The Gwyneth Paltrow trial and "Celebrity Worship Syndrome"

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Gwyneth Paltrow’s trial and “Celebrity Worship Syndrome”

March 23, 2023 -

Gwyneth Paltrow sits in court, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Park City, Utah. Paltrow is on trial, accused of injuring another skier, leaving him with a concussion and four broken ribs. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

Gwyneth Paltrow sits in court, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Park City, Utah. Paltrow is on trial, accused of injuring another skier, leaving him with a concussion and four broken ribs. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

Gwyneth Paltrow sits in court, Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Park City, Utah. Paltrow is on trial, accused of injuring another skier, leaving him with a concussion and four broken ribs. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, Pool)

On a morning when the news is dominated by the Federal Reserve attempting to control the economy and the grand jury investigating Donald Trump, I wanted to focus on something more transcendent. To do so, however, I have to begin with the temporal. Actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s trial over a 2016 ski accident got underway this week. The actress is being sued by a man who alleges that she injured him after she crashed into him on a ski slope and sped off. Paltrow countersued, claiming that the man crashed into her.

More than forty-eight thousand jury trials occur every year in the US, which works out to 192 per weekday. This, however, is the only one of which I am aware that is being streamed, pointing to the power of celebrity in our culture.

In other news, Joe Exotic of Tiger King fame has announced that he is running for president. However, he is serving twenty-one years in prison for his role in a murder-for-hire plot. But once again, we see the power of celebrity to make news.

And Blake Shelton made headlines when he recruited his final contestant on The Voice this week. Shelton has announced his retirement from the singing competition. It is estimated that ten thousand people in the US reach the retirement age of sixty-five every day, but Shelton is the only “retiree” I have seen in the news today.

Beware “Celebrity Worship Syndrome”

One obvious reason Americans are so interested in celebrities is that the media makes them so ubiquitous. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario: people get famous, which gets them in the news, which increases their fame, which makes them more newsworthy.

A second is that many people live vicariously through the celebrities they follow. When I watch the Masters next month, I will be imagining myself playing on the most famous golf course in the world. When we read about Warren Buffett’s billions, we imagine ourselves with such wealth. Celebrities are famous because their followers want to be like them.

This phenomenon has become so pronounced in recent years that psychologists have coined the name “Celebrity Worship Syndrome” (CWS). They warn that “CWS is an obsessive addictive disorder in which a person becomes involved with the details of a celebrity’s personal life.”

Celebrity obsession is especially alluring for people going through difficult times or young people who are still establishing their identities. One psychologist said, “In our society, celebrities act like a drug. They’re around us everywhere. They’re an easy fix.”

This addiction can lead to compulsive buying and other behaviors by which people try to emulate the celebrities they “worship.” Others use social media platforms to seek celebrity for its own sake rather than learning and using skills that contribute to society.

“You cannot see something that is above you”

This quest for celebrity speaks to something even deeper: there is hunger in each of us for significance that transcends the moment. We want to live beyond ourselves. We want to believe when our lives are over that they mattered, that we made a difference, that what we did was worth doing.

This is one way we deal with the reality of death: if we believe others will remember us, we will “live on” in a sense. But even more, this quest for enduring significance is a God-shaped hunger for living eternally in the temporal. It is a “signal of transcendence” pointing from this life to the next.

Here’s the problem: the quest for celebrity can leave us either frustrated that we are not who we wish to be or proud that we are.

A psychologist notes: “If you look at the Halls of Fame and biographies around the world, there are perhaps only thirty thousand entries and of those, perhaps ten thousand are dead. So this leaves about twenty thousand slots” for fame seekers. How many US presidents can you name? CEOs? Movie stars? Great athletes? Out of a world population of 7.8 billion, how many would you call “great” today?

If you do achieve celebrity that outlives you, beware of the pride that so often accompanies such fame. C. S. Lewis observed, “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you.”

“Jesus came to give us his own life”

The most transcendent celebrity who ever lived was a man who lived in the most humble of ways. If you and I will follow Jesus’ example by focusing on the eternal in the temporal and seeking intimacy with our living Lord, we will experience and reflect his life to a culture in desperate need for what he alone can give.

He testified: “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do” (John 14:12). This is because the same Holy Spirit who empowered Jesus now empowers us. He manifests the same “fruit” in our lives that he demonstrated in our Savior’s life (Galatians 5:22–23). And every day, by focusing on Jesus, we experience eternal significance that our world cannot begin to bestow or take.

As usual, Henri Nouwen makes my point better than I can: “Our lives are destined to become like the life of Jesus. The whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry is to bring us to the house of his Father. Not only did Jesus come to free us from the bonds of sin and death; he also came to lead us into the intimacy of his divine life.

“It is difficult for us to imagine what this means. We tend to emphasize the distance between Jesus and ourselves. We see Jesus as the all-knowing and all-powerful Son of God who is unreachable for us sinful, broken human beings. But in thinking this way, we forget that Jesus came to give us his own life. He came to lift us up into loving community with the Father.

“Only when we recognize the radical purpose of Jesus’ ministry will we be able to understand the meaning of the spiritual life. Everything that belongs to Jesus is given for us to receive. All that Jesus does we may also do.”

Are you seeking “the intimacy of his divine life” today?

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