Guiding Stars – Carly Nugent


‘Guiding Stars’ investigates the relationship between celebrities, as contemporary models of moral behaviour, and new religions such as Scientology. It discusses how the development of the star figure coincided with changing views of identity towards the end of the nineteenth century. By examining the shift from communal definitions of identity as ‘character’ to the more individualistic notion of ‘personality’, ‘Guiding Stars’ investigates how celebrities came to embody these new ideals, and compares them to new religious movements such as Scientology that present themselves as speaking to the modern human condition by advocating the advancement of the individual. ‘Guiding Stars’ uses the relationship between Tom Cruise and Scientology as a case study to describe the way celebrities support religious movements and vice versa, and how, if celebrities can be treated like gods, religion can be treated as a celebrity.

Imagine the world being struck to its core by extraterrestrial lightning, people reduced to puffs of smoke as they run screaming down the street, and gigantic robotic tripods striding across states leaving flame and general destruction behind them. Now imagine Tom Cruise standing strong amidst the chaos, surviving, prevailing… and doing it all by himself.

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 epic War of the Worlds tells the story of Ray Ferrier, an ordinary working class father caught up in an extraordinary event – a worldwide alien invasion. Throughout the course of the film Ferrier overcomes his initial happy-go-lucky irresponsibility to discover that he has the power to survive and protect his children. His achievements are a result of his own strength and determination; they are achieved alone, in the face of hysterical crowds and distant, disconnected military personnel. Two potential companions, a female acquaintance of Ferrier’s and her daughter, are separated from him and his children not five minutes after they are introduced. The only other person that offers to help them goes mad, and is killed by Ferrier. War of the Worlds is a tale of individual rather than communal strength, of the realisation of personal potential. Who better to portray the central protagonist in such a film than Tom Cruise – arguably the most successful and powerful celebrity in the world?

Contemporary culture has seen celebrities rise to the status of role models. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the development of the star figure coincided with changing views of identity and the rise of modernity. An examination of the shift from communal definitions of identity as ‘character’ to a more individualistic understanding of ‘personality’ indicates how celebrities embody these new ideals and serve as examples of how to pursue them. New religious movements, particularly Scientology, also present themselves as speaking to the modern human condition, advocating the development of the individual. By discussing celebrities such as Tom Cruise (someone who influences modern society both as a star figure and a member of the Church of Scientology) the ways in which stars support religious movements and vice versa may be better understood. Just as celebrities can and have been treated like gods, so too can religion gain the status of celebrity.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the ways in which people existed radically changed. The rise of industry in the Western world saw the dissolution of small, rural communities in favour of large, urban cities. Mass production entailed an increase in consumption, and a social consciousness that focused on material accumulation. Needless to say this period, commonly referred to as “modernism” or “modernization”, involved a “radical shift from one kind of social existence to another” (Barker 2000). For Steve Bruce, that shift was extreme enough to mean “the end of the old world” and the development of a new, capitalist culture (Bruce 1998).

Living in an environment where so much had been altered it is no surprise that people began to wonder how to understand themselves. As Jib Fowles notes, in the new world “the abiding question became one of self-definition” (Fowles 1992). Before modernism, identity was “sharply defined” by an individual’s relationship with things such as their cultural and family history and, most importantly, “community” (Fowles 1992). People understood who they were according to their position in a social group, according to how they related to others. The movement of people, during the period of modernization, from rural communities to urban centres saw the loss of small, close-knit groups. In the bustling, hugely populated environment of the city people were “lost in the crowd”, rather than identified by it (Fowles 1992). Constantly surrounded and yet at the same time alone, identity could no longer be derived from one’s relationship with other people. This resulted, Fowles suggests, in a “general manifestation of anxiety and mental distress” – in a growing need to find new ways of understanding the self (Fowles 1992).

