Essay / Culture

Why I Don't Pray for Celebrities

I don’t pray for celebrities because they aren’t real people.

Celebrity deaths come in threes, they say, and recently Ed McMahon, Farah Fawcett, and Michael Jackson have died. There have been obituaries and retrospectives, and some scrambling to figure out how we are supposed to feel about these deaths of people we never met but felt like we somehow knew.

Celebrities are such odd phenomena. They are these personas that are presented to us, carefully packaged by a publicity team and then transmitted through a vast system for the dissemination of their images. We know nothing about celebrities except what they want us to know. They and their handlers project a public image by sending a set of coordinated signals: posed and retouched photos, bits of biographical information, sound bites, reports of how they feel, and of course their own artistic productions or performances.

Even the supposedly unauthorized information I have about celebrities, disseminated through Hollywood tabloids, paparazzi culture, and gossip blogs, is just a bit of controlled chaos in the overall public relations system.

What I have contact with is not a person at all, but a media construct. My experience of a famous person is an experience of a simulcacrum, an image that stands for something really real but which takes on a virtual reality (or hyper-reality) of its own.

I also don’t pray for fictional characters. I don’t ask God to send rescuers to Robinson Crusoe, or to get Gilligan and his friends off that crazy island, or to make things work out right for the people on Lost. Those are not real people or real islands.

I know that somewhere behind the persona of any celebrity, there must be a real person. Tom Hanks lives somewhere, has a mom and a dad and loved ones. Jennifer Aniston might have pets, and they probably love her. Even Jack Black must be an actual human. If I actually knew any of those people personally, I would pray for them. But I would not pray for a life-sized cardboard cut-out of them, and what I have available to me in their celebrity personas is essentially an elaborate cut-out.

Please note that I’m not saying you shouldn’t pray for celebrities; I’m just saying that I don’t. There are plenty of organizations that encourage interceding for the stars, and offer resources and advice about doing it well: The Hollywood Prayer Network, the Celebrity Prayer Network, and Pray for Hollywood. They have some good arguments: Hollywood is an unreached people group, celebrities are influential, the public lives of these people make their need for Christ obvious, etc. “Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to want to pray for celebrities,” urges one website. “They are changing our culture and they need prayer! Just go to God, remembering that these people are just like you…”

It’s possible that some Christians have such a devout frame of mind that they can pray meaningfully for the celebrity personas they get from the media. I can imagine a prayer warrior so saintly that he could use People magazine as a devotional tool. In fact, I know a woman who is so habitually prayerful that she spontaneously prays out loud for anybody who comes to mind. Once in the late 1980s I was driving around Palm Springs with her, and a sunbeam lit up the mountain-side home of Bob Hope. She reached out her hand toward that house and began interceding for Bob Hope! She thanked God for the happiness Bob Hope had brought to soldiers and lonely people, and asked God to reveal himself to Bob Hope. It was quite a prayer! I was stunned by this; it made perfect sense coming from her. As for me, I couldn’t get through the first couple of sentences without thinking I was talking about my imaginary friend. “Lord, please bless Harvey my invisible rabbit friend. Give him lots of good carrots, and make him hoppy.”

I don’t pray for fictional characters, or people in the distant past (“Lord, help Washington make it across the Delaware, and give R. A. Torrey a fruitful 1904 tour of Australia”). I do pray for missionaries I have never personally met, and I even pray for people groups that I only know about through missions publications. You could argue that those missionaries and people groups are just as unreal to me as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. But there are several differences: missions literature doesn’t have the titillation value that entertainment news has, and missionaries are projecting a persona that is as close as possible to their true selves, and a persona that they actually believe in. (Check out Erving Goffman’s observations on “the cynical style” versus “the sincere style” in his book The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life)

There are some decent reasons to pray for celebrities. The more the celebrity is an artist whose work has touched you, the more inclined you might be to pray for them. There is something real transmitted by good art that jumps across the media gap. The more a celebrity is somebody who is famous for being famous, the less justification you have for investing your mental life or your prayer life in them.

And certainly none of what I’m saying applies to anybody who works in the entertainment industry and has actual personal interaction with the stars. If you know them, they’re in your circle of real people to pray for.

I suppose, given the personal tragedy that Michael Jackson lived out in public for 50 years, you could pray about his life in a way that involved repenting of the audience’s complicity in his self-destruction. Bebo Norman’s apology to Britney Spears is about as good as it gets along these lines (“Britney I’m sorry for the stones we throw / we tear you down just so we can watch the show”), though it’s not a prayer and it verges too near the “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE!!!” territory.

The main reason I don’t pray about celebrities, however, is that I mostly don’t care about celebrities. If I did, I would pray for them. You can, and should, pray about anything you care about. That doesn’t guarantee that anything you subjectively care about is objectively important. But it does mean that God wants to hear from you about everything that matters to you.

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