Celebrity Deaths and Simulated Relationships

2016 has been a bad year for celebrities. The deceased include legendary musicians Prince and David Bowie, Hollywood icons Alan Rickman and Carrie Fisher, and iconic boxing champion Muhammad Ali.

But death isn’t shocking, at least to the Christian. What is a bit unnerving, however, is the response which people exhibit. Why do people take celebrity deaths so hard? Why does social media blow up when a Heath Ledger or a Robin Williams die?

I didn’t quite understand it myself until I listen to an NPR article entitled, “Developing Fictional Relationships,” recorded by Jake Halpern.[1] In this commentary, Halpern explains belongingness theory. While their stated cause for said theory is wrong, belongingness theory does understand that human beings not only need but crave society. As Halpern sums up belongingness theory perfectly: “I just wanted to be part of the gang.”[2]

We know that mankind is meant to live in society. The Scriptures state that “And the Lord God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”[3] Man was meant to live in community with God and with others. This is clear.

Even the heathen recognize this. Aristotle, commonly called the Philosopher, wrote, “From these things therefore it is clear that the city-state is a natural growth, and that man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it.”[4]

What does this have to do with dead celebrities? We all need and desire to belong. Television, movies, and social media all simulate community. Halpern writes, “Gradually, over the course of many episodes, viewers come to feel that they know a fictional persona.”[5]

This is known as the theory of para-social relationships. Promoted by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl, this theory explains the emotional attachment which men and women feel toward their favorite characters and the heartbreak which occurs when the show is canceled or the actor/actress dies.

Halpern corroborates this theory which his own experience: “After watching dozens of “Cheers” episodes, I felt as if I knew the personas in the show intimately. In fact,
there were times when I’d seen more of the characters on “Cheers” than I’d seen of the people in my own family.”[6]

Why? Why would people prefer these illusionary, simulated relationships to real ones? The first reason is time. It’s easier to sit at home and binge watch a few seasons of a show than to meet up with people who have busy lives like ours.

The second and more disturbing reason is that para-relationships are easier. Think about it: “The truth is we all yearn for companionship. The only problem is that for many of us, myself included, the notion of a well-functioning family and a welcoming group of friends and co-workers is occasionally more easily found on television or in the movies than life itself.”[7]

Para-relationships are easy. The character is dependable, stable. Even if he is a bad guy, you know that he’s going to be consistently bad. He may betray others, but he
never betrays you. Even though he may have struggles, he inevitably bounces back.

Para-relationships are easy, but they are illusionary. They are like clouds without rain or a mirage in a vast desert. While you may have the feeling of being a member of a group, in reality, you are more alone and isolated than ever.

Real relationships are hard. People are sinners. Once you get past the thin veneer of respectability, you will always find warts. And, let’s face it, sinners let you down. They aren’t always constant in their actions or behavior. They sin against us. They can hurt us badly.

And that’s not even dealing with the pragmatic issues. It’s hard to coordinate busy schedules. It’s hard to find common interests with others. And sometimes, they don’t bounce back from the tragedies of life. Sometimes, people are changed by trauma.

Does it take time and a tremendous amount of energy to form real relationships? Of course.  And yet, this is the way in which God wants us to live together. Our Triune God wants us to live together in families and in local communities and in nations.

But God especially wants us to live together in the Church. Look at how the Scriptures depict the Church: It is “one body in Christ,”[8] “living stones” and a “spiritual house,”[9] the “household of faith,”[10] and the like. The Church is not an association of like-minded individuals; the Church is one in Christ. She was created by Her Lord’s Word, washed in His blood, and sustained by Him who died for her.

Our relationships in the Church are not based upon potlucks, vibrant youth groups, or couples’ clubs. Those things are great and they have their place. Congregations ought to host events and the like so that congregation members might become acquainted with one another.

But our relationships in the church are primarily created and sustained by Christ Himself. He has restored our relationship with God and with others, as St. Paul says: “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace.”[11]

How do we maintain this wonderful relationship we have with one another in Christ? First, we learn the “the pattern of sound words.”[12] We find this in the Small Catechism and in the other confessional documents found in the Book of Concord.

These sound words also help us to be one in mind and heart. As St. Paul writes to the Corinthian congregation: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”[13]

Turn off the TV. Stop buying gossip columns off the rack. Get off Facebook and Twitter. Have a conversation with the person sitting next to you in the pews. Not a conversation about sports or the weather, but have a conversation about the one thing needful. That is the foundation of every true relationship between those who are in Christ.

[1] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4772145. Accessed December 29, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Genesis 2:18, NKJV.

[4] http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0058%3Abook%3D1%3Asection%3D1253a. Accessed December 29, 2016.

[5]   http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4772145.

[6] http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4772145.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Romans 12:5

[9] 1 Peter 2:5

[10] Gal. 6:10

[11] Ephesians 2:14-15

[12] 2nd Tim. 1:13

[13] 1 Cor. 1:10.

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