“I want to be famous.”
This off-handed quote from a young person might seem innocuous. Who doesn’t have some youthful dream of glory? Who doesn’t have a fleeting desire to be famous?
This sentiment, however, is a bit more troubling than you might think. It’s not bothersome because of its seeming naïveté. Rather, it reveals a deep, unhealthy trend in American society. Seemingly everyone wants to be famous: from reporters and housewives to preachers and athletes.
This trend makes the work of Christian churches all the more difficult. How can the church compete with the draw of Hollywood fame? How should the church deal with a fame-focused world?
We have a problem with fame. You may know a dozen anecdotes to support what I’m saying, but the evidence runs deeper than mere observation. A number of researchers are increasingly unmasking this growing obsession. Jake Halpern, author of Fame Junkies: The Hidden Truths Behind America’s Favorite Addiction, led research among middle-schoolers in Rochester, New York. His research in this All-American town a decade ago reveals something important.
In one question, the researchers asked, “When you grow up, which of the following jobs would you most like to have?” Students were able to choose from several options: chief of a major company like GE, Navy Seal, United States Senator, president of a great university, or personal assistant to a very famous singer or movie star. The overwhelming winner (over 40%) was “personal assistant” to a famous person. Halpern’s conclusion? They choose fame over hard work.
Another question asked kids to consider, “Which famous personality would you like to have dinner with?” A range of options met with the following responses among girls: President George Bush (2.7%), Albert Einstein (3.7%), Paris Hilton and 50 Cent (15.8% each), Jesus Christ (16.8%) and Jennifer Lopez (17.4%).
You might be impressed that Jesus got second place. The real kicker of this study, however, was a correlation of these responses to another question: Do you feel appreciated by your parents, friends and teachers. Among girls who said they felt appreciated, the overwhelming dinner choice was Jesus. But girls who felt underappreciated were likely to choose Paris Hilton.
What do this and other sources say about the craving of people young and old for fame and attention? In her acceptance speech at the 1984 Academy Awards, Sally Field declared with the most buoyant voice, “I can’t deny the fact that you like me; right now, you like me!” Field was at the peak of her fame. And to her, fame meant acceptance. Fame was only meaningful if it meant that people now liked her.
It’s my growing belief that this pursuit of fame is ultimately a deep hunger for acceptance. Folks want fame because they experience an acceptance deprivation. People feel underappreciated in a world where every comment can receive a like or a retweet. They are comparing their own “success” with everyone around them, and a critical verdict seems to come back every time. In other words, too many individuals—perhaps even your kids—are growing up without the kind of acceptance they need from parents, peers and others.
In Luke 14, Jesus pegs the basic human hunger for acceptance. Folks want to belong to social circles that affirm and reward them. But this cycle of competition for acceptance is ultimately unfulfilling and dehumanizing, and it misses the point of his kingdom.
Jewish leaders were no different in this regard from modern-day Americans. We want to feel appreciated and belong to something meaningful. So Jesus teaches something counterintuitive. The ethic of Jesus’ kingdom states, “Don’t seek out fame. Look for the most humble position among the most humble people. And stay there. If fame finds you out, then so be it.”
The human longing for belonging tends to push you in the wrong directions. You set your sights on finding acceptance by seeking out fame. You so badly want to be noticed that you promote yourself, hoping your dream will become reality. The rare “success story” eggs you on.
Yet in Luke 14, Jesus offers you an alternate path to belonging. How? By giving up your claim to fame. If we could contextualize Luke 14 for today’s world, what would Jesus say? His advice for preachers? “Instead of fighting for speaking gigs at the biggest events and most plum churches, speak for your local AA group and retirement home.” His advice for Christian lawyers and business leaders? “Instead of schmoozing and boozing your way up the social ladder, be content with the doors that open for you and don’t forget to help the people below you.” His advice for Christian stay-at-home parents? “Don’t fight to get your kids into the best travel teams, dance clubs or social groups. Let them develop at their own pace, and teach them to be kind and gracious to social outcasts.”
So on and so forth the list would go. Jesus knew that finding fame in this world is in fact a search for acceptance and belonging. And he taught that the world’s way of seeking it out was (and still is) totally misguided.
How should the church deal with a fame-focused world? The answer is simple. You have to understand that the church is not in the fame business. We are not celebrities. We are a community of the humble and the humbled. And in this community, anyone can find welcome. The messed-up and the stuck-up can all find a spot in our midst—if they are humble enough to take their place.
The good news for churches is that you just have to be the church. Unless I’m badly mistaken, acceptance and belonging are the purview of a church committed to the way of Jesus. And that should be good news for those being chewed up and spit out by a world obsessed with fame.