"And Ernest had ceased to be obscure. Unsought for, undesired, had come the fame which so many seek..."
– from The Great Stone Face by Nathaniel Hawthorne, describing the humble and tender Ernest, who while eschewing any claim to greatness, found greatness had caught up with him.
Deep down, which do you crave: Celebrity (being known and flattered by all) or Obscurity (being unknown and hidden from all)? I'm afraid American Christians are intoxicated with a longing for celebrity-status. And it needs to die. Today.
With the advent of social media, it's now within the grasp of every smartphone user to reach for the brass ring of celebrity. In fact, countless individuals have become famous for accomplishing nothing except ... well ... becoming famous. The Kardashians come to mind, but the malaise is thick throughout the Land. People long to be famous, to have myriad virtual Friends on Facebook, Followers on Twitter, and Likes on Instagram (did you know that you can actually buy Likes on Instagram?). People want to "go viral." They want the whole world to watch them. They're screaming for the approval of someone – anyone – everyone! – to salve their souls.
Not many years ago, humility was deemed a virtue and pride a repugnant vice. But in today's social economy, the vice of self-promotion has flipped to become the virtue of self-promotion, with debasing consequences.
Celebrity and the Founding of the Presidency
Did you know that in the inaugural years of our Republic, the men elected President did not so much run for office as run from office? That's right. When Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison ran for the presidency, they thought the position so honorable (and perhaps their own selves so deficient) that they never considered "campaigning for themselves" to the highest office in the land. They let surrogates do the campaigning.
You wouldn't find John Adams telling crowds how great he was. You'd wait forever before hearing Thomas Jefferson tout his credentials for leadership. Not a pip from James Madison about his intellectual capabilities. Why? Because self-promotion was considered a vice and disqualifier for high office. It was ugly then, and I think it is ugly today.
So humble was the milieu of our founders' generation that the University of Virginia's Miller Center reflects:
The president would be “Our Fellow-Citizen of the White House,” who would hold “office hours” with citizens who could visit the White House and comment on his performance. – The Miller Center at UVA
Office hours with common citizens. That'll keep a president's feet on humble ground.
I was startled this morning as I read the Gospel of John, chapter 7, to observe Jesus' proclivity away from celebrity and toward obscurity (hiddenness). Chapter 7 begins like this:
"After this, Jesus went around in Galilee, purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life. But when the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles was near, Jesus' brothers said to him, 'You ought to leave here and go to Judea, so that your disciples may see the miracles you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.'"
A great deal could be said of these four verses. Geographically, Jesus is in the northern area of Israel. His brothers, in scolding manner, urge him to travel south to Judea (Jerusalem), for the annual Feast of Tabernacles, a seven-day event.
Everyone Who Wants to Become a Public Figure ...
It's notable that Jesus' brothers (we often forget Jesus had siblings, as elder brother to Joseph and Mary's offspring) vocalize a common human craving for public attention:
"No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret..."
Their assumption is that Jesus wants to become famous and elevate his social brand in Israel. Surprisingly (to them and us), Jesus refuses to play that game.
If anything, I've discovered that Jesus consistently moves away from self-promotion and personal-brand aggrandizement. (I've catalogued 17 instances in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus backpedals from fame – they're listed at the bottom of this post). Ironic, eh? I think if Jesus were interviewed by the press today, he'd say:
"He who seeks to promote himself will be diminished, while he who diminishes himself will be promoted."
"You Ought ..."
Essentially, his brothers are saying to Jesus:
"You gotta leave here and go to Judea so your message can go viral. Go to Jerusalem and strut your stuff. It's time to promote your brand!"
Notice the tone of their demand. "You ought to leave here and go..." Ought is a demanding word, an imperative. It's imbued with a sense of authority, as though issuing a moral command upon the hearer. Language like "you must" or "you ought" is code for: "I know what is best for you and you need to fall in line and do it."
Note Jesus' response. It's like he puts his hand up and firmly resists their demand.
The Scriptures brim with such sentiment:
"Seekest great things for yourself? Seek them not." Jeremiah 45:5
"He (Jesus) must increase, but I must decrease." John the Baptist, John 3:30
"Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." Luke 14:11
"Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all." Mark 10:42-44
Celebrity, Obscurity, and a Turtle on a Fencepost
There's an old adage that goes:
"If you find a turtle on a fencepost, you know it didn't get there by itself."
It's true. Turtles can't climb. They won't scale a pole to gain attention. They're in no hurry to find the spotlight of fame, or the glitter of glory.
This image defines my modus operandi for life. No fencepost climbing. Rather, be obedient to God's words. Follow Him. Worry about my depth and let God worry about my breadth. In other words, I'm called to be a faithful turtle. If God places me on a rock, a patch of ground, or a fencepost, it'll be His doing – not because I ran for office, self-promoted, or sought celebrity.
My Rx: choose obscurity, embrace hiddenness. Leave plenty of room for God to do what He wants to do with your life. And, if He decides to make your life go viral, you'll be better prepared to remain a humble turtle on the high-calling of that fencepost.
So, let's give up the chase to gain celebrity status. Afterall, the believer in Jesus already has status with God. What more could we want?
Addendum: 17 Times Jesus Backpedals from the Spotlight
(From the Gospel of Mark. All references hyperlinked.)
- 1:40-45 Jesus tells a blind man (whom He healed) not to tell anyone. Of course, the blind man blabbed, causing Jesus to further backpedal from the limelight by staying outside of towns in lonely places.
- 3:7. Jesus withdraws from the crowds.
- 3:11-12. Jesus tells evil spirits to be quiet, not to out him.
- 3:13. Jesus escapes to mountainside.
- 5:35-43. He gives strict orders to girl’s parents not to let others know that he’d raised her from the dead! (Don’t let the word get out!)
- 6:30-32. He took disciples away to a solitary place (away from crowds).
- 6:45-49. After the popularity of feeding 4000, he withdrew from crowd to pray, hopped on a boat, and sailed away.
- 7:24. Near city of Tyre, he entered a home and attempted to keep it a secret, so the crowds wouldn’t find him. They found him anyway. (Today, you'd expect a leader to issue a press release with promotional materials).
- 7:31-36. To heal a deaf and mute man, Jesus first took the man away from the crowd, to heal him in private.
- 8:22-26. Again, Jesus took a blind man outside of the village in order to heal him. And when healed, he instructed the man not to go back into the village.
- 8:27-30 Jesus told his 12 men not to tell anyone that He is the Christ.
- 9:2-4, 8-9. After transfiguration, Jesus told the 3 not to tell anyone that they’d seen him in his glory, until after he’d risen from the dead.
- 9:20-26. Jesus healed a boy hurriedly, because He noticed a crowd was gathering and didn't want that! Keep the size down.
- 9:30. Jesus took his 12 men to a private place to teach them – it says “he did not want anyone to know where they were...”
- 11:8-11. After triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the anti-climactic exit to secrecy in nearby Bethany. Wow, talk about backpedalling.
- 11:19. Again Jesus leaves the city with its glitz and fervor for privacy.
- 15:3-5. When accused at trial before Pilate, Jesus goes silent instead of declaring his glory and majesty. Amazing.