eventeenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal suggests that human weakness is the reason for much of what we consider to be beautiful. Citing as an example the ability to play the lute well, he observes that inability to play the lute is merely because of weakness.1 In other words, the people of Pascal’s day valued lute players because so few had troubled themselves to overcome the natural human weakness to learn the lute.
Twenty-first century culture doesn’t seem to have as much demand for players of the lute, as of, say, the drums or the electronic keyboard or the bass guitar. But Pascal’s observation applies to many other kinds of human accomplishment—in the arts, in scholarship (even theology), in entertainment, and in sport.
In today’s culture, for example, a gifted individual stands to make a handsome income and achieve a great deal of notoriety simply because he can throw a basketball through a hoop to score 81 points in a 60-minute NBA game. Or because she can win 34 major singles tennis finals in 10 years. Or because he can swim the 100-meter butterfly in less than 50 seconds—even in a low-tech swimsuit.
So it’s only natural that in an age in which billions of the world’s teeming population are virtually “jacked in” to the electronic media, images of people like Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, and Michael Phelps inspire the human imagination. Their likenesses appear on billboards and buses, in TV and Internet commercials, on cereal boxes.
There is, of course, a measure of respect that must be recognized for the role of self-discipline and dedication that an athlete must invest to achieve victory in any world sport. But for the sake of perspective, as one writer has facetiously described it, almost any sport could be considered little more than “a grownup version of a child’s game played by the semi-literate for the edification of the sedentary.”2
OK, maybe that’s just a bit too cynical, and some disclaimer should be made regarding the specific individuals mentioned earlier. Or maybe not. But the cynicism does pertain to the importance that sport has captured in the collective imagination. And with that the cult of celebrity that feeds off it. In fact celebrity—being famous—has assumed a cultural influence of its own. It has become an end in itself.
In most cases, celebrities achieve notoriety because they excel in some field that our culture has come to value or appreciate: they are especially athletic, artistic, intelligent, charismatic, or some combination of these. This may be rough equivalents of lute playing in Pascal’s seventeenth-century culture. But today there is also a great deal of interest in the lives of celebrities even if they demonstrate less than stellar behavior. And some are famous merely for being famous.
Why would society have any interest whatever in the famous who have shown, often repeatedly, that in their everyday lives—when they aren’t performing their specialty—they are clearly not admirable?
Researchers are now trying to understand how this can happen. A study at Stanford University considered why some baseball players are more famous than others. They chose baseball players because their achievements could be measured objectively and comparatively through their individual statistics. Movie stars or rock musicians don’t have batting averages. Reasons for their popularity seem less definable.
The Stanford study found, among other things, that people talk more about well-known players even though they are in decline than about younger players who are currently playing very well. Interestingly, those who know a lot about baseball emphasize the stars even when they may be in slumps or in decline. “The very experts,” says lead researcher Nathanael Fast, “who could inform everyone else, don’t. . . . They actually keep feeding them the information they already know because that helps establish a connection.”3
So following the ups and downs of celebrities seems related to social currency: a way to connect with others. It gives regular folk something in common to talk about around the water cooler, to exchange emails, blogs, or twitters about: “Hey, have you heard about the DUI arrest last night?”
Whether celebrity can be explained merely as a means of social intercourse, it was a phenomenon during Jesus’ day. Right at the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus was accompanied by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness, where He met the three temptations that the devil had prepared for Him. One of these tests was aimed directly at the basic human need for acceptance, and at the extremes that some will pursue to achieve it.
From a mountaintop, the devil “showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to Him, ‘All these things I will give You if You will fall down and worship me’ ” (Matt. 4:8, 9, NKJV). He was offering “glory”—fame, adulation, power. In a word: “celebrity.”
The proposition was quite simple: “You want fame? I can deliver it. Just sign here, and make me your manager.”
But Jesus resisted this temptation, both in the wilderness experience and throughout the rest of His ministry. It seems clear that witnesses to His miracles were eager to share with others what they’d seen Him do. Many, of course, must have responded to these electrifying events in sincerity, but, considering basic human nature, there were surely others who were merely caught up in the exhilaration of the times. If there had been t-shirt vendors at these events, they might have made some real money: “Samaria Tour,” “Cleansing of the Temple,” “Feeding of the Five Thousand.”
Even the Pharisees and Sadducees, an unexpected coalition if there ever was one, got involved in the excitement—for somewhat different reasons. In point of fact, Jesus’ celebrity was becoming a threat to their own claim to the attention of the public. (Their approval ratings were clearly slipping in the polls.) So their response to His growing popularity was more cynical: “Show us a sign!”4
But Jesus’ mission wasn’t about celebrity. It wasn’t about what He could do; it was about who He was. And anyone who was asking for some awesome singularity had missed the whole point of His reason for being here.
Jesus came to this earth, not to show that He could play the lute exquisitely. He came to this earth to demonstrate that He had made the lute—and that He was willing to make all things new.
1 See Blaise Pascal, Pensees and Other Writings, Honor Levi, trans.(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 32.
2 Tom Breen, The Messiah Formerly Known as Jesus: Dispatches From the Intersection of Christianity and Pop Culture (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2008), p. 176.
3“Why Lindsay Lohan Is Still Famous,” The Week, July 24, 2009, p. 20.
4 See Matthew 12:38-40; 16:1-4.
Gary B. Swanson is associate director of the Sabbath School and Personal Ministries Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.