If identity can no longer be derived from one’s peers, from people outside of oneself, it seems that it must come from individuals. Isolation in the new “urban milieu” of modernization meant that people were forced to look for identity internally, rather than from the world around them (Fowles 1992). This idea sat nicely alongside the thriving capitalist ideology of individual success, the ‘every man for himself’ doctrine of hard work for material reward. Individuals came to see themselves as not simply the sites of their own identities, but also as the creators. The idea that identity was something that could be made, shaped and perfected according to an individual’s preference was an enormous change from previous understandings of the self. Fowles, in discussing the different opinions of “self-help manuals and behavioral guides”, notes that before the twentieth century people were encouraged to “strengthen their “character” in order to gain inner strength (Fowles 1992). Identity as ‘character’ is something that may be developed and improved, but is nonetheless essentially a fixed, unalterable part of a person. As a new century dawned, however, this sort of self-help advice began to change. Guides began to emphasise the development of “personality” – the idea that one could create oneself in order to “get others to like him” (Fowles 1992). Such advice seems to suggest that identity is fluid, and may be changed to suit a given situation. ‘Personality’, unlike the set and stable idea of ‘character’, is a view of identity that is open to individual interpretation and manipulation.

Identity as personality is bound up with the modernist notion of a society that consists of unique individuals. This is evidenced in the change in focus in art, particularly writing, in the early twentieth century. Modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and Henry James recognised “the variety of personal responses” and the “subjectivity of each individual”, and strove to present their characters as people with conflicting and changing identities (Faulkner 1990). With modernism, character became personality – mysterious, constantly changing and “impossible simply to sum up” (Matz 2004). The rise of capitalism during this period also put the onus on individual responsibility and success, encouraging the idea, suggested by Richard Dyer, that each person ‘makes’ their own life (Dyer 1987). People were no longer expected to consider their wellbeing as part of a larger group, but rather saw themselves as “discrete human person[s]” responsible for their own advancement in the world (Dyer 1987). As Dyer notes, the capitalist system is supported by the idea of the individual as personality, working on “the basis of the freedom (separateness) of anyone to make money, [and] sell their labour how they will” (1987).

This new world brought with it new goals and new ways of behaving in society. People became concerned with how to be beautiful, confident, rich and extraordinary. Prominent figures of the nineteenth century – writers, philosophers, royal and religious leaders – were no longer relevant role models. New models were required “who could help in defining the individual” (Fowles 1992). And the recently risen stars, also often aptly termed “personalities”, were soon looked to as people who could fill those roles (Fowles 1992).

Guiding stars

The rise of capitalism and industry coincided with the creation of “the star role” (Fowles 1992). This was, he argues, no coincidence, but the result of a desperate need in the changing culture for “models of the well-integrated self” (Fowles 1992). Celebrities filled this need, as Dyer articulates, by serving as examples of how to be human in modern society (Dyer 1987). Particularly, he suggests, they show people how to live in relation to production and how to be successful as individuals (Dyer 1987). In a changing world stars presented ideal and “perfected” ways of living to an uncertain population (Fowles 1992). They represented confidence and youthfulness, demonstrated “pluck” and the ability to “overcome the forces of evil, authority and tedium” (Fowles 1992). Stars showed the world how to be complete and happy people (Fowles 1992). The burst of interest in stars in the early twentieth century is indicative of a rising interest in “how we are human” (Dyer 1987). The public’s fascination with celebrities comes from the ways in which they demonstrate what it’s like to live within a capitalist form of production. It is not just their extraordinary, seemingly perfect personas that are attractive, but also their “ordinariness” – the way in which they relate to their fans as ‘normal’ people (Holmes 2004).

Joshua Gamson argues that in the early twentieth century the presentation of celebrities shifted slightly – no longer were the public content with watching the glamour of Hollywood from afar (Gamson 2001). These things were fascinating, but they were not directly relatable to the everyday lives of those observing them. Stars that fans could not relate to were no longer enough, and as a consequence, in the 1930s, celebrities were made “more and more mortal” (Gamson 2001). They were still extraordinary in many ways, but now their extraordinariness was presented as being rooted in the ordinary. Stars were the boy or girl next door, they were ‘just like you’, with the same basic wants and needs – they ate and drank, worked, slept and played. As Gamson quotes from a 1940 issue of Life magazine, “[s]tars now build homes, live quietly and raise children” (Gamson 2001). The same magazine, according to Gamson, includes photographs of celebrities eating breakfast and playing with kids in backyards (Gamson 2001). The only thing that really separates celebrities from the rest of the world, it seems, is that they are famous, while those watching them are not. This shift in focus to the similarities between the lives of stars and those of fans created a feeling of “connection and intimacy” between the famous and their audience (Gamson 2001). Celebrity lives have become simply “a blown up version of the typical”, ourselves writ large and in lights, showing us, as Dyer suggests, “how we are human now” (Gamson 2001; Dyer 1987).

