Our cultural icons

I was amazed and I-don’t-know-what on Sunday and Monday when the cover story for two of New York’s primary newspapers (tabloids that they tend to be, but still…) featured Britney Spears and her hair-cutting escapade. The newspapers said she was near an emotional breakdown.
I wonder what goes through the minds of the editors of these two newspapers – money, I suspect. To think, Britney Spears carries more weight than everything else going on in this city, this state, this country, and this world. What does this say about us?
I heard it said somewhere that historically when a culture began to be more concerned with entertaining itself and looking for constant distraction, well, that was the beginning of the end for that culture.
Britney has been elevated by – whom? – someone, some group, to be more important than the devastation of war, the horrid conditions that most of the world’s children live in every day, the corruption of government and business, the new baby surviving against all odds, and so on.
This reminds me of the tragic death of Anna Nicole Smith. Diana Butler Bass wrote an outstanding short essay entitled, Paying Respects to Anna Nicole Smith on Jim Willis and friend’s section of Beliefnet called, “God’s Politics.” Read it! . Really, go right now and read it this day before Lent! (See, you even have a really long link so you can’t miss it…)

Friday, February 09, 2007
Diana Butler Bass: Paying Respects to Anna Nicole Smith
I hope it isn’t entirely frivolous to take note of the untimely death of Anna Nicole Smith – although I suspect some God’s Politics readers might think it odd for a Christian blogger to pay respect to the passing of a former Playboy centerfold and tabloid celebrity.
On most days, it probably would not have occurred to me to think about Anna Nicole’s death theologically. However, as it happened, yesterday was not “most days” in the Bass household. February 8 marks the anniversary of my daughter’s baptism. Nine years ago, we stood at the altar of Calvary Episcopal Church in Memphis, Tennessee, and claimed the promises of grace for our newborn, bathing Emma in the water of God. After the service, dozens of friends came to our house for a party and showered her with small gifts to remember her baptism. Every February 8 since, we have held a “baptism birthday” party for Emma. We light the baptism candle and read the baptism liturgy together.
As we recited the baptism liturgy, I was struck by the final promise. The minister asks, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” The parents (or the candidates in the case of adult baptism) respond, “I will, with God’s help.”
Christian tradition connects justice and peace with the practice of respecting the dignity of every person. The idea that every creature is dignified, related to God, formed in love, and connected to the whole of the universe forms the center point of Christian theology and ethics. Respect for each person in the web of creation supports the work of justice and peacemaking. Without a profound spirituality of human dignity, practices of justice and peacemaking may slide into the realm of power politics. The baptism liturgy strongly implies that without respect for human dignity, there exists no motive to strive for God’s justice and peace.
Anna Nicole Smith’s life serves as a kind of reverse parable of baptism vows – what happens to a person with little respect or dignity. Indeed, she had become a cultural joke, the stripper turned gold-digger turned reality TV star. Estranged from her family, using her wits and her sexuality to survive, she turned the world’s lack of respect inward – creating a distinctly undignified persona as the pathway to riches and love.
But lack of respect does not create stable identity – as was obvious with Anna Nicole’s problems with illness, depression, and drugs. Both justice and peace proved elusive. In her final interview, she told the reporter that everyone she knew had “stolen a piece” of her. She died alone in a casino hotel, with her final taped conversation a tortured reflection of the confident sexual icon she attempted to be.
As the television blared every detail of Anna Nicole’s life and death, titillating viewers with lurid tales of her paramours and drug use, I could only think of those baptism vows. A woman dies. A mother leaves behind a child. She was not a joke; she was a wounded sister in the human family. Yet even in death, she is offered little respect for her innate dignity, her humanity.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is the author of Christianity for the Rest of Us (Harper San Francisco) and the proud mom of Emma Bass.