Icons and Heroes
The death last year of Alan Rickman meant the loss to the entertainment industry of one of its finest and most versatile modern actors. From roles such as the Sheriff of Nottingham in the otherwise awful ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’ (“Locksley, Iâ€™m going to cut your heart out with a spoon!”), to the splendidly menacing Severus Snape in the ‘Harry Potter’ films, Rickman has entertained the world. By Grabthar’s Hammer, a finer example of the Brit in Hollywood (and elsewhere) is hard to find. If you don’t recognise the image above (or the quote), by the way, then what have you been doing? Possibly the best sci-fi spoof ever made, ‘Galaxy Quest’ stars Tim Allen as Jason Nesmith (as Commander Peter Quincy Taggert, a Captain Kirk type), alongside Rickman as Alexander Dane (as Dr Lazarus, the Spock-like character), and is a take on the ‘Star Trek’ genre. It opens with the crew of the NSEA ‘Protector’ attending a fan convention dedicated to the now-cancelled show ‘Galaxy Quest’, and are mistaken for actual heroes by an alien species who have seen the show, considering it to be an historical account. Hilarity ensues.
Having attended fan conventions on a few occasions, I am somewhat familiar with the dedication people can have for their heroes, often dressing as them and learning large amounts of technical data and dialogue (“When I say run, run…”). We see the same levels of dedication in the fields of sport and music, too – fans dress, and sing, and buy merchandise, even adopting mannerisms and being influenced by their opinions.
It is the nature of humanity to put others on a pedestal – even if, sometimes, it is only to knock them off it.
Heroes and heroines have been a reality of human life probably since the earliest cave dwellers noticed that some hunters killed bigger mammoths than others – thus leading to the earliest examples of league tables (only kidding). We are a highly social species, and cannot help but be influenced by the behaviours of those around us. And, where those behaviours inspire us to achieve and better ourselves, it is almost certainly a positive thing. There is a darker side, of course. Copycats who see others doing something and seek to do the same thing, often because they lack a sense of personal worth, are most notoriously associated with serial killers or terrorism, but the same thing is seen in the way young people idolise sports or music stars, or even the ‘cool’ kids in their school. Inspiration can tip over into idolatry. What is harmful about these activities is not the ‘celebrity’ as such, but more the surrender of individuality and the lack of self-worth which can be implicit in the need to do as others do.
The religious world is not immune to this behaviour, of course. The effect of charismatic teachers and leaders has led the Christian church into disrepute, and continues to be a source of contention for believers. ‘Megachurches’ – huge, concert venue-filling worship, comprising many thousands attending spectacular services â€“ are often fronted by such influential leaders. The worship bands at these, and some smaller, churches frequently resemble pop groups performing at a gig, with the ‘congregation’ dancing and responding in a very similar way. At the other end of the ecclesiological spectrum, the massive crowds who turn out to see the Pope, and the roaring trade in pontiff-branded calendars, cards, and all kinds of paraphernalia, blurs the distinction between the prayerful man of God which Pope Francis certainly is, and a demagogue determined to impose his will on an adoring or fearful population, which some Popes have been in the past. Cult leaders have long exploited this influential combination – charisma and fear – with often tragic results.
Politics too – the recent General Election looked far more like a Presidential race, with the Prime Minister talking about ‘her’ Government (it is the Queen’s, Mrs May…), and huge focus on the personality differences between the party leaders. And what may we say about the current American President? Has there ever been a more stark example of style over substance?
The Bible is very clear on the subject. Nobody and nothing must take the place of God. If God is who we believe her to be, then God’s rightful place is at the top of the pecking order.
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Exodus 20:2-6, NRSV)
The term ‘idol’ is generally used to mean a carved (‘graven’) image, because that is what people in those days often worshipped as gods. The key to understanding this, though, is in the verse before – the bit about having no other gods. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he replied,
“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV)
This is Jesus updating the understanding of the ten commandments. The first four, the ones about our relationship with God, are summarised with an expression of complete devotion to God – nothing must come before God in our lives, because there is nothing and nobody more important. Not because God is a power-crazed egomaniac who demands our attention, but simply because God is the only one who fully understands us and has the best options for our life.
When we place our own ‘stuff’ at the top of the tree, we blind ourselves to the possibility that there is something real which belongs in that exalted place. If all we do is ‘worship’ our ‘idols’, then there is no room for consideration of the bigger truths. I am not suggesting that we stop enjoying entertainment or admiring our sporting heroes, but an understanding of what these things and people are not is at least as important as an appreciation of what they are.
The God of the Bible is the God of all people – whether believers or not. God wants nothing more than the chance to get to know us, to walk alongside us and support us in our daily lives. To help us truly live, to the very best of our potential – in the knowledge that that does not need to look like anybody else’s life, and is not measured or compared in God’s eyes. God wants to help us be the very best version of ourselves – however many times we get it all wrong. He even sent his son to live – and die – to bring us back into a full and close relationship with him. No ticket price, or expensive merchandising. No restrictions on age, gender, race, sexual orientation or football club preferences. No terms and conditions. Just a desire to know God and a willingness to listen as hard as we can.
By Grabthar’s Hammer, that sounds like someone worthy of our worship.
Live long and prosper!