The death and veneration of Michael Jackson reminds me of my favorite medieval saint: Saint Guinefort.
In the thirteenth century, a Dominican friar by the name of Etienne de Bourbon was preaching in the village of Sandrans, near Lyon, when he heard during confession that many of the local woman had taken their children to Saint Guinefort. Etienne had never heard of this saint, and wanted to learn more, so he investigated.
Much to his surprise, he discovered that Saint Guinefort was actually a dog . . . a greyhound, in fact. As the hagiography of Guinefort goes, he was a dog on a large estate. One day, when his master and mistress had left the house, a snake entered into the castle and began to approach the baby’s cradle. Guinefort attacked and killed the snake, and was badly hurt himself in the fight. He stayed to guard the cradle, and so when the parents returned, they found the cradle knocked over, and both dog and cradle covered in blood. Assuming that Guinefort had attacked the baby, the lord killed him with his sword—only to find the baby safe and unharmed, and the corpse of the serpent torn to pieces.
Realizing their error, they made a shrine for the unjustly-slain Guinefort’s corpse, and began to venerate it. Etienne was none too impressed with the locals’ veneration of a dog as a saint, so he made them destroy the shrine and burn the remains of Guinefort—but that apparently did not end the cult of St. Guinefort, because it survived all the way into the twentieth century. If this story seems familiar, it may be because a version of it is found in the Disney film, Lady and the Tramp.
Many commentators have expressed dismay at the veneration of Michael Jackson as some sort of martyr to celebrity, and he appears to be heading to the pantheon of celebrity with such figures as Princess Diana, James Dean, and Marilyn Monroe, where the veneration of the saints is continued on through kitschy commemorative plates and coins. Some see this as a failure of our society.
I see the cult of Jackson, like the cult of Guinefort, as a failure of the Church.
In both cases, the cults were propelled by two engines: the ignorance of the people, and the desire to venerate. As with the angels, we are created as creatures of praise. We seem to be hardwired to praise something, to worship anything. Just as we will eat rotten food and filthy water if no healthy food and clean water are available, we will venerate dogs and celebrities if we see no truly worthy objects of veneration before us.
Etienne’s effort to stamp out the cult of Guinefort failed because he did not address the need of the people to venerate. Their impulse was good; it was simply directed at the wrong object and without providing a new object for veneration, Etienne was dooming the people of Sandrans to eventually drift back to their old ways.
It does the Church little good to cluck and shake our heads at the dismaying display of veneration for Michael Jackson, for in truth he is a martyr, a martyr to our culture’s true god: Celebrity. If we simply cut down Celebrity’s Asherah poles—John & Kate, Paris Hilton, Barack Obama—we leave the job half-completed, ensuring new idols will spring up in their place. If we take away rotten food and filthy water, we must replace it with healthy meat and milk. The worship of false saints, be they greyhounds or pop stars, needs to be replaced by the worship of the Lord. As the Philistines found with their idol Dagon, false idols cannot stand in the face of the one true Lord (1 Sam 5:2-5).