Photo: Wikipedia Commons
By Jared C. Wellman
ARLINGTON, Texas (BP) — If you were to venture into the deep recesses of my stairwell closet, you would find several boxes labeled “Jared’s Basketball Stuff.” In one of those boxes is a Kobe Bryant figurine still in its original packaging, one of many pieces of NBA memorabilia I amassed growing up. Kobe Bryant was no ordinary basketball player, and so his was no ordinary figurine. It was a prized collectible. The six-inch statue was my way of feeling close to an NBA superstar who was far away.
Like so many, the news of Kobe’s passing stunned me on Sunday. Surely it was some kind of awful prank or unfortunate misreport. As the minutes ticked by it was confirmed by several news outlets that Kobe Bean Bryant, age 41, passed away unexpectedly in a helicopter crash, along with his daughter and several others.
As Sunday afternoon wore on, I found myself profoundly bereaved at Kobe’s passing. This wasn’t a general sadness, but something deeper and more personal. How can I be so despondent over a person I’ve never met? And why is anyone ever upset over the unexpected passing of a celebrity they don’t personally know?
Judging from the collective reaction and responses since the news broke, it seems clear my sadness is shared by many. Kobe’s death is a cultural moment unlike anything we’ve seen in recent years.
Here are a few brief considerations as I process this most recent celebrity passing.
First, we grieve because celebrities influentially display God’s image in man.
Kobe wasn’t the only person to pass away yesterday, and I’m not just talking about in the helicopter accident. Some estimates show that roughly 150,000 people die per day in the world, and about two-thirds of these are age-related deaths, meaning they’re expected and therefore not as tragic. This means that around 50,000 people died tragically on Sunday.
But of Sunday’s 150,000 deaths, Kobe is the only one that left the greater population forlorn, although every one of the 150,000 people who passed away were just as precious. This is because Kobe influentially displayed God’s image in man.
Celebrities, through their public lives, become mascots of the imago dei. As their talents bless us, we see God’s incredible creative ability displayed in humanity. When a celebrity passes away, we’re forced to pause and reflect upon the beauty of life and the impact a person can make in the world.
Second, we grieve because we’re reminded that death doesn’t discriminate.
We think of celebrities as immortal. We believe they are impervious to normal things like the flu or debt or in this case, a tragic passing. When a celebrity passes away, we’re reminded of the potency of the Fall’s curse as it manifests itself in death. We feel that if it can happen to a famous person, then there’s nothing to stop it from happening to us. So, we hug our loved ones a little tighter the day a celebrity passes away.
In this sense, a celebrity who is seemingly outside the jurisdiction of tragedy suddenly, through tragedy, becomes a reminder of our own fallibility. We’re left to grieve their passing as we consider the imminence of our own.
Finally, we grieve because of unfulfilled hope – and share the hope within us.
Celebrities are celebrities because they spend their lives sharing their gifts with the world. Through media, they are in our homes more than some of our own friends and family. Whether it’s a singer, an actor, or in this case, a basketball player, celebrities grace us with their lives. They’re like gifts, but their premature passing means the gift can no longer keep giving, and that leaves us feeling empty.
But it’s more than this. In Kobe’s case, he leaves behind a wife and three young daughters. We grieve for lost celebrities not merely because of unfilled hopes of an album that won’t be produced or a movie that won’t be filmed, but because of children that won’t be fathered or mothered or spouses that become widowed.
I did not know Kobe Bryant personally, but I grieve him as if I did. And I think that’s a good thing. Celebrity deaths have a unique way of reminding us of God’s image in man, of showing us the difference we can make with our lives, and that we all need the hope of Christ as we navigate our way through a fallen world.
As followers of Christ, we have a unique opportunity in this moment to share the hope within us. As Kobe’s death prompts reflection – as our friends and family members ponder their own mortality and the frailty of life – there may be a window of openness to the Gospel. Even as we grieve alongside them, let’s be ready to point toward the One who will one day wipe away every tear.
Jared C. Wellman is pastor of Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.