So You Want to Be Famous?

So You Want to Be Famous? July 19, 2016

I have a book on the shelf that I really should to return to the library. Seeing it there produces a pang of guilt every time, not enough to actually go to the trouble of mailing it back (yes, it was that long ago and that far away), but at least I’m virtuous enough to feel bad about it.*

It is entitled, The Frenzy of Renown. It was a text for a course I took with Ralph Potter back in the day at Harvard Divinity School.

Dr. Potter was one of the coins between the cushions that you could still find there in those days. In a faculty filled with the famously smart–with the emphasis on famously–he enjoyed speaking with small groups of people behind closed doors.

I had several enjoyable conversations with him, and even though we didn’t agree about most things, I felt enriched by my intercourse with him. He was the rarest of liberals, a man’s man and an old jock. Sometimes we talked basketball. He was a big guy, a former center for Occidental (his favorite player was Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon).

I think he taught the course on fame because he was a recovering fame junky.

Fame is a funny thing. It’s like the lottery, everybody wants to win, but the all the winners seem to lose.

I’ve had small dabs of fame here and there. I’m a pastor, so I suppose I’m famous in my congregation. (At least people know my name.) And I write middle-grade fiction, so I have a tiny following of loyal fans here in the US and in Turkey (of all places). But I feel the ache, just like everyone, to be more famous than I am; life seems like it would be so much better if people I didn’t know or care about knew and cared about me.

But I had an experience years ago that has been a fly in my ointment.

I had acquired a small measure of success as a traveling youth speaker in the early 90s. (I didn’t clip the tags off my luggage because I wanted people to know I was in demand all over the place.) But one day, at a big event where I had just spoken to a couple of thousand people, a teenager came up to me like he was an old friend. But when he saw the incomprehension in my eyes, his own eyes registered hurt. He said, “You don’t remember me, do you?” I didn’t know what to say. I felt pretty small.

Just why is it that we want to be known by people we can not possibly know?

I think there is a cluster of motivations–some noble, some ignoble. A good name is a good thing, and a longing for honor tacitly says something about your regard for others, even as it says something explicitly about you and your need for honor.

But there’s also a dark-side, and I think it is the stronger side. We long for the heights because of the view. We like to see ourselves on top. We think contempt elevates us; but paradoxically it deforms us. There’s something Hegelian going on here, power and dependence growing together, like Kayne West, or Yertle the Turtle, we mysteriously go lower the higher we get.

But the paradox works the other way too. The lower you go, according to Jesus, the higher you get. More people depend on you. Longing for a big name isn’t really the problem, its the path we choose that is. The pursuit of anonymity is the way to renown in the Kingdom of God.


*I finally returned the book. 

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