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Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Fame's Fleeting Promise

For the last several days, the news coverage has been inescapable: crowds gathering to mourn the death of pop star Michael Jackson, montages of his music legacy and even investigative pieces about his will and estate. Despite the death of hundreds in street riots in China, a violent political coup in Honduras and international meetings concerning nuclear proliferation, the American public seemed transfixed on the death of Michael Jackson.

In the past week, even the passings of Farrah Fawcett, television pitchman Billy Mays, NFL star Steve McNair and Tonight Show legend Ed McMahon received major attention while world calamities went somewhat unnoticed among the evening headlines.

I saw a post last week on one of our My.CBN.com discussion boards from a teacher who noted the reaction from his students following the news of the deaths of several celebrities, “It's as though they themselves had lost a family member.” Beyond the media hype, the celebrity deaths have taken a personal toll on many fans.

Why is it that we have become so obsessed with the passings of famous people?

Obviously, it is sad when people die—especially when it is untimely and unexpected. But death is a sad reality people must face every day. I don’t think that our culture is simply fascinated with Michael Jackson or even death. But the reaction to his passing points to something much deeper.

There are entire magazines and television shows dedicated to the mundane elements of celebrities’ lives, so of course when one dies unexpectedly it becomes a major story. I think that issue isn’t that we live a culture obsessed with celebrities or death—it’s that we worship celebrity (singular); and as a result, our culture intensely follows the details of famous people’s lives … and deaths.

But why has our culture become so fascinated with the idea of “celebrity”? I think there are several components.

The first one is deeply spiritual. The original sin (even before Adam and Eve ate the apple in the Garden) was to “be like God”. Lucifer fell because he wanted adoration. Isaiah 14 recounts, “I will raise my throne above the stars of God … I will make myself like the Most High”. Even Satan’s original deception, his ploy to make Eve eat of the forbidden fruit, was the promise that “you will be like God”. There is nothing inherently wrong about fame—but the desire to adored, to be worshipped, is the subtle deception that turned man away from God.

Christianity is about countering this desire. In John 3, the apostle said it this way: “He must become greater; I must become less.” Paul said, “For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21, NIV).

I think we all, to some degree, have the desire to be popular, well-liked and ultimately, be celebrated (the root of word celebrity). But where is the line between being “celebrated” and being worshipped? Being famous isn’t wrong, but putting our own personal value in praise from others is dangerous, because it takes the focus off of God.

Another component that I believe makes the issue even more prevalent is our Western idea of success. Our culture puts such a high emphasis on fame and wealth, that they've become synonymous with success. This is even true, to an extent, in the church. No longer is success measured in integrity, reputation and fulfilling the Great Commission—but rather on political influence, popularity, fame and monetary wealth (all of which contradict the example we are shown in the gospel). Alone, these are not bad things, but when they replace a biblical picture of what it is to be successful, they become like idols.

All of Christ’s original disciples (with the exception of John, who died in exile, and Judas who killed himself), were so unliked that they were killed for what they believed. Christ commanded the rich young ruler to “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Luke 18:22). These passages turn our idea of success on its head. For some reason, our culture has accepted trading treasures in heaven for treasures on earth. Fame and wealth have become gods that are worshipped when achieved and mourned when lost.

But even without the truth of God’s redemption and our ultimate calling, the deception of chasing fame, wealth and worldly influence has been noted in popular culture. Two of the most well-known works of American fiction explore how the pursuit of worldly success leaves us empty and alone.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby, written during the height of the “roaring ‘20s”, examines not only excess and the decline of morality, but the deception of money and fame. The book’s title character, the wealthy Jay Gatsby, throws wild parties at his lavish mansion, all in hopes of attracting the person he thinks he loves. But, as the book plays out, we see that the life of prestige and wealth (which came to symbolize Americans’ newfound taste for excess, pleasure and power during the 1920s), means nothing without truth and true love.

This theme is also prevalent in Orson Welles 1941 classic film, Citizen Kane—often cited as the greatest American movie ever made. The movie tells the story of a man’s rise power, fame and wealth as a publishing mogul. But as a young reporter tries to unravel the mystery behind Kane’s dying word “Rosebud”, the audience finds that though Charles Foster Kane has gained unprecedented success and fame, everyone he ever loved had been pushed aside. After failed marriages and lost friendships, Kane spends his days in his huge mansion paranoid and alone. His dying words (spoiler alert), which reference a sled he used to play with as a child with his family, gives us a glimpse at the thing that he had abandoned for fame and wealth—family, childhood innocence and true relationships.

“What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

Obviously, we can draw literal parallels between these stories and the lives of some of today’s rich and famous (however presumptuous they may be). But beyond looking at individual celebrities (we can’t—and shouldn’t—judge people we’ve never even met), these stories tell us something about the pursuit of celebrity.

There’s a famous line in Citizen Kane, where the film’s title character says, “If I hadn't been very rich, I might have been a really great man.” But I think he was wrong. I don’t believe it was his wealth or fame that made him what he was. Wealth and fame aren’t wrong. It was what he put value in—and how he measured self-worth. The pursuit of fame, for the sake of fame, proves to be an empty journey. For the Christian especially—because we know the greater purpose life has—these are telling analogies.

When asked about all he had achieved and the worldly success he'd found, 19th century editor and politician Horace Greeley put it well: “Fame is a vapor, popularity an accident and money takes wings. The only thing that endures is character.”

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