Schadenfreude…

I’ve been re-watching a favourite series of mine for the last couple of weeks, Boston Legal. I enjoyed it immensely a decade ago when it first aired, and now I find I’m actually the age of the younger central protagonist I’m enjoying it even more.

One of the episodes is entitled “Schadenfreude” and centres a storyline around a younger woman accused of murdering her older (much older) husband. The closing argument, typically the highlight of the show, consists of James Spader’s character – the lawyer Alan Shore – delivering a momentous closing argument and (usually) saving the day.

This episode stuck in my mind and I found it striking a chord in me. The sum of the argument was that as humans we love to have celebrities, but more than that – we love it when they are brought down. We build them up only so we can bring them back down to our level, or better, below us.

I think of the number of people this has happened with in the last few years. Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, and many more have fallen from grace and been unable (so far) to get back into our graces again for all their efforts – not in most cases because they need the money. Most celebrities who fall have a few million stashed away nicely from their earlier projects or from ongoing royalties from sales. Why should any actor be paid upwards of $5,000,000 for making a movie?

The answer is simple. We idolise them. As a result we flock to see their latest work and pay exorbitant amounts of money for a box of popcorn you could make at home for less that $1 – including the petrol to and from the store. This generates income and the actors demand a slice of it. The Marvel movies over the last few years have generated income now measured in the billions, and the actors are (allegedly) paid many millions for their work.

But the thing is, we idolise them.

They become our distraction, our refuge, our safe-place.

Like it or not, they become our gods.

Think about it for a second or two. Many more people go to a movie on a Sunday afternoon than went to church in the morning. And those who went to church for the large part pay more for a movie ticket, jumbo popcorn and a large soda than they left in the offering.

Tell me how that’s different from the worship of Ba’al or Jupiter or Zeus?

We work so we can have enough money to meet our needs and be comfortable, then we go beyond comfort into luxury. Now I have no problem with the wealthy per se, but it’s how that wealth is gained and what is done with it when we have it that’s the issue.

We inherently know we must not create a false idol, and I think that’s why we relish the fall of these celebrities so much. Then we, who created them in the first place, tear them down so we can build another in their place.

And we love to see them fall.

That’s Schadenfreude, and it’s nod Godly.

Herod was guilty of it. He was afraid of the fame John the Baptist achieved, and what Jesus was achieving. His wife demanded John’s head. His people in the court demanded Jesus be condemned. And Herod obliged.

We do the same. Most of the younger movie-going public who will see “Iron Man” and the other movies are too young to remember when Robert Downey Jr was always the guy getting arrested and jailed. I’m happy for him that he’s sober now, but I worry about us.

There’s a place for movies, and even celebrity, as long as we can separate from ourselves the desire to see fame bring someone down.

We even see this desire more in church.

A few years ago there was a spate of leaders in major churches or ministries who fell. Last year we saw it again with the whole Ashley Madison debacle. There’s nothing the World loves more than a fallen celebrity – except a fallen Christian celebrity.

And we are more susceptible to it in the church than we’d like to admit.

The noise that was made when Kevin Prosch stumbled in the mid 90s was only drowned out by the calling for his blood – not repentance. I read a lot of articles about his fall. I know several churches that refused to then use any music he’d written, and one extreme place that refused to play any song he was known to have played. The leaders – not always the Elders in the church, but the influential members – whipped up others of like mind and got their wishes. Then they relished it until they could find someone new to tear down.

Personally, I respected Prosch for his repentance and I have no problem with music he wrote then or continues to today because frankly it’s the heart of the worshipper that matters, not the mind of the composer.

In the last ten years there have been many people fall from grace in the public eye, particularly in the music industry, who were put in the position of idol by the very people who then called for their blood later.

And I can’t think of one person I’ve met who didn’t gossip about the fall of at least one celebrity. Whether we want to admit it or not, there is a part in us that derives satisfaction, even pleasure from the downfall of the famous. Usually the ones who actually didn’t do anything we haven’t done ourselves.

We need to be better than this.

I certainly do.

I’d bet the vast majority of people who read this have cheered at least once when someone we saw as unworthy fell. I’m not talking about Saddam and Bin Laden here. I mean an actor or singer. There was recognition of the tragedy of Heath Ledger and what a loss, but there were those who also said he’d asked for it by living that lifestyle. What lifestyle? The one we gave him. And so many others.

But we give these celebrities their status. Some are famous, some have infamy because of unscrupulous behaviour in business gaining vast fortunes personally before having their company file for bankruptcy and starting another, only to repeat the cycle. Some have celebrity because they have genuine talent that got twisted into something commercial and glorified them rather than their creator. Some are lauded because they are simply related to someone else who is famous.

However they get there, at the final count it’s us that put them there. Some will find a way to hold up under the pressure and be genuinely nice people. Others not so much.

I had the opportunity some years ago to work at a tenpin bowling centre in Torquay, England. During the time I was there the local theatre had several plays and pantomimes run, and often after a long week the cast would come up after the Saturday evening show and play. Consequently, those of us working had the chance to see the cast out of “celebrity” mode (sometimes) and interact with them as human beings. One evening a tall guy came up to the front door and I buzzed it open as the manager behind me called that he was the first of the group from the theatre. He thanked me and the manager came out and the three of us chatted for a while, asked how the run had been and if they’d had good audiences and so forth. Just three guys talking about a week at work. The rest of the group arrived and the tall guy, Colin, went off to play. We locked the doors and I cashed up my till, then went out to help on the floor. As I did, there was Colin standing playing pinball in the arcade. And I realised that the photo on the pinball machine was his face as well. This was Colin Baker who a few years before had played The Doctor in Doctor Who on the BBC, and had been one of my favourite programs at the time. But he was so normal. Just another guy chatting about his job then going to throw 16 pounds of bowling ball down a lane at some pins.

Not all my encounters were as real as that, but that one stuck. I used to be awed by the “big name” speaker at conferences as well. I got cured of that by Mike Yaconelli in 1991 when I nervously asked him to sign the copy of his book I’d just bought. Everyone had these dumb-looking pens with them that years that had been given out free by someone. Just a single use pen with a blob of fuzzy cotton and eyes on the lid. I handed book and pen to him and asked him to sign, tripping over my tongue, and apologised muttering I was nervous. He looked at me, put his hand on my shoulder and said “I’d be nervous if I were built like you and had to use this pen!” It shattered the nerves I’d felt and reminded me that this man of God was also a man like me.

That’s what we need to remember.

The people we elevate and worship for their talent be it singing, acting, preaching, writing or anything else you can think of are only flesh and blood. Just like us.

The only difference between me as the writer of this blog and anyone who reads it is the place we are at in our individual walk with Christ. I read articles and books by men like Jesse Duplantis, Andrew Wommack, Dave Duell, John Eldredge, Max Lucado and many others just like any other person might read them. I am taught and inspired by these authors, just like any other reader. Iron sharpens iron, and we have a duty to sharpen one another, to keep our hearts honed for God. Any writer who publishes a blog, an article, a book or any other kind of material is simply someone called to do so by God. Not everyone has the same gifts. Not everyone is an administrator or a counsellor or a helper, but everyone has something of infinite value to contribute to the Body of Christ.

We place men on a pedestal at our own peril in the church. Sooner or later that spot will need to be filled, and you might just be the one called to fill it.

So don’t wait at the foot of the podium for the guy on top to fall so you can devour him and shred his reputation. Rather support the platform he’s standing on and allow him the space to be human by extending Grace towards him the way Christ offers it to us.

And walk away from schadenfreude.

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