree with, too. Just look how Christians treat each other on Twitter, as if we are dealing with cartoon characters instead of real people.
When it comes to the clarity we need on human value and boundaries with others, our culture is both out of ideas and off its foundation. Objectifying, idolizing, and “celebritizing” are all ways of treating image bearers as brands, not people, expecting them to fill our need, whether for diversion or community or meaning. In that context, mutual fandom and the hatred of a common enemy are two sides of the same coin.
No matter how interesting, how talented, how fun to love or hate they are, people are not objects.
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