There is a certain irony in the fact that the ordinariness of celebrities is in part what elevates them to the status of deities. For it seems that, in the modern, predominantly secular age, celebrities have overtaken religion and religious figures as models of moral behaviour and as objects of worship. The gods of the twentieth and twenty first centuries are brand names, self-help gurus and movie stars; walls are adorned, no longer with Bible verses, but with larger than life pinups of Brad Pitt; and models of Jesus Christ bleeding on the cross have been replaced by cans of Coca Cola and iPods. It is these people, and objects, to which people have come to relate to as “human personalities and mythic figures” (Walker 1970). The modern obsession with all of these cultural products, it may be argued, is not necessarily empty or mindless, however. Rather, the deification of celebrity figures is a way of meeting a need that traditional religion is no longer able to meet – that is, the need to know who we are in the world, and how we should behave.

Bruce David Forbes argues that popular culture and religion have similar functions (Forbes and Mahan 2000). Both act as examples of how to locate oneself within the world, offering guidelines for every aspect of life from morality to clothing, relationships to diet. Whether the example takes the form of Jesus feeding the masses or Madonna adopting orphaned children from third world nations, there is an implied code of behaviour to be found. Both celebrities and traditional religions like Christianity work to help people deal with everyday problems (Forbes and Mahan 2000). And it is not surprising that, in today’s modern, consumer driven society, people are more ready to look for meaning in American celebrities adopting Malawian children than in loaves and fishes. It seems entirely legitimate to argue, as Forbes does, that popular culture works more and more like religion (Forbes and Mahan 2000). And it is understandable, then, when individuals who are part of that religion are “conferred a sacred status”, representing as they do the predominant feeling of the modern world (Hunt 2003). As Stephen J. Hunt notes in a discussion of stars as religious figures, the actors from TV shows such as Friends – a program that earned huge success through its representation of ‘ordinary’ people – are given “almost a divine status” by fans (Hunt 2003). One of the most widely quoted examples of fans ‘deifying’ a celebrity is that of Elvis Presley. As Erika Dross notes, since the singer’s death in 1977 “a veritable Elvis religion has emerged” (Dross 2001). Along with the seemingly infinite amount of general Elvis memorabilia, there is also a proliferation of Elvis churches, shrines, rituals, and online “temples” (Dross 2001). Dross argues that this immense devotion indicates that Elvis culture has crossed over into the realm of “religious faith” (Dross 2001). However it is not just Elvis’s status as an extraordinary figure, as “virtuous, transcendent and even miraculous”, that inspires people to worship him (Dross 2001). His ability to relate to the public, to situate people in a particular culture and reflect their wants and needs, makes him a sort of poster boy for a larger set of beliefs and values. One woman interviewed by Dross stated that her devotion to Elvis came from seeing him as a man sent “to wake us up, to shake us, to ask us, what are we doing, where are we going?” (Apostolakis, qtd. in Dross 2001). It seems that Elvis has become something of a prophet for popular culture, a ‘guiding star’ for people to follow as they attempt to navigate life in the modern world.

Though it may have been given a run for its money, so to speak, in the new, capitalist world, organised religion has not been completely overtaken by the rise of the celebrity ‘godhead’. Many people still look to religious groups for guidance, requiring something more than a picture of Elvis or a Brad Pitt film to make sense of their world and define their identity. Such religious institutions, however, have had to adapt to the changes of the twentieth century in order to maintain their following. Religion and Popular Culture in America, edited by Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, presents a collection of essays that argue that religion has recreated itself to suit what has become a “consumer-oriented, mass-media culture” (Forbes and Mahan 2000). It has done so, in some cases, by using techniques of modern marketing – working with, rather than against, contemporary society. Some religions have also understood the shift from a community based conception of identity to a more individualistic notion of personality, and have tailored their services accordingly. As Roy Wallis observes, new religious movements are often based around the individual, rather than a group of people (Wallis 1976). And Steve Bruce argues that the “individualism” encouraged by modern society has changed the culture of religion to become one that believes in “the divinity of the self” and the power of the individual to mould their own meaning (Bruce 1998). God, like identity, is no longer sought externally, but inside ourselves. It is not surprising, then, that so many religious movements during the twentieth and twenty first centuries have developed ‘self-help’ mentalities. As Stephen J. Hunt notes, the twentieth century saw strategies of self-help become “psychologically based self-improvement movements” (Hunt 2003). These movements offered to do just what the modern individual wanted – to release their inner potential.

