Winston Churchill, Jane Austen, Billy Graham . . . and Paris Hilton. What do these people have in common? They are all famous.
Winston Churchill, the former British prime minister, stood up to the Nazis during World War II. Jane Austen wrote some of the greatest novels of the English language. Billy Graham is a renowned evangelist and Christian leader.
Paris Hilton is . . . what? Why, exactly, is she famous? She is wealthy but not from her own efforts — that came from her father and grandfather. Yet among some young people, she may be better known than Churchill, Austen and Graham.
In Miss Hilton's case, we can see the cultural transition from "fame" to "celebrity." Traditionally, people were famous for something, some notable achievement or contribution. Celebrities, though, enjoy fame for its own sake. A celebrity has become defined as someone who is famous for being famous.
Miss Hilton is hounded by paparazzi. Her every move is tracked in the gossip magazines. And when her partying led to a drunk driving arrest and a jail cell, the television news covered her story round the clock, devoting time to her that might have been given to more important topics, such as the war in Iraq. But the public ate it up. (That Miss Hilton requested a Bible during her time in the slammer did not receive quite as much attention.)
It isn't necessarily pleasant to be a celebrity, but everyone seemingly wants to be one.
Long live me
Why do people today have such a yearning to be well-known? One clue may be in the lyrics to the theme song of "Fame," about students in a performing arts high school. "I want to live forever!" That becomes possible if "people remember my name."
Fame actually was important in ancient lore. Achilles, the hero of Homer's Iliad, was given the choice of living a long, happy, ordinary life or a short life full of glory. He picked the latter. Beowulf was motivated to do his heroics, among other reasons, for immortal fame. In religions in which everyone goes to hades or hell after death and there is no joyful eternal life, being remembered in sagas and songs is the only way to "live forever."
Today, fame no longer requires heroics; it's easy to be seen and known by millions of people. The new genre of reality TV has made instant celebrity possible. People crowd into auditions for those programs, people willing to do anything — eat bugs or get covered with snakes, give up civilization, undergo plastic surgery or have their love life manipulated and exposed to millions.
A good name
The Bible says little, if anything, about fame in this sense. According to Proverbs, "A good name is more desirable than great riches" (22:1). Reputation is indeed important. But "a good name" isn't about self-aggrandizement; it's about bringing honor to one's family. It has to do with displaying moral integrity and godliness. Far from being associated with riches — as is so often the case — a good name in Proverbs is contrasted with choosing the pursuit of riches.
In the early Christian era, artists did not even sign their works. We know about the great writers and sculptors of ancient Greece and Rome, but we do not know the name of the architect who devised the gothic cathedrals, nor do we know who made the gargoyles or the stained glass windows, or who wrote Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the Christian allegory Piers Plowman.
Even if fame can bring a kind of immortality, today's cult of celebrity is a pale imitation. The artist Andy Warhol imagined a future utopia in which everybody got to be famous, but only for 15 minutes. Warhol was making a point not only about our pop culture's appetite for fame, but also about how fleeting that fame is in a culture whose fashions go in and out of style within months and where superstars turn into national jokes overnight.
The desire to attain celebrity seems driven by a desire not to be ordinary. It is the sin of pride, the demand to be worshiped.
What is the cure for this mind-set, this relentless frenzy to be famous? The Bible offers a prescription: We are to think on "whatever is admirable" and "praiseworthy" (Philippians 4:8) — the emphasis being on acts that deserve esteem.
Winston Churchill was not trying to make a name for himself; he was trying to save civilization. Jane Austen was simply trying to tell good stories — indeed, she was little known until after her death. Billy Graham is not trying to gain celebrity; he is trying to lead people to Christ.
Fame worth having
Young people with an itch for fame should be encouraged not only to excel at something, but also to care for something — their music, their acting, their cause — more than themselves. Meanwhile, they should be taught that they already have an audience — namely, God. Pleasing Him is far more important than pleasing men (1 Thessalonians 2:4).
Christ put aside His well-earned glory, His very equality with God, to take up the Cross, making himself nothing, humbling himself to win our salvation (Philippians 2:5-8). Those who follow Christ share both His humiliation and His exaltation.
The desire for fame that lurks in the human heart, however wrongly focused, points to a deeper longing: for God to glorify those whom He has justified (Romans 8:30). Our names, written in the Book of Life, will indeed be remembered, and we really will live forever.