One of today’s headlines declares that ‘Prime Minister Gordon Brown leads tributes’. You might be forgiven for supposing that a dour Calvinist like Brown would only provoke that sort of description on occasions of great national significance, but today’s statement relates to the death of Jade Goody from cancer at the age of 27. For UK readers of this blog she will have become a household name in recent months, though readers elsewhere in the world might need a word of explanation.
Like Truman Burbank in The Truman Show, the Jade Goody we all know was a media creation, beginning with her appearance (or incarceration, some might say) in the reality TV show Big Brother, in which a group of people chosen for their incompatibility live with one another and under 24/7 surveillance by the cameras for eight weeks. Right from the start, when she entered the Big Brother house in May 2002, Goody was the focus for media attention, with the tabloid newspapers calling her more insulting things than you care to know about. Of course, her behaviour was calculated to attract attention from the start, with drunken romps in bed with other housemates, and outspoken opinions (mostly negative) about things she clearly knew nothing about. A poll taken at the time showed her to be more hated than Saddam Hussein, and when she emerged from the BB house there were genuine concerns for her safety as a mob chanted outside ‘Burn the Pig’ (an epithet applied to her by the press).
Interestingly, she described herself as ‘an escape goat’ – and that is no doubt what she became. The fact that she didn’t actually know the right term (scapegoat) highlighted her deprived background, and helped to explain why she was so reviled. For she held a mirror up to a society that had clearly failed people like her. Her father was a heroin addict who spent much of his life in jail, and was thrown out of the family home when she was only 18 months old for hiding guns in her cot, and subsequently died of an overdose. His mother was a one-time brothel madam who also had a drug addiction, while Jade’s mother was a small-time thief and a ‘clipper’ (someone who pretends to be a prostitute but then runs off with the money). At age four, Jade rolled her first joint for her mother and took her own first puff aged five – something that was captured for the family photo album. When her mother was disabled in a motorbike crash, Jade ended up as her main carer, even though still a small child. She was expelled from one school after another, as a consequence of violent behaviour against the teachers, by her mother as well as herself. Not surprisingly, her educational accomplishments were limited. None of this is hearsay: it’s all on public record in her best-selling autobiography. It’s no wonder that in describing her experiences in the BB house she said: ‘It was like no one could get me or hurt me in there … I was safe.’
The press eventually realized the tragedy of her situation, and by the time she appeared in the BB house for a second time in 2007 she had become a celebrity, with the lifestyle and bank balance to match. She famously fell out with Indian movie star Shilpa Shetty, and was accused of racism, followed by a very public reconciliation that led to her appearing in the Indian version of BB, during which she learned that she had cervical cancer. From that moment on her every move was followed by the TV cameras. Was she controlling the media and enjoying it all, or was she the victim of manipulation? Opinions vary, and that conversation will go on for some time. But what does all this say about the spiritual state of the culture?
There are two ways of reflecting on that question. Jade was undoubtedly right to describe herself as a scapegoat and in that guise she reflected the conflicted feelings of our culture. On the one hand, we are pleased with ourselves, seeing our way of life as liberated and fulfilling – while having more self-doubt than any other generation in living memory. We both love and hate who we have become, and because we are so conflicted about where we’ve ended up, Jade Goody became a living icon of our times, loved and hated in roughly equal measure. But we also knew that here was a person sinned against by the culture into which she was born, and in that sense she was truly a representative of a growing chunk of the population, especially those in her own age group. The fact that she died so unexpectedly and publicly merely emphasized the mess we’ve got ourselves into, and has created alarm in the minds of many other young women, who are now flooding to the hospitals wanting to be tested in case they too show signs of cancer. All the pundits seem agreed that in that sense her untimely death has provided a wake-up call to our lifestyle, and maybe therefore from a theological angle her sad demise could be described as redemptive, in much the same way as Princess Diana’s sudden death opened up a moment of reflection on who we all are, and who we might become. Therecan be no doubt that in the months following her diagnosis, Jade herself underwent a transformation from loud-mouthed celebrity to become an inspirational example of how to face suffering and death, reminding us all that it is never too late to change our ways.
As the end approached, Jade started to put things in order. First priority was the multi-million pound media deals that would help secure the future of her two children. But after that came a series of decisions that can only be described as spiritual house-keeping: she got married, and had herself and her sons baptised (or ‘christened’, to use her word). The eclectic nature of both these events provide an interesting comment on where we now look for spiritual nurture. Her wedding was conducted by Jonathan Blake, archbishop of the Open Episcopal Church, who says on his website that he is‘happy to take any Christian service from any type of prayer book wearing any form of vestments with any form of ritual’. But the baptisms were conducted by Royal Marsden Hospital’s senior chaplain, Revd Chris Lee (a Baptist), along with a local Anglican priest. Her stated reason for wanting to be baptised along with her children was: ‘I want them to try to get to know Jesus, because if they get to know Jesus hopefully we will be able to keep in touch in future’. And subsequently she is reported as having told them that she was not expecting to be enclosed in heaven, but would reappear as a star in the sky. No doubt some Christians will find all this distasteful, but from a missional perspective it offers some insights into the spiritual search of the nation at this time. For the striking thing about all this is that it reflects a broadly conventional Christian worldview. The fact that she had not bought into reincarnation in any shape or form, and the way that Jesus features as the central connecting point, will certainly be informing the spiritual aspirations of many of her admirers as they reflect on how they might now deal with life’s fragilities. Here is a striking example of Grace Davie’s contention that we are a nation who believe without belonging, though the believing is clearly also mixed up with a good dose of implicit or folk religion – ‘I believe in something, not quite sure what, so I’ll cover all my bases’. The publicist Max Clifford says that Jade Goody will be remembered for all time. We’ll have to wait and see. But the spiritual aspirations of others like her will undoubtedly be around for a while yet. The big question for Christians is how to journey with such individuals in order to move forward in our own understanding of where God is at work in the culture, as well as becoming channels of grace into the lives of others. The funeral has yet to take place. Will that bring more insights into the spiritual search of the culture?