Several decades ago, when young people were asked what they wanted to become when they grew up, their answers were typically of a particular variety: civil servants such as firefighters, police officers, and doctors. In speaking of the culturally dominant definition of masculinity that traditionally guided our nation, Anthony Rotunda, in his book “American Manhood,” defines manhood as “a man’s expectation to rank duty above personal ambition. He was to fulfill himself through public usefulness more than through economic success.” Such answers are consistent with Rotunda’s claim.
However, recent studies have revealed a dramatic shift in the career ambitions of our nation’s young people. Today students overwhelmingly respond to the question of what they want to be when they grow up with the answer, “To be famous.” Celebrity culture has come to embody everything our nation holds to be worth pursuing. It is the physical manifestation of “the good life.” Sex, beauty, health, and wealth are all believed to be attained through a life of fame and celebrity. It has been observed that, “the good life projects a vision of happiness that comes from having the best physically (sex, beauty, and health), intellectually (information and knowledge), and financially (wealth). We want all of it quickly and effortlessly (convenience), and we find the epitome of this good life in the celebrity media star.” (“Everyday Theology” ed. By Kevin J. VanHoozer, 71). Simply look at the checkout line at a local grocery store to see the proof of this.
Unfortunately the church has not been immune to this kind of perspective either. Young people inside the church share this kind of ambition equally with those outside of the church. Look no further than the large number of Christians that compete in television shows like American Idol. Not only do they compete, but many have found great success. Multiple winners have claimed to be Christians, including the most recent winner, who has apparently served as a worship leader. The second runner up this past season was also a worship leader in an evangelical church. Undoubtedly many will claim that such pursuits are simply an opportunity for the furtherance of the gospel through greater platforms of influence. And this may be true. Still, one must wonder whether these kinds of pursuits provide the opportunity for Christians to promote their distinctiveness or whether they display the churches’ commitment to the same values and pursuits that the world embraces.
How the church lives in relationship to the culture will obviously affect how one views such endeavors. My interest, however, is more specifically related to the celebrity culture that has not only pervaded our culture, but continues to shape how the church understands what “the good life” really is, and more importantly, how the pursuit of the celebrity life stands up against the life the Bible calls believers to pursue.
Possibly the best example of a celebrity in the Bible is Solomon (“Everyday Theology” ed. By VanHoozer, 76). He had all the sex he could probably handle with 700 wives and 300 concubines. He was known as the wisest and wealthiest man in the world. Not only did he build the Lord’s temple, but an even more extravagant palace for himself. Solomon enjoyed all of the comforts and pleasures of this life to their fullest extent. His life was indeed a life of lavishness and excess. And yet, the Bible also tells us that Solomon’s final evaluation was unfortunate. 1 Kings 11:6 tells us that he did evil in the eyes of the Lord, unlike his father David. Nehemiah 13:6 tells us that future generations did not celebrate Solomon’s life, but lamented his faithlessness. The first words of the book of Ecclesiastes, a book who’s authorship is most commonly asserted to be Solomon’s, declare that all things are vanity, a word that speaks of brevity, like a wisp of smoke. These words are powerful considering they came from a man who was granted wisdom and wealth greater than that given to any man. They reveal an emptiness left from all of these things. These words expose the life of the celebrity as something less than “the good life.”
Jesus’ life is particularly noteworthy, and displays a life that runs in direct opposition to the celebrity’s life. As the one who embodies perfectly what the good life of the gospel truly is, Jesus’ example is of supreme importance. Jesus possessed greater fame, glory, honor, and worth than any human could ever possess. Still, as Philippians 2:6-8, tells us, He did not cling to these things, but took the form of a slave. He humbled Himself and embraced a life far more servile than He deserved. We know that sex held no sway for Jesus, as He remained unmarried (despite Dan Brown’s fascinating fiction), and was celibate throughout His life. Isaiah 53:2 tells us that He possessed no physical beauty to attract us to Him. We know He told His followers, and even those who would aspire to follow Him, that the Son of man has no place to lay His head in Luke 9:58, a luxury enjoyed by foxes and birds, but not Him or His followers. Possessions and worldly comforts were simply not part of His life here on earth. 2 Corinthians 8:9 tells us that Jesus embraced poverty (probably a reference to physical poverty to some degree, but also to becoming human more generally as well) for man’s sake. He came to earth in what was essentially a barn and lived as a member of a working class family. His life was sacrificial and substitutionary. He lived a life that found more rejection than acceptance. His joy was in doing the will of the Father, displaying His glory through death, sacrifice and suffering, and declaring the arrival of God’s kingdom.
If we intend, as Jesus’ followers, to be faithful to live as He has commanded us (and as He embodied for us), we must recognize that this will oppose how the culture around us teaches us to live. Let us not be deceived. Let us remember that the gospel is good news, not bad news, news that liberates us from the bondage of sin, reconciles us to God, and offers man joy, peace, and hope that even the best this world has to offer simply cannot provide. And may the example of Jesus’ own life challenge us to be more like Him and less like the culture that surrounds us.