Not many good Christian blogs begin with the phrase: “I was watching Paris Hilton the other day.” This one does. I promise though that it will be my only Paris Hilton blog. Ever. Anyway, I was watching Paris a few weeks ago. I couldn’t help it. She was plastered all over the three big networks and I don’t have cable.
It was the day after her appearance on Larry King Live. As I was asking myself, “Why don’t you turn off the TV and do something constructive like writing your dissertation?” I found myself getting really annoyed with the cause celebre of Paris’ post-prison meet and greet and it’s marring of my watching of serious TV like House and all those shows that start with a dead body. What made me so cynical about this girl talking about her “change of heart” and her turning over a new leaf? Couldn’t I be gracious? Hopeful? I mean I’m part of a faith that has an entire holy scripture full of stories of people who after one significant encounter with God changed their whole life. And that was the question everyone was asking in what passes for commentary in the endless news cycle. They all asked: “Has something in Paris changed?” I caught myself scoffing. Oh Puleeez. Who does this lip-glossed blimbo think she is? (a blimbo is a rich bimbo with jewelry or “bling”—hence “blimbo”) Yep. I was working up a good self-righteous lather. I know there are some stones to throw around here somewhere . . .
Why was I so cynical about Paris Hilton? Why couldn’t I believe her? There was of course what actually came out of her mouth. She just didn’t sound like someone who had really, truly had an encounter with God. Sure, there were the obvious nods to the Hollywood-Oscar-speech version of God who “does everything for a reason” and can be conveniently folded into a generic miasma of “spirituality” probably scripted by an image consultant who isn’t bright enough to realize that jail-house conversions are so cliché. There were also the vague plans about helping other women in and out of jail that came from her “notes” from prison.
“I want to help set up a place where these women can get themselves back on their feet. A place with food, shelter and clothing and programs, kind of a transitional home. I know I can make a difference and hopefully stop this vicious circle of these people going in and out of jail.”
Then it hit me why we find these promises of instant character development hollow and trite. Character, genuine soul-gripping virtue isn’t created overnight. Aristotle called virtue habit according to reason. The Virtues were those traits that came as a result of having our appetites, our emotions and our desires, molded by doing virtuous things. If you wanted to become brave, you did brave acts until they were second nature. Now under Aristotle’s conception, a lot of virtue was the result of luck. You couldn’t be a slave. You couldn’t be really, really poor. You couldn’t have had some major tragedy etc. These could prevent you from having the right habits and thus the right virtues. As you can imagine, this philosophy was very popular with those who were part of the lucky sperm club. It was all the rage with the rich, pious, young elite. Not so much for the slaves and the poor who were just trying to eke out a life. The point is that virtue is the result of repeated acts of virtue not an isolated experience.
What’s remarkable is that Virtue might have stayed the philosophy of the elite only, if not for Christianity and especially Paul. When you read Paul’s descriptions of the Christian life you see something very much like Aristotle’s emphasis on virtue. The Christian life is about imitating the virtues of Christ. The fruits of the spirit are virtues (kindness, goodness, self-control). But what was it about this virtue theory that resonated not with the lucky but with the poor and the rich? Not just with the elite but also with the slaves? What was it about this conception of virtue that cuts across every sector of society declaring that, “In Christ, there is neither man nor woman, slave nor free”? What was it about this “philosophy” that gave whole new life to the concepts of charity, science, and liberty while Aristotle is (regrettably) a course in graduate school and relegated to half a shelf at Barnes and Noble? It was the hope that virtue wasn’t just a product of the right habits and the right circumstances. It was still that, but it was also a product of God within us. There were disciplines that were necessary to practice holiness but they weren’t dependent on our wealth, our health, or our history.
What made Christian virtue transforming was that we aren’t just victims of our circumstances. Everyone has the potential to be virtuous because God cares about our virtue and our character. A slave could be virtuous because the very same power that raised Jesus from the dead lives in every single Christian. What transformed every facet of the ancient world was the deep abiding belief that unlike Aristotle’s pursuit of virtue as an exercise in personal fulfillment, ours is the fruit of a relationship with a God who actually cares (as opposed to Aristotle’s God who neither knew nor cared what it was like to be a human being). Which brings me back to Paris. The reason I don’t believe her is because in either Aristotle’s sense or the Christian sense, she doesn’t seem have what it takes to be a changed person.
