Before I reach the end of this paragraph, I'm going to make a rather vulnerable personal confession. I have mixed feelings about this kind of thing, especially in a venue like the internet that can be read (theoretically) by every soul on the face of the Earth. Such public confessions can be helpful, inspiring, and thought-provoking to others (for classic examples see the psalms of David and the Confessions of Augustine). More often they are grotesque and embarrassing (and either repellent or addictively fascinating as a result). In fact, stay tuned for an upcoming blog post that addresses this very subject. But here and now, for the purpose of edification (we’ll see how it goes), I am going to make my vulnerable personal confession: for most of my life I have really, really wanted to be famous.
Now I expect you have some notion of how vulnerable I have made myself by admitting this. If not yet, hopefully by the end of this post you will. I expect you’re beginning to see how blazingly egotistical I have been and/or currently am, and like Charlie Sheen’s winning! I am putting it out there (though not quite as shamelessly) for your righteous judgment. Nevertheless, I’m not that worried about being judged for admitting that I’ve really, really wanted to be famous, because I think that most people reading this want to be famous too, or at least you know what wanting that is like. I actually believe this is a very common thing, which I’ll demonstrate in a bit. But I’ll talk about it along the way of describing my personal journey with respect to fame (yep, more awkward confession ahead).
It started a long while ago—I don’t know when, but it had to have been in childhood. Like you I absorbed stories in books (including the Bible) and TV and movies. Every story has a hero. The hero’s journey differs from story to story (though always falling into a few relentlessly predictable, cross-cultural categories; for more info see here), but the hero is always present. Like you I loved the stories. In particular I loved the story of the weak, inexperienced, or disregarded man or boy who takes a perilous journey and masters superhuman skill (physical, spiritual, or intellectual—the latter my favorite) to lead the tight-knit forces of good against impossible odds to defeat the forces of evil. I loved this favorite story of mine so much that, like you, I intended to live it. (Perhaps you didn’t know that you intended to live your favorite story, but if you think about what you daydreamed about and played pretend about and thereby practiced when you were a child, you’ll see what I mean.) In many ways I was strong and well-regarded as a boy, but in a few ways that were crucial to me I was weak and disregarded. I intended to correct that by living my beloved story, without knowing of course that that’s what I was intending.
I want to pause for a moment to point out that there was nothing inherently bad in what I was doing. Not only is it entirely natural—indeed, I think God made us this way—but also every story that deep and resonant in humankind accurately depicts the person and work of Christ from one perspective. Therefore, to live such a story faithfully, relying on Christ to live it in and through oneself, is to become like Christ, which is the goal of our salvation. But that’s a topic for another time.
Anyway, the thing about stories is that the hero is the center of attention. In fact, in most stories (i.e., written in the third-person limited or in the first person), the hero absolutely dominates the reader’s or viewer’s attention. And so when one goes about living one’s favorite story, one dominates one’s own attention and expects to be the center of attention of every other character in the story too—all the other people in one’s life. That’s what I did, again without knowing it.
Now, the hero in a story isn’t trying to be famous. The hero simply is famous because, unknown to the hero, readers are reading about him or her and viewers are watching him or her. The hero is just living the hero’s life, doing the hero’s job. Very often within the story the hero will become famous as a fitting conclusion to the narrative (the final, wordless scene in Star Wars, Episode IV comes to mind), but even in such endings fame was never the hero’s goal or intention. But to the reader or viewer who is trying to mimic that story, becoming famous as a result of living out the story is naturally expected and even becomes the objective. In addition, the imitator is only conscious of one person who is narrating his story: himself. So he automatically assumes the center of attention.
I broke gender-neutral character in those last sentences because that’s what I personally did. It became more pronounced—and awkward—during adolescence. I dreamt of being Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, of being Churchill during the Blitz, and in my social and spiritual world I tried to live accordingly with all the success and then adulation those heroes earned. Unfortunately, being a hero when the rest of the world doesn’t know they are characters in your story can lead to embarrassing and goofy results. Nevertheless, it also occasionally produced wonderful results, moments when really good things got done, people were really helped, and I took a step closer toward living the purpose for which God had created me that resonated with those stories.
But meanwhile, whatever benefits to the world may have resulted from me being the center of my story, there was the constant corruption of the brute fact of wanting to be the center, wanting people to look at me and tell me how wonderful I was. As a devoted lover of Jesus through adolescence and into young adulthood, I knew that this was sinful and battled it. But I often missed or neglected it, usually (because I was on my way to becoming a pastor by then) in the name of what I would accomplish for the kingdom of God, which I usually was careful to phrase “what God would accomplish through me for the kingdom of God.” Because again, I knew that that was right. The Spirit within me rejoiced at Galatians 2:20 and 1 Corinthians 15:10, but my flesh craved my own glory. Within me was the desire to be glorious by reflecting the Lord’s glory like the moon and also the desire to radiate my own glory like a rival sun, and I was very conscious of both desires, especially during my seminary years.
