Gods behaving badly: Media, Religion, and Celebrity Culture - I interview Pete Ward about his new book #dmingml

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Gods Behaving Badly: Media, Religion, and Celebrity Culture, Pete Ward

Pete Ward's latest book came out a couple of months ago, and I finally managed to get to ask Pete some questions about the book.  You can also read an article by Pete about the book at The Other journal.
1) What prompted you to write this book on this topic?

In the first instance I was asked to write a piece for a magazine.  That let me explore the whole area of celebrity and I started to see something of significance in the topic.  There is a sense in which with this book I was following the rabbit down the hole.  I had an intuitive notion that this was an aspect of popular culture that was important or revealing.  My first clue to that was the prevalence of religious or theological language used about celebrities.  So newspapers talk about the cult of celebrities or the worship of celebrities or we have become accustomed to the use of terms like pop idol or rock God.  This kind of language got my theological antenna twitching

2) What are you trying to do with this book, any hopes for what your writing will help people see and understand?
I see two main areas where I hope this book makes a contribution.  At a basic missiological level I think we need to understand the popular culture that the Church shares with those around us.  It is not simply a case of understanding ‘them’ but the need to understand ourselves as part of this soup of communication.  I think we tend to leap much too quickly to criticism or some kind of Christian or theological fix when we talk about popular culture.  As a result I think we can fail to learn or we miss the point.  So my main aim with this book is to try and listen or interpret in an empathetic way.

My second concern is to try and contribute to the discussion concerning theology religion and popular culture.  There’s a real growth industry in books about theology and film or theology and television. In many ways I feel these appropriate the popular to a Christian framework. On the other side there are religious studies people who are keen to interpret popular culture as religion.  I am kind of disagreeing with both of these.  My approach wants to see what is going on in popular culture and what I have concluded is that celebrity ‘worship’ is not religion But it has theological elements that are used as metaphors in the ‘discourse’.  I call this para-religion.

3)  How does this book relate to your previous writings and work? 
At a very fundamental level all of my writing and research has grown from the experience of being a youth worker with unchurched young people.  This exprience made me realize that we need to be culturally attuned if we want to do mission.  In particular in my Liquid Church book I was following this idea and saying we need to see encounter with Christ and thus Church emerge from the spirituality and the practices of non-churched people.  So basically my beef with Emergent/Fresh Expressions is that it starts by trying to reshape Church rather than by trying to connect with where those outside the Church are already spiritually active and engaged.  This book fits with this point But its main contribution is to urge caution about theological metaphors and expressions in popular culture – they are not what they seem.  They may not be a starting point or any way as significant as questions of identity, relationship and family – all of which are evident as key notions in celebrity coverage.
4)  What makes your account of celebrity different from others?
Most academic commentators at some point make a connection to religion and say something like ‘In a secular age of Church decline celebrity worship is taking the place of Christianity.’  I basically disagree.  People do not worship celebrities, we just use the metaphor of worship to big up what we are saying but there are two important consequences from this is that the theological metaphors subtly shift and in some way get emptied out from their Christian meaning but at the same time they get connected up to what people really see as sacred and meaningful – the self.
Dr Peter Ward
Senior Lecturer In Youth Ministry and Theological Education
King's College London