My daughter and I had been watching the Instagram feed of one celebrity couple over the holidays, hoping for an engagement. Instead, they broke up on New Year’s Eve. Cecilia and I were both crushed. It’s been a rough year for the few areas of celebrity culture which I follow. Harry and Meghan left their jobs in the Royal Family, then they left Canada too. Princes Harry and William had a public falling out. And the demise of the love story of this power couple from our favorite reality tv show was just one in a long line of supposed fairytale romances toppled by 2020.
In each of these cases, I felt a personal sense of shock and loss. No matter how irrational it is to care about people simply because they are beautiful and famous, it never fails to feel like a slap in the face when the carefully constructed and shimmering curtain that covers our celebrities and their relationships gets pulled aside.
Alongside the sense of loss though, I found myself asking a question. I know these feelings are silly. But I also know I’m not alone in feeling personally invested in the lives of people I don’t know. The fact that people like me feel this way is the cornerstone of the whole celebrity machine. Although my feelings might be silly, they are worth examining.
In the blockbuster teen novel, The Outsiders, one of the characters, Two-Bit, gripes about losing his switchblade in the confusion following two of his best friends dying. One of his other friends snaps at him, “Is that all that’s bothering you, that switchblade?”
Two-Bit’s answer is telling. “No,” he says, “but that’s what I’m wishing was all that’s bothering me.”
There is something in Two-Bit’s response that offers insight into our collective celebrity obsession. I buried dozens of beloved members of my church last year; my husband’s grandmother was diagnosed with COVID-19 before Christmas; I wasn’t with most of my nearest and dearest for the holidays; we are all living in a landscape of fear, uncertainty, disease, division and death. Grief for the break-up of people I don’t know provides a buffer to a sadness that can be so overwhelming that dealing with it is like trying to drink water from a firehose. Mourning the tattered relationships of reality tv stars and the Royal Family is a way of allowing my grief to be processed more like a water fountain.
In a weird way, I find that the church can act as a similar emotional buffer, even as it ultimately seeks to dismantle any barriers we put up around our hearts. One of my colleagues noted for me when I was first starting out in parish ministry that it tends to be people in their middle-aged years who get most upset about change in the church. Their lives are busy, they are juggling intense demands—as providers, as caregivers, as employees and employers, as people trying to make their mark and people coming to terms with their mortality. They do in spades what all of us at any stage of life can get easily seduced into doing: we attach ourselves to the picture of what religious faith and the religious community should be. We invest ourselves in a static idea of how worship should go, how our buildings should be set up, how we hope people will act and what we want our leaders to sound and look like. When the reality of the whole thing breaks that picture (change is the constant in Church Land too, and at the end of the day church-goers are just people and so are our leaders) we can feel crushingly disappointed. Inevitably this disappointment gets amplified when what we actually desperately feel, like Two-Bit, is that it would be nice if that one problem of how things get done in the community of faith were really the only thing off-kilter in our lives.
Caitlyn Chiarelli, a fellow writer and parishioner of St. George’s, shared a reflection with me recently, in which she made the radical and simple claim that God is calling us all to be part of the church. She made it clear that she leaves room in that statement for other faith expressions the world over and that she respects the light of God’s love in religious traditions different from our own. What she meant though is that every single human being is called to learn to love in the way that Jesus taught and that the church, the Body of Christ allows. She noted her own struggle with having certain expectations of religion that then get dashed and wishing that the church, and especially the people in it, were “perfect and neat.” But then she wrote:
I think we are all called to “the church” because this is the place where we open ourselves to a wider circle of love, and force ourselves into those uncomfortable places; this is what love asks of us … this is what Jesus did. I am not sure we can fully love the way God intended without “the church.” The imperfect, messy church.
Jesus’ command to his followers, just hours before his death, was that we love one another. We know that if Christians are to be about anything, it is love. But that’s the other thing about both celebrity relationships and the Body of Christ: we’d like love to be simpler than it is. We would like “happily ever after” to be as effortless as the end of a Disney movie suggests it to be. We would like to put people on pedestals and believe through them that goodness and God work through people’s lives in ways that we can keep at arm’s length from the more complex realities of our own experience. Glossy and filtered pictures, as well as nostalgic and sentimental ideas, of how human beings can be with one another are enormously appealing, even if they always end up being revealed as false or incomplete. The reality of love is that all of us make mistakes and each of us will one day die. There is no way of opening our hearts to one another without loss and fragility and pain.
And as hard as it is to accept this starting premise, as much as we all want to, at one time or another, latch onto a prettier, simpler and more stable version of love, the great thing is that if we follow that calling, which Caitlyn suggests is universal, and we allow ourselves to be claimed by the life of the church, then we also get to be claimed by Jesus.
Jesus disruptively centered his ministry around eating with the rejects of society. Jesus saved his most terrifying parables and most blistering teachings for those, like the rich man in the parable with Lazarus, who walk by and refuse to see themselves as related to the suffering of others. Jesus enacted a ministry, not by himself, but with a cobbled together assortment of desperate people—fishermen, demoniacs, widows, tax collectors, and Samaritans—out of whom he saw, named and called forth gifts for revealing the Kingdom of God. If we are uncertain of what real love might look and feel like, we have Jesus showing us the way.
And then we have Jesus continuing to show us. Jesus keeps shredding those glossy pictures of human life, religious piety, and what it is to love. More importantly, he then promises to take our hand and never let us go, daring us to open our hearts anyway, with us every step of the way in discovering again that the cross-shaped way of costly love is really the way of life.