This semester I’m teaching 1 Corinthians and using Anthony Thiselton’s shorter commentary as one of the course texts. In his introduction he describes the culture of Corinth as consumer-oriented and self-promoting—shaped by celebrity-ism.
His comments about the ethos of Corinth brought to mind Daniel Boorstin’s brilliant book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America. Though my stack of “must-reads” continues to grow, I may have to read it again along with 1 Corinthians.
Decades ahead of its time (it was first published in 1962), it critiques the emerging advertising culture that has fostered the shallowness of contemporary American life.
Among other things, Boorstin traces the emergent phenomenon of celebrity. People formerly achieved fame for their accomplishments. Now there is celebrity, which Boorstin famously described as “being well-known for one’s well-known-ness.”
Celebrities’ “chief claim to fame is their fame itself” (p. 60). Achievement has nothing to do with it.
Famous people formerly required personal secretaries to act as buffers between themselves and the public. Celebrities, however, hire “press secretaries” in order to keep them in the public consciousness.
They do this through “pseudo-events.” These are events that are staged or planned in advance so that they can then be talked about—celebrity confessions on talk shows, puff pieces in magazines, etc.
Epic heroes of the past often had a tragic flaw—something that led to their downfall or undermined their greatness. The only tragedy for celebrities is to stop being talked about—to rejoin the rest of us who are simply normal, no longer thought of as “special” or “interesting.”
For Boorstin, Charles Lindbergh was one of the first “celebrities.” When newspapers and magazines ran out of facts to report about his trans-Atlantic flight, they began writing news stories about how many news stories were written about him.
The social dynamics of celebrity culture are now so familiar that they no longer shock us. I first read Boorstin about 15 years ago and have thought often about the social and cultural forces that tempt us to focus on image-maintenance. These dynamics foster in us inauthenticity and lead to shallow and manipulative relationships. Because we want others to be impressed with us, we’re tempted to craft public images that mask our failures and weaknesses and trumpet our strengths.
Paul wants no part of this. Though 1 Corinthians contains critiques of these dynamics, 2 Corinthians 10-12 is probably the most anti-image passage in all his letters. Paul boasts in his weaknesses and would rather talk about those than his strengths (2 Cor. 12:5). While he could list many things that would impress his readers, he resists this “so that no one will credit me with more than he sees in me or hears from me” (12:6).
That statement, flowing from Paul’s cross-shaped vision, is so completely counter-cultural. Image-maintenance strategies are all about getting credited with more than is true of us. But Paul isn’t interested.
It seems that these very same dynamics inform Paul’s critique of manipulative and self-promoting rhetoric and his purposeful embodiment of Christ crucified in 1 Corinthians 2. It’ll be interesting to note the relevance of 1 Corinthians to our culture’s dynamics of self-promotion by reading this letter alongside Boorstin’s classic.