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Moral Dilemmas in Venerating Cultural Icons

Writing for a recent issue of Harper’s magazine, professor Margo Jefferson delves into the moral dilemmas many face when a cultural icon crashes and burns. She focuses primarily on Michael Jackson, the sexual abuse charges, his death, and the devastating accusations made in the recent HBO documentary Leaving Neverland.

Death can restore almost anyone’s soiled reputation. Since his death in 2009 pop, jazz, and hip-hop musicians adapted and sampled his songs and two generations of dancers have recycled and recharged his moves. Multiple ways of reading his art sprang up and flourished. Academics began reading him through performance, gender, and cultural studies. He became the avatar of a transracial, transgender, and trans-­species world.

Jefferson grapples with separating an icon’s life and work:

What makes us love and hate an artist, feel pleasure and unease, confusion and bliss all at once? When the dark materials of a life pervade, even taint the work, does that mean we must cast it off? It might mean that, but it might also mean that we fight for the parts of it that matter to us.

Jefferson notes how amiable, enchanting, and generous Jackson was. He was also egotistic, amoral, and “gripped by demons.” Jefferson laments that: “We can’t erase or unknow that. We can only accept it, acknowledge what it stirs in us—despair, grief, anger, compassion—and try to turn it into wisdom.”

Possible Preaching Angle: Celebrities; Excuses; Fame – Society (and sometimes the church) makes excuses or overlooks the moral failures of the influential and famous, but they will ultimately stand before a righteous God to whom they will give an account (Rom. 14:12).

Source: Margo Jefferson, “Lost Boy,” Harper’s Magazine Archive, (July, 2019)

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