Religion in the modern world remains strong largely because it has “commodified” and “personalized” its practices (Hoover 2001). Like the role of the celebrity, religion today serves to explain what it means to be human and to help people define themselves “against the backdrop of urban anonymity” (Dyer 1987). If celebrities can become religious figures, it seems so too can religion gain the status of celebrity. The relationship between new religious movements and stars is illustrated by the example of Tom Cruise as a highly successful celebrity and a member of a ‘New Age’ religious organization, the Church of Scientology. An analysis of Cruise and his religion highlights the ways in which celebrities serve as models of behaviour for the individual in the modern world, as well as how religion has been able to make itself relevant to today’s society. It also identifies the relationship between stars and religion as one that is mutually beneficial – Tom Cruise, for example, is an outspoken supporter of Scientology, and is in turn rewarded by the church for promoting it. “There is a fluidity among the relationships between religion and popular culture” – a flow of elements back and forth from one to the other, a symbiosis that may give us insight into the state of contemporary culture (Forbes and Mahan 2000).

Tom Cruise

The website ranks Tom Cruise “>number one on the ‘Forbes Power 100’ – a list of the world’s most powerful people. The website suggests that a combination of Cruise’s success in the 2005 blockbuster War of the Worlds and his marriage to actress Katie Holmes is responsible for Cruise’s status as one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors. Indeed, this assessment should not be surprising to anyone who has been even slightly exposed to today’s celebrity culture. Love him or hate him, it is difficult to deny that Tom Cruise is an incredibly successful, rich and famous public figure. Cruise burst into the ‘big time’ in the 1980s, starring in Top Gun (1986), The Color of Money (1986) and Rain Man (1988) – movies that all made it big at the box office. By the 1990s Cruise was averaging, according to IMDb, 15 million dollars per film, making him one of the world’s highest paid actors. He is certainly a person whose fame and fortune, lifestyle and domination of the big screen make him larger than life. Multi-million dollar blockbusters such as the Mission Impossible trilogy (1996, 2000, 2006), The Last Samurai (2003) and War of the Worlds (2005) have made Cruise not only an international superstar, but have created an image of him as someone constantly surrounded by action, adventure and fantastic, extraordinary events. Cruise is an enlarged figure of a man, blown up by the big screen and outlandish, romanticized scripts. His lifestyle off-screen is similarly engorged. According to the website for People magazine, Cruise inhabits a “$35 Million Beverly Hills Mansion” of “1.3 acres”, “seven bedroom (sic) and nine bathrooms” (People). He also loves putting on a show – whether jumping on Oprah’s couch or proposing to his girlfriend on top of the Eiffel Tower, his stunts are often enlarged and outrageous. Cruise certainly presents an image of an extraordinary individual, someone “special… even miraculous” (Dross 2001). However, there are elements of Cruise’s image that relate him to the ordinary – to the everyday existence of his fans. Films like War of the Worlds, while on the one hand presenting extraordinary circumstances, also present Cruise as an ordinary, working class father, someone who is just as challenged by his children as he is by alien invaders. Fan websites, also, are often preoccupied with Cruise’s battle to become the star that he is today – describes him as a person whose life has, up until now at least, been a struggle. According to the site’s biography, Cruise came from a family that was not well off, and that forced him to take on a heavy load of responsibilities. The website relates that before stardom, Cruise was “[i]mpoverished and barely scraping by” ( It also humanizes Cruise by describing him as a “kind and thoughtful man” who is popular within the Hollywood community (

