Until the news of Abe Vigoda’s death was announced last week, it seemed as if the Grim Reaper was mercilessly targeting British celebrities in their late 60s. First the world mourned the death of rock legend David Bowie, then beloved actor Alan Rickman. Social media exploded with tributes to both of them. It was as if we had all lost members of our family.
I know nothing about the faith of Bowie or Rickman, but their fame was associated with their craft and not their virtue. They were excellent artists, among the greatest of the last half century. For that, the world lionized them, as we do with so many other actors, musicians, and sports figures. In and of itself, there is nothing wrong with that. The world benefits from great art and sport. But we live in an age in which virtue is often actively denied as a relic of our religious past.
“Religion is like drugs,” said the equally great and equally dead George Carlin, “it destroys the thinking mind.” According to the culture of our day, our morality should not be wrapped up in religious superstition but rather determined by our reason and our experience of the world. As one popular atheist meme puts it, “You don’t need religion to have morals. If you can’t determine right from wrong, then you lack empathy, not religion.”
Perhaps, but the all-you-need-is-empathy approach does not seem to be producing a society that is capable of moral reasoning. A 2008 study of 230 young people found not only that they did not have a shared moral vision but that they were incapable of even entertaining moral questions. When they were asked to talk about moral dilemmas they had faced, two-thirds of them pointed to things like “whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.” When asked about specific moral quandaries, their answers were often like this one: “I would do what I thought made me happy or how I felt. I have no other way of knowing what to do, but how I internally feel.”
Virtue does not necessarily require religion, but it does require a shared sense of the good, which is precisely what we have abandoned. Virtue is more than just doing the right thing. It is the act of being excellent at doing the right thing. As good at acting as Rickman, as good at music as Bowie, the virtuous man or woman is that good at goodness itself. Much like our heroes in the arts inspire us to be better artists, our heroes in virtue inspire us to be morally excellent.
“Let us now praise famous men and our fathers in their generations,” begins chapter 44 of the Book of Sirach. What follows is a eulogy for many of the heroes of the past. Sirach speaks of various kinds of heroes, including “those who composed musical tunes and set forth verses in writing.” These heroes were very different from one another in many ways, but what they had in common is what made them heroic, that they were all “men of mercy, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”
Whether artists, leaders, athletes, or prophets, heroes are those whose virtue shines forth in such a way that we want to emulate it. In so doing, their example becomes not only one of living but also one of dying. They need not be perfect. Some of the greatest heroes of all time are those who have made tragic mistakes but have then sought forgiveness and renewal. Often in weakness itself is virtue to be found. In the last decade of his life, Pope John Paul II lived his weakness in the open as he struggled with Parkinson’s Disease, showing the world what it looks like to die as a man of virtue. I saw something similar in the last years of Brother Paul Wessinger, SSJE, who died in 2009. When I last saw him at the monastery in Cambridge, he was feeble and frail, too sick even to celebrate the Eucharist any longer, but he prayed daily for me by name, loudly and fearlessly.
Far too much of our celebrity culture today is about avoiding virtue rather than attaining it. We emulate the bad boys, the anti-heroes, the tricksters who seem to get away with it all. We like our heroes to have flair and to seem like they play by their own sets of rules. It gives us hope that we too can be free from constraints. We choose the heroes we want to emulate. Do not be fooled by the smoke and mirrors routine: that all that matters is what the celebrity has achieved — his art and craft, not his personal life. The quality of the art is important, but the quality of the man is more important. If we do not want to be like the man at least on some level, then we will not want anything to do with his art either, no matter how good it is. Just ask Bill Cosby.
Celebrities are our secular saints. So when a celebrity dies, especially unexpectedly, there is a strange murmur that runs through our culture. We are confused and upset, not just by the loss of the person but by what it means for our own mortality. After all, we expect our celebrities, our heroes, to show us how to live as free spirits, outwitting all the traps and restrictions of our religious past. What could possibly bring less freedom and more restriction than death? Our celebrities are supposed to be bigger than life, which means that they must be bigger than death.
The great heroes of the past showed us how to live in part by showing us how to die, but the supposedly great heroes of today show us how to avoid death entirely. When they die, it shatters our illusions for a moment. Our only recourse becomes hagiography, going back over their living work bit by bit, trying not to think too hard about their last moments, their weakness, the failure of their bodies against the elements, and what all of that implies about what we will also one day face. We will forgive our celebrities almost any indiscretion if they will only do us the favor of continuing to keep death at bay.
My point in all of this is not to besmirch David Bowie or Alan Rickman or even blessed Abe Vigoda. These were talented men who gave us great treasures. They deserve to be mourned and to have their work remembered. But when it comes to heroes, we need more like John Paul II, or Brother Paul, or even Paul of Tarsus — heroes who can show us how truly to defy death, not by distraction and swagger but by holy living and holy dying. We need heroes who do not look for the answer to the problem of death within themselves but receive it as a gift from the greatest hero of all, the only one who has ever died and lived to tell about it.