"News stories I'm sick of"
"Book I'm currently reading"
“Favorite 80s song”
“Season [TV] finale I’ve most looked forward to”
or the past year or so, responses by sports celebrities to questions like these have appeared weekly in Sports Illustrated,
the longstanding and much more influential equivalent of the Adventist Review
in the religion that sport has become. So in a column entitled “The Pop Culture Grid,” the reader is treated to the riveting information that NHL center Rod Brind’Amour wears boxers (as opposed to briefs), the product that Arena Football League quarterback Tony Graziani can’t live without is hair gel, WBA guard Kara Lawson’s least favorite food is liver, Olympic medalist speed skater Chad Hedrick had spaghetti for breakfast. (They were out of eggs.)
And interestingly it isn’t only the active athletes themselves who somehow qualify for inclusion in this vital data. Coaches, managers, and even sportscasters are canvassed for their responses. (NBA color commentator Bill Walton’s favorite love song is “Positively 4th Street” by Bob Dylan. Super Bowl reporter Suzy Kolber has seen BrokebackMountain.)
And at least some of us are wondering, Who cares?
Well, apparently we
do. It’s as if we’re all avidly engaged in a cultural game of Trivial Pursuit.
And this does not apply solely to our appetite for information about sports, but to that of the world of celebrity in general: sports stars, politicians, movie and television personalities, musicians of every stripe—even the marginally famous and infamous. At one time a person became famous for having accomplished something singular. Not any more. As historian and former head of the U.S. Library of Congress Daniel Boorstin points out, “The celebrity is a person who is known for his well-knownness.”1
In some ways this isn’t anything new—even in Scripture. The Queen of Sheba, hearing of King Solomon’s fabulous success, made a pilgrimage to see for herself what all the talk was about. And King Solomon, caught up in the glow of his own celebrity, failed completely to attribute his success to its authentic source (1 Kings 10; 2 Chronicles 9).
Similarly, when the accomplished Babylonian astronomers observed the staying of the sun and heard of Hezekiah’s miraculous healing, the son of their king dispatched envoys to investigate. So what does Hezekiah do? Like Solomon, he tries to dazzle them with the sheer opulence of his privileged lifestyle (Isa. 39:1, 2). In today’s terms, he thought they were coming to do a “fluff piece” on his celebrity. They weren’t.
One obvious conclusion to all this is that the warm feeling of “well-knownness” can be a seductive thing—even to people who are close to God’s leading.
It should be acknowledged early on that today’s media provide two approaches to celebrity news. The most egregious is that displayed at the point-of-purchase in our supermarkets and drug stores. There we see manifestly imaginary headlines about the lives of celebrities mixed with the likes of “New Ten Commandments Discovered in Iraq Combat Zone” and “T-Rex Terrorizes Trailer Park” and (a personal favorite) “Osama Captured by Rednecks in Missouri.” Some of the more extreme of these are so grotesque that they have no business appearing in print, though the publishers seem blissfully unaware of this.
When you point out to a reader of supermarket tabloids that the producers of such publications don’t even pretend to be reporting facts, they say, “I know, but I like it.” We buy materials even when we know they’re specious because they’ve become a weirdly seductive kind of entertainment.
Furthermore, our appetite for information about celebrities has spilled over into the more responsible branches of media. In a cartoon appearing in The [New Orleans] Times Picayune, political humorist Steve Kelley depicts a disgruntled viewer shaking his fist at his TV and ranting: “Michael Jackson . . . Tom Cruise . . . The Runaway Bride . . . Doesn’t anyone report actual news anymore?” In the next frame, from the television comes: “And out of Iraq today, word that former dictator Saddam Hussein . . .” (the viewer leans forward in expectation) “absolutely adores Doritos.”
Is this overstating the case? Well, yes, of course. That’s what political humor often does. It’s a caricature.
But caricature derives from at least a germ of truth. Celebrity has become a driving force behind what we now consider to be news.
ESPN, Entertainment Tonight—all claim to be presenting reliable news and facts. None of this tabloid stuff for them.Yet even they feel compelled to provide information that is anything but useful. It’s truth with a lower-case “t.” So we’re subjected to a cascade of trivia. Philosopher Jean Baudrillard calls this phenomenon a “pornography of information .”2
What do we do with all this information, all this knowledge?
When Solomon, in one of his more lucid moments, responded to God’s offer of “ ‘whatever you want me to give you’ ” (1 Kings 3:9, NIV), he asked for wisdom—not information, not knowledge. And as Christian communication theorist Quentin Schultze points out, “The opposite of wisdom is not a lack of information or technique, but foolishness.”3
As we sift through the detritus of this information-saturated culture in which we live, it will be of help to apply the principle of Paul’s counsel: “You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is helpful. You say, ‘I am allowed to do anything’—but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor. 10:23, NLT).
“Is this information harmful?” is not as important a question as “Is this information helpful?” Let’s face it: How important can it possibly be that a celebrity had spaghetti for breakfast? Who cares!
1 The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), p. 57.
2 Cited in Glenn Ward, Postmodernism (London: Hodder & Stoughton Educational, 1997), p. 150.
3 Quentin J. Schultze, High-Tech Worship: Using Presentational Technologies Wisely (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2004), p. 85.