Back when I was a kid and still putatively Christian, I had this idea that heaven was a place you could go and meet all the celebrities you wanted to meet when you were alive. It wasn't like a big party or awards ceremony--the notion was just that you would know how to find everyone you ever wanted to meet, and they would be happy to see you.
What strikes me now is that according to the Christian ideology that then informed my beliefs, not everyone got to go to heaven, and perhaps especially not the people I most wanted to meet. For example, I know of Christian theologies according to which Paul Lynde--center square, one of the idols of my youth--would not get to go to heaven. Paul Lynde, after all, was a boy who liked boys. Such theologies are, among other things, dreadfully boring, so thank God they're not true. But I was thinking of this last summer when I saw Willie Nelson at Ravinia. Waylon Jennings had died the previous winter, and Willie played a bunch of Waylon songs--and when Willie began one, he would point reverentially heavenward. I mentioned this to my dad, who replied, "I'm not so sure Waylon's in heaven." Dad was kidding, but it was still a mean thing to say, though again: I can imagine a theology according to which Waylon would not go to heaven. But I say, if Waylon Jennings doesn't get to go to heaven, then to hell with heaven. To me, heaven is hanging out with Waylon Jennings. And Orson Welles. And Jack Benny.
The other thing my youthful idea of heaven makes me think is this: it works only if the celebrities are willing to spend the time. One thing I have learned as a demi-demi-demi-celebrity is that people want to talk to me. And sometimes I'm tired, or busy, or upset, but it's in my direct economic interest to rise above that and chat. All of which is to say, perhaps celebrities are fascinating to us not because they're regular human beings, but because they're scintillating on the Tonight Show (which in heaven still stars Johnny Carson). Which is to say, they're fascinating when they're selling. Which is a little disturbing. But aren't we all selling, all the time? Paging Milton Friedman.
I'm not sure I still believe in an afterlife, though this year I did come to believe in a nameless spiritual force, which is something. Actually, I lack the theological vocabulary to say this elegantly, but I have this hunch: if there's a heaven, this is it, baby. So put on another Waylon Jennings record.
Thursday, December 26, 2002
I learn from the baby book of which I took possession this Christmas that my maternal grandmother, Kern Duckett Johnson, was named after Kern Lunsford, one of the daughters of Bascom Lamar Lunsford, the North Carolina fiddler. Evidently the Lunsfords were family friends. I don't really understand this connection, but apparently the country music was in me from early on. Here's an oral history that mentions Kern Lunsford.
Posted by Kenneth Burns at 2:40 PM