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Celebrity deaths: 3 lessons our culture must learn in 2016

As musical icon Prince joins a growing list of well-known people who have died in 2016, David Robertson asks whether our secular culture is ready to face its own mortality

This week I buried a woman. I had only met her two hours before she died. She was 92 years old and passed away quietly in her care home. I took the funeral at the local crematorium. It was a quiet and unremarkable affair. Except for one thing - I got her name wrong. I confused Janet, with her daughter Jean, who promptly reminded me that it was not her funeral!

But you know neither Janet nor Jean, or the vast majority of the 156,600 people who die every day throughout the world. On the other hand a lot of people you and I think we know have died this year. David Bowie, Terry Wogan, Paul Daniels, George Martin, Ed Stewart, Alan Rickman, Johann Cruyff, Ronnie Corbett, Merle Haggard, the voice of Lady Penelope on Thunderbirds, Victoria Wood and now Prince. 

Does it seem to you that there seems to be some kind of bonfire of the celebrities? Or is it just those of us who are middle-aged who are seeing the familiar names of our childhood dying? Whatever the reason it seems as though death is never out of the news. 

It appears that in popular culture, we still cannot face up to the nihilist existentialism of atheistic naturalism

One of my favourite radio programmes is the BBC’s ‘Last Word’ which every week comes up with some fascinating obituaries. In a recent edition it covered everything from Nancy Reagan to Rachel Johnson. Rachel was the last surviving woman who was evacuated from the remote Scottish island of St Kilda in 1930. Obituaries are the stories of human lives which have ended, and as such they tell us a great deal about our society and those of us who are still living ‘under the sun’.

What does the response to celebrity death tell us about our culture?

1. The hopelessness of life without God

It is true that many people, especially the well off, busy and self absorbed, find life perfectly liveable without any need for God. Although some seem satisfied with the prevailing meta-narrative of atheistic naturalism, on a heart level, no one is.

On the one hand people cheer and sing the atheist anthem ‘imagine there’s no heaven’. But as soon as death appears so do the headlines about ‘tears in heaven’ and the the tweets about Prince ‘enjoying purple rain in heaven’.

It appears that in popular culture, we still cannot face up to the nihilist existentialism of atheistic naturalism. If we acted and felt the way our philosophy tells us then we would realise that the death of anyone is just a rearranging of chemicals in the universe. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We come from nothing, we go into nothing and ultimately nothing lives on.

But no one can really face that. Because within ourselves we know that it is not true. The Bible was right about eternity being in our hearts. 'I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end' (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11).

2. The hypocrisy of celebrity culture

Have you noticed how everyone who dies is the best there ever has been - a hero, a saint (except perhaps Osama Bin Laden)?

While I enjoy reading full-scale detailed obituaries, I dread the sound bites and the twee tweets that inevitably follow any celebrity’s death. There is a time to speak and a time to be silent. You know that the latter time has arrived when meaningless guff such as that posted by President Obama appears on your phone! '"A strong spirit transcends rules," Prince once said—and nobody's spirit was stronger, bolder, or more creative.' I don't deny that Prince was a great musician, but there's no need for exaggeration in our eulogies of him, or anyone else.

3. The hope of Christ

I have a rather cynical friend who tweeted last night 'Right. I'm taking bets on who will be first to put a blog out on the passing of Prince and it's Christological significance. Or something.'

Such cynicism is understandable because it seems as though those of us in the Church have to get our word in quickly. It has to be confessed that sometimes we Christians can be as crass, sentimental, manipulative and insensitive, as anyone else. We too need to be careful that we don’t treat a celebrity's death as somehow of more consequence than the 92 year-old Janet’s of our world.

Any death is a tragedy (yes even Osama Bin Laden’s). But every death also reminds us that we too are dying. We are mortal. But it does not end with the ashes. There is the Christian hope, the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

A new name

Prince became famous as ‘the artist formerly known as prince’, when he changed his name to a symbol representing both genders (he did so in an era when two genders was all there were!). He did this as a protest against his record company but it does indicate an important point – our names matter. Many people presume that Prince was his stage name, but he really was called Prince Rogers Nelson at his birth.

We were burying and mourning a real person who had a real name which means something  

When I made my faux pas at Janet’s funeral, it really did matter. And I was thankful that in a blunt Dundonian working class manner, I was interrupted mid-prayer and put right! (Middle class people would have kept quiet, tut-tutted and it would never have been forgotten nor forgiven!). We were burying and mourning a real person who had a real name which means something.  

Which brings me on to the scary thought that we live after we die. There is an eternity, a day of judgement and resurrection to eternal life for those who are in Christ. Jesus tells his people 'I will also give him a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to him who receives it' (Revelation 2:17). 

Jesus, the name above every name, died so that he could give his people new life complete with a new name. The white stone signifies purity and certainty. The hope of this world is fading, like a pop star's fading tune, but the promise of Christ is rock solid. He knows his people. He will never forget. Our name is written on his hands.

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