Maybe you’re famous. Maybe you occasionally rub shoulders with someone who is famous. Whether you’re the one who holds fame or who is smitten by fame, I think this reflection may benefit you. So, let’s ask, “What does it mean to be famous?”
It means that people know you before they know you. At least, they know something about you that defines you in their eyes. Usually, they like the thing they use to define you; otherwise, you would infamous instead of famous in their eyes.
People ask, “Are you [your name, as if it was a title]?” And then the conversation becomes about whatever you’re famous for… being an athlete, a politician, a preacher, an author, an actor, etc. The interaction then involves a selfie, a question in your area of expertise, an autograph, or a story about how much you mean to them.
One might think that the effect of being famous would be a healthy sense of belonging and satisfaction. After all, the ideal of 80’s sitcom Cheers is true for you… everyone knows your name. But if you follow the life of famous people or had a conversation with someone who is famous, you realize more often being famous creates a sense of loneliness and isolation.
People don’t really know you. They recognize you, know something about you, and admire you. Famous people tend to have a relational network that is a mile wide and an inch deep. When people interact with a famous person it is an “event” not an authentic interaction. It is something the non-famous person posts on Instagram or tells their friends about; not a two-way interaction of mutual care and interest.
There is an increasing phenomenon of being “Christian famous,” that is, the dynamics of fame that occur within the Christian subculture. If you follow the lives of Christian famous people, you realize the experience of being Christian famous often ends poorly (i.e., some form of moral failure or disillusionment).
Simple logic would say that this is because the Christian famous person becomes arrogant and begins to think they are above the rules that apply to normal people. Doubtless this is true in some cases. But it is an over-simplification to think this is the only dynamic involved.
Being famous means you are known for your strength or accomplishment (again, being infamous, would mean being known for your weakness or failure). People who admire this strength know a lot about you. They’ve studied you. They give you compliments. It enriches their day and makes them feel special to talk with you. They ask you questions and give great weight to your answers. If you ask them a question, they get embarrassed or flustered.
Do you notice what is missing from these interactions? Mutuality. A sociologist would call it a power imbalance. A moralist would call it inauthenticity. A theologian would say it’s the absence of one-anothering. Each would be alluding to the same dynamic.
These are relational junk food interactions. For the myriad of people meeting the famous person, that is fine. It’s less than 1% of their week. For the famous person, it is a problem. It is the majority of their social life. It’s flattering until it’s lonely until it’s toxic.
We don’t tend to feel bad for famous people. There can be a variety of reasons for that. But, because fewer people are famous than non-famous, we don’t tend to understand the challenges that come with being known-but-not-known. We just see the crash and think “what a waste.”
This reflection begs the question, “What should be done? Famous people need community too.”
The first response belongs to the famous person and is often realized too late. The pre-famous life of the famous person is vitally important. This is when the most natural, authentic relationships can be formed. However, too often these years are spent refining the quality that made the person famous and inadequate attention is given to developing quality friendships. Invest in quality friendships now just in case you ever become famous. You’ll be glad you did… even if you never become famous.Invest in quality friendships now just in case you ever become famous. You’ll be glad you did… even if you never become famous. Click To Tweet
The second response also belongs to the famous person. Find people you can be authentic with and tell them what their friendship means to you. As counter intuitive as it sounds, the more known you are, the less naturally friendship will happen. Dry seasons are not the time to start planting the seeds of friendship. If we don’t invest in friendship now, we can’t blame loneliness for sin later.
The third response belongs to the church. Church should be a normal place for famous people. The most damaging side effect of the “Christian famous” trend is that it robs prominent people from experiencing what God intended the church to be. We need to make sure church is church for everybody.
Pastors and other church leaders, this may be hardest for you. Church doesn’t just mean weekend services, Bible studies, business meetings, and outreach events. The answer can’t just be fellow pastoral staff or elders, that will create an unhealthy us-them mentality. You need friends too, and just being known by people who love Jesus is not the same thing.
Church members, ask your pastors and leaders, “Who are your friends and how can we make sure you get regular time with them?” These may be people outside your local church. That’s okay. These may be people within your local church. Don’t call it a clique. If we fall into these traps, we isolate our pastors and church leaders.
The fourth response also belongs to the church. We need to recognize that exceptional qualities don’t make for an exceptional person. Too many of us read that previous sentence as an insult. We need to understand the blessing-of-normalcy in the community-of-ordinary. What does that mean? It means we refrain from asking famous-favors and treat famous people like normal people. It means we don’t get surprised when someone with an exceptional talent has weaknesses. Being good at something doesn’t make you Jesus (i.e., perfect).
Finally, we all need to realize that fame isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Fame does allow for influence and influence can be used for good purposes. But well-known by everyone and being known-well by a few people are not the same. The latter is much more life-giving, character-cultivating, and healthy. When we get that, we’ll treat famous people differently… actually, we’ll treat them more like we treat everybody else. We and they will be better off because of it.Well-known by everyone and being known-well by a few people are not the same. The latter is much more life-giving, character-cultivating, and healthy. Click To Tweet