As we approach the end of another year, one trending topic on Twitter has been #WorstYearEver. No doubt, a good many people have reasons to think that 2016 was a particularly disagreeable year. But the aforementioned hashtag has little to do with difficult economies, incessant terrorist attacks, the Zika virus, or the difficulties attending South Africa’s drought. No, the driving force behind #WorstYearEver is death—particularly celebrity death.
This past year saw a slew of celebrity deaths, including (but not limited to) David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Nancy Reagan, Doris Roberts, Prince, Mohamed Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Alan Thicke, George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Fisher’s mom, Debbie Reynolds. With each death, social media has exploded with complaints about 2016 “taking” so many stars (when, in fact, God has “taken” these celebrities—see Deuteronomy 32:39)—often attended by a few choice expletives.
In fact, these, and other, celebrity deaths certainly do not paint the past year as the worst year ever, but only expose the astonishing ignorance, idolatry and insensitivity of those who promote the hashtag.
One website, incomplete at the time of writing, lists some 147 celebrity deaths in 2016. I don’t know (and don’t care to research) how that stacks up to celebrity deaths in previous years, but I know for certain that 147-plus celebrity deaths certainly do not equate to the worst year ever.
On 1 July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, 19,240 British soldiers lost their lives, and another 38,230 were injured. Sixty million people lost their lives in World War II. The Black Death of the fourteenth century is estimated to have killed 1.5 million people. In a culture of instant news and celebrity worship, this year may feel like a particularly bad year, but in the larger scheme of things, objectively speaking, the decks are stacked very much against the #WorstYearEver assertion.
Perhaps the best explanation for the feelings of despair that have been aired on social media is idolatry. Back in June 2009, in the wake of Michael Jackson’s death, at least twelve suicides were attributed directly to feelings of despair at the pop star’s sudden death. This is the cost of celebrity worship.
James Chapman drew attention in 2003 to “celebrity worship syndrome” in his Daily Mail article titled “Do you worship these celebs?” Celebrity worship syndrome is now a recognised obsessive-compulsive disorder in which a person becomes overly involved with the details of a celebrity’s personal and professional life. Studies have been done to prove that this is a psychological disorder. The Bible would identify it as idolatry.
In ancient times, people lived in a world in which life revolved around the gods. Stories were fabricated to explain the existence of the gods. Backstories were created to detail their family history and the source of their divinity. A good many mythologies (Greek, Roman, Norse, etc.) persist to this day. And yet life in the 21st century does not revolve around Mount Olympus, but Hollywood. The Internet and social media have given us instant access to the minutest details of the lives of our favourite celebrities. Rare is the celebrity who manages to keep his or her personal life out of the public domain. And the human tendency is to worship those who are in the limelight, who somehow seem untouchable.
The fact is, most who mourned (or still mourn) the deaths of Carrie Fisher or Leonard Cohen never met them, and certainly were not intimately acquainted with them. Mourners, by and large, are acquainted only with the public works of those celebrities. They know Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan. They know Leonard Cohen for his songs, like the famed “Hallelujah.” But relatively few of them had any real relationship with those whose deaths they mourn.
How do you explain someone’s day, let alone year, being ruined by the death of someone they didn’t actually know? There is only one explanation: idolatry. Idolatry fuels the entertainment industry and is perhaps most clearly on display when mortal, though talented, individuals are mourned as they manifest their mortality.
#WorstYearEver also displays a certain degree of insensitivity. While people around the world express their devastation at the death of their favourite celebrities, others are actually mourning the deaths of those whom they dearly loved and knew. I have attended a couple of funerals in the last few weeks, and the death of Alan Rickman was not mentioned at either. I anticipate attending another funeral tomorrow morning, and I doubt that David Bowie will be eulogised there. There were and will be people deeply mourning the loss of loved ones—loved ones who were never as famous as Prince or George Michael, but who were deeply more significant to their loved ones than any music icon or movie star.
Don’t get me wrong: Celebrities are also mourned by family and friends who actually knew and loved them. I don’t wish to minimise the pain felt by those loved ones. But the deep mourning expressed by fans of celebrities pales in comparison to “ordinary” people who have lost “ordinary” fathers or mothers or brothers or sisters. While someone is sitting in a living room somewhere tweeting their devastation over the death of Debbie Reynolds, someone else is sitting in a church pew shedding tears over the coffin of a beloved friend or relative.
Was 2016 a difficult year? No doubt, for many people and for many reasons, it was. And 2017 will be just as difficult for many more people and many more reasons. Twenty eighteen will be a difficult year beyond that. And every subsequent year until the Lord returns will be just as difficult for various people and various reasons. This will continue “until the revealing of the sons of God,” because the entire “creation was subjected to futility” through the sin of man. And yet, for believers, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us.” So, “let us wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:18–25).
Whatever your view of 2016, as you look forward to a new year, hear and meditate on this prayer of the apostle Paul for the Thessalonians:
To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfil every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
(2 Thessalonians 1:11–12)