Poets, Prophets and Actors

As we discussed last time, both liturgy and drama are stylized representations of reality that mediate to us an encounter with the human and the divine. That’s because Man is a priest. He must live out his priestly role, since he was made by God to do it and continues to do it, in some form or another, even after the Fall.

So when Man becomes a father, he mediates the image of God the Father to his children, whether he will or no. It may be a very debased image, but the mediation happens nonetheless. Likewise, teachers, bosses, authority figures, politicians, baseball players, scientists in lab coats, rock stars and so forth are all “looked up to”. Why do we “look up”? Because they are “on a pedestal”. You know, where the statue of Zeus used to be. We crave a priesthood that will mediate ultimate reality to us and tell us who we are—and who we might be. Not for nothing is the show called “American Idol”.

This conflation of the arts with revelation is nothing new. St. Paul, for instance, quotes the pagan poet Epimenides and refers to him as a “prophet.” Similarly, it is the poet Vergil who conducts the Christian Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. The tendency to elevate the poet to a quasi-prophetic figure also shows up in the art of Michaelangelo, when he invokes both the Sibyls and the Old Testament prophets as forerunners of the Messiah who heralded His coming. So it should come as no surprise that poets (we call them “musicians and screenwriters” today) still occupy this semi-prophetic role in our culture today. And we still expect them to do so. As a critic in the 1930s once said, “Theaters are the new Church of the Masses—where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human.”

All this is fine as far as it goes. But problems enter in when a civilization ceases to be Christian. To see what I mean, log on to Wikipedia and check out the birthdays of notable people for any given date. What you will notice is that, up until about 80 years ago, the notable people tend to be rulers, statesmen, philosophers, scientists, novelists, inventors, and captains of industry and, now and then, an actor. But as the 20th Century progresses—and in particular when you reach the past 50 years or so—what comes to overwhelm the list are actors, singers, models and athletes. The cult (and that is the precise technical term for it) of celebrity comes to dominate and we find ourselves in a world that battens on a priesthood of celebrity that mediates only itself to us. People become famous for being famous.

The gamble that God took in becoming human was the willingness to risk that we would approach creation sacramentally. Paganism misses the sacramental by worshipping the creature instead of the Creator. Before the Incarnation, Israel was headed off from the universal blunder of paganism by being forbidden to worship images. When Christ became man, he gave us the true image of God and enabled us to honor him through images that mediate grace to us. However, when a culture loses its roots in Christ, it can (as ours has) easily slip back to the worship of the creature. So we batten on the star himself as a sort of god. We ask the star for divine oracles, and so take seriously their pronouncements on global warming or animal rights or gay marriage or whatever. We forget that the star is not the character we love. We forget that all the beautiful things he says and does were written down for him in a script. In short, we make an idol of him and forget that he is, at best, merely a priest and a very imperfect one.

The only hope for such a culture is to return to the sacramental and abandon the American Idol of celebrity culture. Drama is good. But it is just a shadow of the One who is truly mediated to us in the Eucharist.

Copyright 2010 - Mark P. Shea