The Theology of Hero-Worship

Posted February 23, 2012

John H. Hampsch, cmf

After one of Bill Cosby’s performances a young couple went backstage hoping to get the comedian’s autograph on the baby book that was to chronicle the infancy of their newborn son. Cosby’s aide brought the book to him for his signature, but when it was returned, the couple was disappointed to find no signature inside the cover. Days later they found Cosby’s scribbling on an inside page, under “Baby’s First Complete Sentence.” It said, “I like Bill Cosby.”

Hollywood celebrities, sports heroes, politicians and others in the public spotlight are fulfilled—and some almost intoxicated—by the admiration of their devotees; red-carpet adulation is one of the most powerful driving forces behind today’s viciously competitive and increasingly sophisticated sports and entertainment industries. Of course, celebrities need fans, just as vendors need customers; without fans, very few would pursue the acting profession or professional sports.

Hence, simply being an admiring aficionado of a TV, movie or sports celebrity is certainly not a moral issue in itself. But, if cultivated to an extreme, it can become at least a behavioral and social distortion. That is almost implied in the etymology of the word “fan,” which is derived from the word “fanatic.”

Witness the all-night sidewalk campers before Oscar or Grammy night, waiting for a fleeting glimpse of their screen idols attired for their annual fashion contest. God help me for thinking this, but I can’t help wondering—perhaps with some rash judgment—what percentage of those mesmerized screaming, clapping, camera-flashing groupies have ever in their entire life spent even a single hour in prayerful adoration and praise of their very Creator. It’s more common for people to idolize talented humans than to honor their creator who bestowed that talent on them.  Often the celebrities are more noble-souled than many of their fans. (It was spiritually refreshing to see 30 of the celebrities themselves thanking God publicly at the 2012 Grammy Awards.)

Viewing the over-all issue of “Hollywood-ized hero-worship,” especially as practiced by those as fanatical as the overnight “camp-out” fans, it’s hard to imagine most of them (or for that matter, even most religious devotees) spending a cold and sleepless night at curbside awaiting a more sublime event, such as a pro-life march, or a papal entourage, or even a Corpus Christi procession. The celebrity-extolling function in our society, though valid in its basic purpose, seems somehow to reflect an axiological displacement. The psychosocial need for hero-worship, methinks, has become even more distorted and frenetic than it was in the past.

Along with entertainment and public sports technology, especially in our contemporary TV epoch, hero-worship has remarkably expanded and evolved—some would say devolved—as a social phenomenon. The innocent era of Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier, and the “comic strip” period that vetted Mary Worth and Dick Tracy as enviable icons for adults, have long since evaporated. Yet, I recall a not-too-ancient high school survey in which Elvis was voted as the top-of-the-list idol by teens, while Jesus Christ rated 37th on the same list of imitable candidates. If society’s moral status could be calibrated by accolades, what would that survey tell us?

In the divine plan, as God’s word reminds us, all human talent and gifts are to be received gratefully and humbly, while directing the resulting admiration of such human abilities to their source—which of course, is the Creator of those gifts and talents. If God is taken out of the picture of celebrity admiration, the result is merely superficial flattery, and, on the part of the celebrity, a shallow vanity in embracing that adulation.

Peter outlines this theology in common sense language:  “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others…with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus ChristTo him be the glory…” (1 Pet.  4:10-11). Jesus phrased it even more succinctly: “let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” And Paul reaffirms the mandate that we must do everything, even eating and drinking, ultimately for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

The Art of Admiration

Nature itself exposits countless activities that spawn our wonderment and awe. For instance, the origin of the universe 13 ½ billion years ago, starting with the  Big Bang—the now accepted theory proposed in 1927 by the abbot-astronomer, Lemaitre. Easterbrook’s fascinating book, Beside Still Waters—Searching for Meaning in a World of Doubt, says that astrophysicists have ascertained that, with a slightly less violent “Big Bang” explosion, the cosmos would have collapsed back upon itself, while with slightly more violence it would have left the cosmos too thinly dispersed to permit the aggregation of matter into stars and galaxies. The very nature of that unimaginably condensed pinpoint of matter allowed for an extremely small “margin of error” between too much and too little explosive energy. That “margin of error” was about one-quadrillionth of 1% of the ideal!  How could one not be amazed at that?

And how could anyone not admire the divine wisdom and divine power that engineered the drama of creation, drawing matter from non-existence into existence?  Amazement at that great cosmic event overshadows our amazement at any human talent into a mere ho-hum observation. If you have a need for hero-worship and you’re looking for an awesome celebrity, you would do well to start with the Almighty himself. Then you’ll view all human celebrities as fragments of a broken mirror, with each reflecting his splendor.

Amazement gives birth to admiration—the emotion that appreciates and extols the one in whom a talent is manifest. That’s what makes a celebrity to be the cynosure of our attention. Amazement relates to an ability or attractiveness, while admiration is directed toward the person manifesting those qualities. Admiration is thus a kind of awe or wonderment in recognizing someone’s “amazing” ability or attractiveness. That’s the simple dynamic of “hero-worship.”

This sort of amazement-admiration was often directed to Jesus during his earthly sojourn—an admiration observed in his human nature. The amazement that triggered the admiration he received was, for instance, in response to his incisive and awe-inspiring teaching—even as a 12-year-old discussing theology with the rabbinical elders. “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47).  Later, his “render-to-Caesar” teaching and his miracle working and healing educed the same response. But it was at his healing of the paralytic that the witnesses effectuated the ultimate purpose of human amazement and admiration: “Everyone was amazed and gave praise to God,” while the patient himself “went home praising God (Luke 5:25-26).

The transition from amazement to admiration requires some degree of spiritual insight and maturity. A child can be amazed by a magic trick without admiring the magician. A spiritually immature adult, such as an atheist, can be amazed by the wonders of nature without adverting appreciatively to the Creator that caused those wonders. Amazement without admiration is truncated insight.

Once the amazement is person-focused, it becomes admiration for that person; it may be termed hero-worship or a marveling, that is, admiration of the person. But a third stage is called for, namely articulating that admiration. When articulated, one’s admiration becomes an act of glorifying the person who is admired for his greatness. Every creature with a functioning intellect is morally obliged to glorify the Creator with what is theologically referred to as “formal glory.” It is classically defined by St. Augustine as clara cum laude notitia (full acknowledgement with praise).

A simple example of this theology of glorification can be found in the above-mentioned case of the miraculously healed paralytic in Luke 5. The gospel says that “he went home praising God.” The onlookers, it says, by “seeing incredible things that day were seized with astonishment” and “glorified God.” Thus, they grew rapidly through three stages—from amazement to the admiration of Jesus, to glorifying God. Hero-worship of Jesus thus eventuated in glorifying God.

To glorify someone is to praise that person. When one’s praise is directed to God, either directly in a specific prayer of praise, like Psalm 89, or indirectly by adverting to the gifts and talents of his creatures, you can be sure it is incipiated by the Holy Spirit, as Paul says in Romans 2:29. And the Holy Spirit as the Sanctifier, fashions that praise into a sanctifying experience,

Take a moment to excite amazement at your own talents and gifts, whether limited or outstanding; then observe the talents of others around you. You and they are all celebrities in God’s eyes, having God-breathed gifts and talents designed to be used for the glory of the Divine Celebrity of the cosmos.

You may still be a fan, but you’re better than that—you’re a celebrity!