From an Aristotelian point of view, she doesn’t have what it takes to be generous, brave, or magnanimous (what Aristotle called “great-souled”). She doesn’t have the requisite habits. I think Aristotle would laugh at promises of someone who has spent her youth in frivolous, narcissistic, hedonism “turning over a new leaf.” Not out of cynicism but simply because virtue is something that comes not from 23 days of deprivation but rather cultivated habit. I think the part of the Larry King interview he would have laughed at, in the laughing-to-keep-from-crying sense, was when King asked her to be self-reflective. He asked her what about herself, what personality trait; she would change if she could. Now if there ever was a moment for a mea culpathis was it. This was a chance for real honesty mined from the depths of 23 days of soul-searching. What did Paris say she wishes she could change? She laments that her voice gets really high when she gets nervous. Aristotle wouldn’t be surprised. Confinement isn’t the cause of self-reflection—just an occasion for it. We have the habit for that kind of soul-searching self-awareness or you don’t. Paris doesn’t have it.
Paul, on the other hand would have a different reason for not believing her when she says she’s really changed. Real change, real virtue is a result of God working in us. It comes from repentance and humility to develop a relationship with God. Yet what would have bothered Paul about Paris, I think is her inconsistency. He would balk at her shallowness not in regard to her celebrity but I think in regard to her nod to God while at the same time having this sort of driving compulsion to tell us that she makes her own money, that she is a business woman, that she is not just a party girl. She says, “I’m a good person, I have a good heart.” The Gospel isn’t about being good. Given Aristotle’s virtue theory, most people can be relatively good. The Gospel isn’t about being good. It’s about being perfect, spotless, holy—and realizing that we are not even close. What makes me not believe Paris is her lack of humility at what her life has become? I could be wrong, but I simply don’t hear any contrition. And without contrition, I don’t think there is genuine change. So from the Christian perspective she doesn’t seem to have what it takes either. Someone may object that when we hear Paul in his humility it is many years after his conversion. We wouldn’t expect immediate humility from him three days after his conversion; we shouldn’t expect it from Paris. While being struck blind by God is a bit more jarring than 23 days in a 6 by 8 cell, I wouldn’t expect the newly converted Paul to have the same character as the mature apostle, but I would remind you that Paul, as far as I know, didn’t start doing good immediately after his conversion. Instead he went away to Arabia for at least a couple of years beforehe started his ministry. He was humble enough to pursue God and the habits of virtue. He felt the need to cultivate understanding before he started to help others.
Now there’s a thought. What would we think if Paris came on Larry King to announce that as a result of her experience with God in prison, she was renouncing her entire lifestyle and moving to remote parts of Alaska to relearn what was important and what she had gotten wrong about life, and then some five years later we found her down in the thick of human life working at a shelter for single mothers and battered women–not just funding one? Imagine if we heard not from People magazine (or Christianity today) but from some anonymous Christian blog, “Remember Paris Hilton, reclusive heiress, well now she says she found God in prison and spends her days ministering to the poor and her nights leading bible studies for actors in Brentwood. A long-shot? Certainly. Impossible? Maybe, but what keeps me from being completely self-righteous and lets face it, arrogant, is that impossible is what God does best. Paul would be the first to agree.
It occurs to me that as I started out to write a commentary on virtue, and in the process, God has used Paris Hilton of all people to humble me. I can be unbelievably cynical mainly because I think it makes me cool and interesting. Deep down, I’d really like to be not just rich but famous. How many times have I fired off sarcastic commentaries about all that is glittery and superficial in Hollyweird? Channeling my inner Pharisee. Further more, I’ve done despicable things to others. Hamlet said it so well: “I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth?” Yuck. Something stinks here and it ain’t Larry King’s cologne. So as soon as I finish writing this, I’m going to swallow that giant ego of mine and pray for Paris Hilton and her family. It may not change Paris but it just might change me.