Heroes and the Modern Idol Cult: Who Do We Look Up to in the Present Age?
In May 1840, Thomas Carlyle gave a series of public lectures on heroes and hero-worship. In these lectures he considered the need of man to look up to someone greater than himself. The desire to worship or at least to honour, to aspire to be like, someone of apparently greater knowledge or power than ourselves, is native to the spirit of man, and so hero worship comes about. Achilles, the Greek hero of Trojan War fame, was a fearless and skilful warrior. Hercules was admired for his great strength and ingenuity, Atlas for his fantastic strength in holding the earth up, Isis for her motherhood, Arachne for her skill in weaving, Alexander of Macedon for his courage and perception in waging war. Although all these are a bit different from sports and movie stars, it seems to me that the honour paid them is on the same scale of fascination with which modern society regards sports and movie stars.
Shrines were established to worship Hercules and Alexander. We almost have our own shrines in the Hollywood Hall of Fame, but I would not want to condemn awards ceremonies, such as the BAFTA’s and Oscars, in and of themselves as paying undue credit to the skill involved in producing films and television series. Nevertheless, the adulation of fans does, and should, I think, raise concerns, certainly at least of being wary of idolizing such figures rather than merely acknowledging their skill in the same way that one would credit the ability of a carpenter or a businessman or a nurse. To help put it in perspective, society would hardly worship a lawyer, accountant, or surgeon because of his skill or knowledge.
Lest those a little older than the present generation, many of whom are keen fans of the likes of One Direction and Justin Bieber, forget, some decades ago the Beatles and Gene Pitney, to name only two examples, were greeted with similar adulation. Indeed, the very term fan is problematic, since it is an abbreviation of fanatic, which surely is something that should be reserved for the adoration of God alone.
In the ancient world, whether classical Greece or imperial Rome, actors and sportsmen were idolised. The ancient Greek world was somewhat more restrained than the later Roman world, but numerous festivals held around the year in various Greek city-states promoted competition in sports and theatre particularly. Our modern Olympic games are only one example of four such events which were held around the Greek world at different times of the year. A great deal of money was spent on these events, such that funding a four-horse chariot for a race was considered quite a sacrifice. Then, as now, men impoverished themselves in their ambition to achieve sporting or theatrical success, the financial supporters winning the prize itself, not merely winning vicariously as they do today.
The adulation of the crowds depicted in the film Gladiator is quite accurate (the film as a whole is quite accurate in many respects), including when we see Maximus demand of the crowd in one stadium, ‘Are you not entertained?’ In the scene in Ben-Hur when Judah ben-Hur defeats the Roman Messala, and so realises in some degree the desire of the Semitic and Canaanite peoples to see Rome defeated, we see some of the consuming interest, even passion, that was aroused not only for success but for those who brought it about. Successful charioteers, gladiators, and actors were all hailed almost as gods on earth. Sometimes their influence made them untouchable, and although their popularity was whimsical, it could protect them even from the emperor.
Actors, gladiators, and charioteers, the entertainers of the Roman empire, were idolised by their fans in the world of which much was summed up as ‘bread and circuses’ by the satirist Juvenal (Roman satirist; lived around 60 to 140 AD).
We sometimes wonder about the sense of confidence possessed by those who get caught up in the hype surrounding visiting performers or sportsmen. This hype in itself should suggest to us the origin of the problem. It is not God to whom our sinful nature is inclined to look for salvation (hence all the fuss about climate change and saving the whales, not that concern for the environment or conservation of animals is a bad thing). The essential problem with hero worship is that it is worship which should be directed to the true hero, Jesus Christ. As with many elements of the Christian life, how we value others is a balancing act. We may not treat them as though they have no worth, but we must not praise them to the skies either.
Three Scriptures spring to mind: ‘(they) exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man’ (Romans 1: 23). We see here that God is perfect, man is fallen, and this affects both the inclination of our own hearts and points out the categorical difference in spiritual and judicial value between man and God. Man is not God, but he is made in God’s image and should be respected as such. ‘But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court’ (Matthew 5:22) and, to put things in balance, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength ... and your neighbour as yourself’ (Matt. 22: 37, 39). This last passage alludes to the ontological distinction between man and God, that he is creator, we are creatures, and between us is an infinite distance of value. Confusing creature with creator was what went wrong with the golden calf; there is a categorical difference between God and man.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 speaks to this issue.
From now on those who have wives should live as though they had none; those who mourn as though they did not; and those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of this world as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Clearly Paul is not encouraging matrimonial neglect here since that would be in contradiction to verse 5 of this chapter. What he is saying is that, though God has given us good gifts to enjoy in their place, we must not be bound to them. We are to possess those gifts by being willing to give them up, not by being inseparably attached to them. True possession of something is to possess it, not to be possessed by it. Nothing God gives us in this life is to be our be-all and end-all. Jesus said that ‘he who tries to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it’ (Luke 17: 33).
The solution is to pay due respect to the skill of performers and sportsmen in such a way as to reflect God’s glory. We may not value such people above other human beings, certainly not on a par with God, though we may give them their due.