It is easy to see Cruise as an example of the way in which celebrities exemplify the modern idea of the individual. Through his success within the contemporary capitalist world, as well as his presentation as a strong, confident and yet ordinary human being, Cruise serves as a model for behaviour, playing out as he does “the ways that work is lived” in a capitalist structure (Dyer 1987). The public can see in Cruise “perfected, confident behavior” that Fowles argues people in the new “unanchored” modern world crave (Fowles 1992). To be successful in one’s field of work, to have material wealth, and to be attractive – as Fowles notes – are all concerns of modern society (Fowles 1992). Cruise symbolizes all of these things, while maintaining his connection to the ordinary man by having had to ‘struggle’ to get where he is today. The fact that, like the character of Ray Ferrier in War of the Worlds, Cruise has struggled alone, and has (seemingly) single handedly created his own success, supports the idea of identity as defined by the individual, of identity as “personality” (Fowles 1992).

Another important aspect of Cruise’s celebrity identity is his attachment to the Church of Scientology. Scott Bowles notes that to really understand Tom Cruise it is necessary to understand his connection to Scientology: Bowles quotes Cruise as stating that his involvement with the Church has helped him to find his “center” in the midst of his fame (Bowles 2003). According to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, this is exactly the aim of the religion – “to renew a person’s sense of full responsibility by the reorientation of his spiritual center” (Hubbard, qtd. Hogarty [19–]). In other words, Scientology is about discovering one’s identity, and finding an anchor for the self in what Fowles calls “the backdrop of urban anonymity” (Fowles 1992). And it works by focusing on the satisfaction of individuals.

Scientology, founded by Hubbard in 1954, began as a program called Dianetics, which, Roy Wallis notes, “has a place in a continuing tradition of self-improvement movements” (Wallis 1976). Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health (1950) is essentially a self-help manual with some scientific twists. The basic thesis of Dianetics is to do with clearing one’s Theta (something akin to the idea of a soul) of all the emotional debris it has collected throughout its life in a world where “morals are at a low ebb” (Scientology 1994). Clearing is achieved through a process called auditing, carried out by a trained “auditor” with the assistance of a machine known as an electropsychometer or E-Meter. The E-Meter, Scientologists claim, measures and registers “mental energy” in a subject (Scientology 1994). The goal of these auditing sessions is to rid the subject of the disruptive aspects of their mind, leaving them in “a new state for man – Clear” (Scientology 1994). According to information from the Church of Scientology, becoming Clear makes one’s individuality stronger.

Scientology is a religion that has developed itself in accordance with the modern world, and as such fits easily into the capitalist system It is run like a business – as Hunt notes, Scientology is more like a “corporate commercial enterprise” than a church – and deals with “customers” rather than parishioners (Hunt 2003). More importantly, though, the Church of Scientology is concerned with advancement for the individual, rather than a group – a way of thinking that recognizes and speaks to the modern isolated, self-concerned city dweller. As Wallis notes, Scientology owes its success to its ability to offer explanations for the modern lives of individuals (Wallis 1976). Scientology offers to answer the question of “self-definition”, or rather, to help us create our own answers to this question. There is great emphasis in Scientology on the “responsibility” of the individual – as Paul Bannigan Hogarty notes, “Hubbard cannot state emphatically enough… that the person is his being” (Hogarty [19–]). The religion claims that “only by allowing an individual to find his own answers to life’s problems can improvements be made” (Scientology 1994). By putting the onus on the individual Scientology supports the notion that we are in charge of the creation of our personalities, that we can be the people we choose to be. Indeed, the Church’s late founder L. Ron Hubbard is treated like a prophet by Scientologists, and has been called a “powerful personality” (Wallis 1976).

