Writings by Cole Huffman

Pointing at Train Wrecks

In a vividly worded piece of cultural insight Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, refers to paparazzi as “parasites that coagulate on the souls of the talented.” Souls like Whitney Houston—exceptionally talented singer yet addicted woman. Parker wrote her column yesterday against the backdrop of Houston’s death at 48 (link: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/whitney-houston-and-the-curse-of-fame/2012/02/14/gIQAnrJUER_story.html).
The teachable moment emerging from Houston’s hotel room, Parker says, is not about the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs but the toxic mix of misery and celebrity. Why does it seem so many of those who “make it big” get caught in the gravitational pull of small orbits like addiction? She probes the role of intrusive public acclaim in the unraveling of lives like Houston’s. We, the ravenous public, believe that superlative gifts are bequeathed to the select few for us, the masses. So we pay for their music, books, art, athleticism, making them rich and famous. But if they show a prominent flaw or weakness—boy, do we make them pay us back. This has to take a toll on their psyche.
Jack Johnson’s song “Good People” is about the personality carnival television has become. One of the lines is, “How many train wrecks do we need to see?” Yes, Whitney Houston was her own conductor on the crazy train of a highly publicized drug addiction. The train wrecked last week and she, not her public, was at the controls of her own demise.
But Whitney Houston wasn’t the only one addicted. We are also. We’re addicted to seeing the train wrecks. It gives us something to talk and tweet about, criticize, belittle, mock, pray the Pharisee prayer in response (see Luke 18:9-14). Parker presents the media’s role in this as that of drug dealer. Being their junkies, we have allowed ourselves to regard celebrities as less than truly human.
Take Britney Spears. I don’t know her although two of six degrees of separation could make our acquaintance: I did doctoral work with her former youth pastor and her original voice teacher is a member of my church. Among evangelicals, before Katy Perry, Spears was the poster child for church girls gone wild. Christians began to view her through the lens of her celebrity and treated her as an enemy of decency and decorum. She was, after all, corrupting our girls and seducing our boys.
A few years ago Spears had a train-wreck kind of meltdown. I found it painful to watch a beautiful young woman with shaved head beating a paparazzi car with an umbrella. It evoked compassion for her and repentance in me, for I too had bashed her at times.
A little while later I bought Bebo Norman’s self-titled album (2008) on which he included this song he wrote after viewing news footage of Spears’ troubles. He called it “Britney”:
“Britney I'm sorry for the lies we told
We took you into our arms and then left you cold
Britney I'm sorry for this cruel, cruel world
We sell the beauty but destroy the girl
“Britney I'm sorry for your broken heart
We stood aside and watched you fall apart
I'm sorry we told you fame would fill you up
And money moves the man so drink the cup…
“Britney I'm sorry for the stones we throw
We tear you down just so we can watch the show
Britney I'm sorry for the words we say
We point the finger as you fall from grace…
“Britney I do believe that love has come
Here for the broken
Here for the ones like us

“I know love goes around the world we know
And you never see it coming back
You never see it coming back
And I know love goes around the world we know
And you never see it coming back
But I can see it coming back…

“It's coming back for you... yeah.”
That is a model Christian response to the phenomenon of the train wreck, I think. Not pointing at it, making light of it, or dismissing it as the troubles of those we can’t relate to. Celebrity doesn’t make one less human. It is a matter of essential evangelical doctrine that no one is beneath the love and grace of God no matter how much they damage themselves.
The next time the next train wreck plays out before us, crane your neck to see the love of God coming back around for the ones like us. Before Whitney sang it God did: I will always love you.

Posted by Cole Huffman at 8:04 PM
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