It was not long after that, while I was at my first church as pastor, that I read David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. I found a kindred soul in that important man, but no place more than in his repeated admonition to himself and others through his entire life about how terrible a vice ambition was—a vice that he hated in himself but that drove him to perform incredible acts of service to the United States that millions have inherited the benefits of. I knew that I had a lust for glory, a lust to be Number One, but I also knew that this wickedness was woven tightly together with a desire that God himself had built into me to be exactly the hero that he had created and saved me to be for his glory and honor and for the benefit of the world.
Through all those adolescent and young-adult years I experienced fame occasionally because I was good at things and I got to do them in public, particularly things of a musical or religious nature. But there were a couple of experiences with fame in my first pastorate that started to reshape my understanding of it. The first was just being a pastor itself. My first call was very humble and very challenging: a crumbling (physically and institutionally) urban church of a few dozen mostly elderly people in an immigrant neighborhood, a church whose last good days were in the Kennedy administration and whose best days were in Taft’s. The church was still enduring a traumatic situation with the previous pastor when I came and much was in disarray. It was the kind of task that only a crazy, desperate, or God-compelled person would do, and I happened to be all three. In fact, it was the perfect situation for someone who wanted to live out the story that had enchanted me my whole life, and I threw myself into it wholeheartedly. Modest as the ministry was (the eyes of the flesh would likely call it pathetic), it was still the first time that I had a captive audience of people to look at and listen to me every week, and even within a small orbit, being the center of attention is what fame is. But I found that what came along with fame and the heroic story was a whole lot of really hard work with seemingly little payoff and occasionally downright suffering and despair. In the stories I was used to, the very difficult, painful, and demoralizing times always had a bit of romance and nobility around them, but that’s not how they were in real life. In real life they totally sucked; there’s really no better way to put it. The tedious parts in the stories (like all the walking in any journey tale) are elided by the author into a page or two so as not to lose the reader’s attention. But in real life you endure every second of them in all their boring, unabridged dreariness. And this is intrinsic to fame; I’m sure it’s true of almost everyone who has earned fame and maintained it for any appreciable length of time: the stuff beyond the camera’s eye that no one else sees, regardless of how their story differs from mine.
As it happened, after all that hard work and tedium I concluded my ministry in that church with my personal story unconcluded. I left the church far more stable and better off than I had found it, which was well worth celebrating and giving thanks for, but it hadn’t turned around. The hero didn’t win; the miracle didn’t happen. So I went to my next church, which though still small was considerably larger than the first and where I was correspondingly more famous both within the church and in the community. And sure enough, the work was much harder and the suffering much, much more severe.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. The second thing that I discovered about fame while I was at my first church actually had nothing to do with being the pastor of a church. It had to do with being a contestant on Jeopardy! Really. Now it happens that when you’re a contestant on Jeopardy! (I’m just warning you for when it happens to you) you sign a legal waiver about as thick as a phone book that may yield Sony Pictures Studios and/or the estate of Merv Griffin the rights to your firstborn child. But one thing it definitely says is that you can’t tell anybody (except, the non-lawyer contestant coordinators tell you, your spouse and your boss, maybe your parents) that you’re on the show or what happens while you’re on it under penalty of death (or something). So it wasn’t until two days before the air date that I told everyone I knew all over the world that I was going to be on the show if they happened to want to tune in. That night we had a party at the church parsonage with guests from at least three different social circles of my wife’s and mine to watch the show. And I won (with “What is Indiana?”). Celebration reigned. The phone calls started pouring in, then the e-mails the next day. People I had lost touch with were finding me and congratulating me. I was featured on my college’s website and in their alumni publication, also (strangely) the Marion (Ind.) Chronicle-Tribune. (Note: I’m not from Indiana. That’s where my alma mater is.) I was stopped by strangers at stores. I spoke to my son’s kindergarten class. It was amazing. This was, like, real fame—people nationwide seeing me, strangers knowing my name. And most powerfully of all, finally, really, indisputably being the center of attention of basically everyone I knew or perhaps had ever known. It was awesome.
Then, the next night, I lost (by missing “What is ‘queue’?”). It was funny: I knew I was going to lose, but I found myself weirdly hoping that what would happen on TV would differ from what happened in a studio in Culver City two months before. The run ended 24 and a half hours after it began. I got a few calls and a few e-mails, and then that was it. Everyone (Alex Trebek included) went back to their own lives, being the central characters in their own stories, and I was back to being much lonelier in mine. And in that moment I understood for the first time why certain celebrities do utterly embarrassing, self-disgracing things to keep themselves on TV and celebrity mags: the attention of other people is the most addicting drug on the planet. I had a one-day dose of it (well, portions of it lingered through the week), and I already felt a sharp jolt in the withdrawal. Frankly, I don’t know how actual celebrities who have grown accustomed to it over years and then lose it handle the experience. (I guess like Sunset Boulevard.)