Scientology may be one of the most successful of the self-help organizations, but it is also one of the most controversial. According to John Sweeney, a BBC journalist who recently made a documentary about the religion, “Scientology has two faces – nice and smiley, and sinister and dark” (Sweeney 2007). Rumours of Scientology’s cultish practices are not uncommon: there are stories of people joining Scientology and “disconnecting” from their families; reports of brainwashing and, in 1995, accusations that the church was responsible for the death of one of its members, Lisa McPherson (Frantz 1997). Reports that Scientology is nothing more than a money-making venture – according to Operation Clambake, Hubbard once stated “I’d like to start a religion. That’s where the money is” – detract even further from its credibility. Then there is the fact that Scientology’s metaphysical beliefs seem to be drawn from science fiction. It has been widely reported that a core belief of the Church of Scientology is that human beings were brought to Earth 75 million years ago by “an intergalactic space lord called Xenu”, who “dumped them in volcanoes and blew them up with atomic bombs” (Sweeney 2007). Despite these extraordinary and mysterious aspects, however, around 800,000 people call themselves Scientologists. From this it may be argued that Scientology’s strange, extraterrestrial nature is in fact part of its attractiveness. By combining a concern for the individual with modern business practices and a spectacular science fiction-esque belief system, Scientology has tapped into what today’s society wants from religion. That is, the ordinary combined with the extraordinary – the same product, in fact, presented by celebrities like Tom Cruise.

New religions such as Scientology and celebrities such as Tom Cruise not only relate to society in similar ways, they also support each other. According to an online biography, in 1990 Tom Cruise “renounced his devout Catholic beliefs and embraced the Church of Scientology” (IMDb). He has since gained the title of an Operating Thetan (someone who has passed the status of Clear) and is currently, according to Rolling Stone magazine, at one of the highest levels of the Church known as OT VII. Cruise speaks openly to the media about his Scientologist beliefs, and was recently married to actress Katie Holmes in a Scientology ceremony at which the head of the Church of Scientology, David Miscavige, was his best man. “I think it’s a privilege to call yourself a Scientologist”, Cruise has said (Cruise, qtd. Ross 2004). Cruise has greatly supported and promoted Scientology: according to Rolling Stone, the Church reported that in 2005 it received “289,000 minutes of radio and TV coverage” and that much of this publicity was due to the popularity of Tom Cruise, who promoted the religion and its beliefs to interviewers such as Oprah Winfrey and Matt Lauer (Reitman 2006). Scientology has returned the favour to Cruise and other celebrities, offering them “free courses” and setting up special “celebrity centres”, such as the elaborate Celebrity Centre International situated in Hollywood Hills (Figure 2) (Reitman 2006).

Celebrity Centre International

Figure 1. Church of Scientology Celebrity Centre International located in Hollywood, California, USA (accessed 15th May 2009)

In 1955, the Church created a policy called ‘Project Celebrity’ that aimed to recruit famous people from different fields – such as the arts, sport and business – in order to promote Scientology (Reitman 2006). According to the official website, Scientology reveres “the great artist” and recognises that “society as a whole looks upon them as not quite ordinary beings” (Scientology 1994). The Church has been able to use the extraordinary quality possessed by celebrities to its advantage, embracing them as spokespeople for Scientology and role models for society. For their ability to “truly communicate” Scientology rewards celebrities such as Cruise – in 2004, the actor was awarded the “Freedom Medal of Valor” by Scientology for his promotion of the religion (Ross 2004). According to the ‘International Scientology News’, “[e]very minute, of every hour – someone reaches for LRH [L. Ron Hubbard] technology… simply because they know Tom Cruise is a scientologist” (Ross 2004). And in January of this year, Cruise was dubbed “the new “Christ” of Scientology”, with David Miscavige predicting that in the future the celebrity will be “worshipped like Jesus for his work to raise awareness of the religion” (Smith 2007).

Just as celebrities like Tom Cruise support Scientology, so too does Scientology support its stars. Both aspects of modern culture – the celebrity and the new religious movement – have evolved and become successful by responding to a changing society. By recognising the shift in emphasis from a communally to individually defined identity that came with modernization, Scientology and star figures like Tom Cruise were able to offer guidance where it was most needed. Both ‘religions’ are models for how to behave, for how to be in the modern world. They indicate, by emphasising individual responsibility and potential, how to create a ‘personality’, and how to operate in a business-oriented civilisation. Both Scientology and stars like Cruise successfully link the ordinariness of the everyday person to the extraordinary, out-of-this-world life that the everyday person aspires to. By joining forces to support each other’s causes that link is made even stronger, and the line between religion and popular culture becomes more blurred. As Stewart M. Hoover notes, the two are meeting on a “common turf” – the experience of living in the modern world (Hoover 2001). It is by recognising this everyday world and life within it that celebrities and Scientology are able to speak so clearly within contemporary culture.



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