The biggest event of Hollywood industry has just wound down. The rich and glamorous have walked down the red carpet in their designer gowns, the famous people took home trophies, and the Oscars are over for another year.
It is a lot of fun to “ooh” and “aah” over celebrities. I love to dole out opinions on red carpet fashion choices and chuckle at Twitter making fun of Matthew McConaughey’s facial hair. But overall, I think celebrity culture is quite unhealthy. Too much power and fame seems to corrupt even the best of us, and being in the spotlight for too long takes its toll on the human psyche. We should be fostering meaningful relationships with one another instead of developing a system that makes it possible for the celebrity to crave constant attention and for the crowd to follow blindly in an unthoughtful, mob-like fashion.
But because the system is already in place, this mechanism within culture to put people on pedestals for us to blindly adore — when Christians begin to share art and ideas publicly, we have seamlessly co-opted the same model to create a niche Christian celebrity culture.
There was a time when calling someone “salt of the earth” was a compliment. It suggested a strong work ethic, moral integrity, and someone whose priorities were in proper order. Today, it seems like more of an insult than anything else.
When surveyed about what they wanted to be when they grow up, the most common response from a cohort of school-age children was “famous.” The response revealed nothing about personal passion or ambition, let alone anything about a greater need to be addressed within the larger community. It points to the fact that one of the most revered qualities in our culture is to be known. What you’re known for is less important than simply having people know who you are.
It would be easy to speak critically of a younger group of people who seem to be losing their orientation to a greater social moral compass, but this is a bellwether for where we seem to be headed. Shine brightly, get noticed and make a place for yourself.
But the thing is, the kind of light Jesus talked about is different.
The approach of Transfiguration Sunday reminds me how, all through my evangelical upbringing, all those Bible passages about God's glory, and especially the parts where God demands glory, made me a bit uneasy. For example, Sunday's reading from 2 Peter 1 doesn't exactly hide anything under a bushel: Jesus “received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, 'This is my Son, my Beloved...'"
Divine love? Great. Family relationship? Warm and fuzzy.
But the double helping of glory with honor on the side and majesty on top — doesn’t that come off as, well, a trifle narcissistic?
The root of my misperception was that our culture doesn't have a concept of glory at all. We just have celebrity, which is way, way, different. While giving someone celebrity can get degrading to all concerned (insert your own Jersey Shore joke here), God demanding glory is actually a deeply relational act.
I didn't realize my cultural blind spot from any church sermon or from 10 years of small group Bible studies or from getting my Ph.D. in literature, so thank God that I eventually found myself trying to teach the epic of Gilgamesh. That’s when I realized how central the idea of fame was in many ancient cultures.