A little later, while I was at my next church, I had some other experiences that continued the shift in my attitude toward fame. A big part was my deepening relationship with my friend Ted, whose writing career had begun to blossom, and I was eagerly living that with him and cheering him on. Over the years I got to see Ted dealing with the accoutrements of fame that I wouldn’t have known or expected: not only being famous but then not being famous, but also being famous but not being as famous as that guy, being famous but getting flamed on message boards, being famous but struggling to land the next project and provide for one’s family, being famous but wrestling with sucking up to someone more famous to keep working. It was also through Ted that I found myself in the living room of someone else who was just starting to be famous, then later became fairly famous (in one Christian sphere). That person seemed not terribly unlike me, and as months and years passed I found myself wanting a seat at the same table of fame he had been invited to but realizing that I wasn’t going to get one. It was the identical experience of looking enviously at the cool kids’ exclusive lunch table in junior high. That renewed experience sickened me, and it sickened me that I was sickened by it.
Ted was also the person who pointed out to me that it has only been fairly recently that a pastor would even consider that he might become famous. For a long time (though not in all times and places) being a pastor was like being a plumber: you could expect a lifetime of doing a humble job with a modest degree of being known and respected in a local community, and that was it. In the Megachurch/Conference Circuit/Book Deal/Blogosphere Era, however, stocked as it is with celebrity pastors, every pastor thinks at some time or another, “If I just get ________ to happen in this church, people will know my name too” (see earlier post). We may or may not indulge that thought, but we can’t help thinking it.
But then I realized that pastors aren’t the only ones thinking this. We have even more recently entered the Facebook/Twitter/YouTube Era, in which everyone thinks this. Everyone has the opportunity to “Broadcast Yourself” courtesy of YouTube, and everyone has a shot of their cute video going viral and landing oneself on The Today Show. Everyone (in theory) gets to have “followers” eagerly following them on Twitter to gain intimate access to their lives. And everyone can make themselves the center of attention on Facebook, whose very structure is designed to enable a person to construct their public persona (“Here’s what I like . . . here’s what I do . . . here’s what I’m thinking . . . ”) around which the rest of one’s world can revolve. Everyone, no matter how small the circle, can make oneself the center. Everyone can be famous—or at least try to.
Please don’t think that the irony that I am analyzing this and exposing my soul on my own blog named after myself is lost on me. I can say, though, that I’ve (at least half the time) gotten beyond writing here for the sake of who or how many might read. My journey with fame, particularly the aforementioned hard work and suffering associated with it, has brought me to a point that I never thought I’d come to. It’s a point where I’d rather not be famous, a point where I like the notion of proceeding through a whole life of not being known and not having to pay the costs associated with being known. That sentiment is not total; I feel the old, vain urge reemerge from time to time. But my general attitude, I think, is over that. That might be godliness. It might be simple, natural maturity. But it might also be fear.
Because here’s the thing: the Bible says not to seek fame (that’s how I take the prohibitions against “selfish ambition”), but it doesn’t say not to have it. Lots of godly people in the Bible had it, and they had it not because they strove for it but because it came as a result of doing exactly what God wanted them to do. (Moses and David spring to mind.) I think that God has had me on a journey to come eventually to prefer being unknown to being famous, but that’s not the final stop. The next stop is to prefer God being famous such that it really doesn’t matter whether I am famous or not. Note that this is not quite the same thing as what precedes. No doubt it is preferable to desire to be low than to desire to be high, because this is what Jesus did. But this calculation is still about self—it’s about where I am. Much better to say, “God, if me being a nobody will work to accrue to your fame in this world, then I will do that. But if me being a somebody will do it, then I will do that instead. I really don’t care one way or the other as long as you get more fame in this world.” That is really what Jesus did.
In the end, my long-held and now only barely surrendered desire to be famous has, at its root, doubt. When I want to be famous in this world, I quite simply doubt the reality of the kingdom of God—I doubt that it is here; I doubt that it is coming; I doubt that it is precious like the treasure hidden in the field or the expensive pearl; I doubt that it contains rewards that far surpass those of this age; I doubt that it is eternal. And when I seek God’s kingdom, I don’t reject my fame so much as I embrace his. I have faith, without which I cannot please God, because I believe that he rewards those who earnestly seek him (Heb. 11:6). I realign myself in the solar system of glory: no longer desiring to be kindled into white-hot flame but happy to bask in his blazing radiance, reflecting it brightly to all who see me, revolving around him forever as the center.