Fantastic article by Neil Strauss about the relationship between faith and superstardom in last week’s Wall Street Journal, entitled “God at the Grammys: The Chosen Ones.” Among his interviewees are Lady Gaga, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Christina Aguilera, and Aaron Rodgers, all of whom credit their success to some form of divine intervention. Not much needs to be said that Sean Norris didn’t say last year in his post “The American Music Awards, Mickey Rourke and the Thirst for Glory”, i.e. if superstars teach us anything, it’s how undeniably hardwired we are as “theologians of glory,” always locating God in success rather than failure, in victory rather than defeat, in Jerusalem rather than Nazareth, in Easter rather than Good Friday. Which is not to say that artists are somehow exempted from any honest-to-God sense of vocation (Bono “springsteens” to mind), just that when fame – and awards/rewards – get involved, the waters get pretty muddied, pretty quickly.
When this year’s Grammy winners accept their awards on Sunday night, God is likely to be thanked and praised more than a few times. It’s a longstanding showbiz tradition, after all, prevalent at the Oscars, the Emmys and even the AVN Awards for adult movies. Until I began interviewing many of the winners of these awards two decades ago, I thought this was a sign of humility and gratitude (or at least an affectation of them) [ed. note: which it certainly can be on occasion, and even when it's not, is clearly preferable to unrestrained self-aggrandizement, no?]. But the truth is more interesting than that.
Before they were famous, many of the biggest pop stars in the world believed that God wanted them to be famous, that this was his plan for them, just as it was his plan for the rest of us not to be famous. Conversely, many equally talented but slightly less famous musicians I’ve interviewed felt their success was accidental or undeserved—and soon after fell out of the limelight.
As I compiled and analyzed these interviews for my new book, I reached a surprising conclusion: Believing that God wants you to be famous actually improves your chances of being famous. Of course, from the standpoint of traditional theology, even in the Calvinistic world of predestination, God is much more concerned with the fate of an individual’s soul than his or her secular success, and one’s destiny is unknowable. So what’s helping these stars is not so much religion as belief—specifically, the belief that God favors their own personal, temporal success over that of almost everyone else.
Let’s call it competitive theism, a self-styled spirituality that can be overlaid on any religion and has nothing to do with personal morality. This faith gap, I’ve noticed in the interviews I’ve done, is often what sets the merely famous apart from the ridiculously famous. It can make the difference between achieving what’s possible and accomplishing what seems impossible.Though scientists, to the best of my knowledge, have yet to study the relationship of faith to superstardom, they have studied addicts, transplant patients and natural disaster victims, and they have found that actively seeking God’s intervention has improved people’s odds of survival.
But the more successful you get, the faster, louder and more savage the criticism becomes. To deal with the psychological burden of becoming a household name and the attacks that come with it, it helps to be thick-skinned. It helps even more to have a sense of divine mission and to feel that, when everyone else seems to be against you, God is walking at your side. Most stars who feel even a sliver of doubt about being in the spotlight will buckle under the constant pressure. Fearing criticism or failure, they become risk-averse and pass up opportunities…
The meek may indeed inherit the Earth, but until then, stars who are presumptuous enough to see themselves as God’s chosen ones are likely to dominate the pop charts, award shows and sports championships. Talent counts for a lot, but so too does the motivating power of divine conviction.
Of course, this is all pretty ironic, since God actually was at the Grammy’s this year… Where his disciples joined him in a stirring version of “Maggie’s Farm”: