The siren song of fame haunts me in Gordon Conwell halls. The brick buildings, the wing-back chairs, and Dr. Gibson’s bow ties all make me think of a happier Dead Poets Society or a duller Harry Potter, and I want the admiration the Academy evokes in my mind. I still want to write, but I long to be read. I still want to teach, but I seek to be sought after. Practically, success could be God’s path for me, but as for my heart, I’m struggling to dispose of the lust for admiration.
In the flurry of orientation, events would end and I would be torn between the student next to me, in need of a friend, and the professor up front, who I hoped to befriend. Even among the faculty, I couldn’t help wondering who could most benefit me, get me into the program I wanted to get into. To my shame, I was discovering my inner “Slicker,” the campus fast-tracker Fitzgerald derides in This Side of Paradise:
The slicker was good-looking or clean-looking; he had brains, social brains, that is, and he used all means on the broad path of honesty to get ahead, be popular, admired, and never in trouble. He dressed well, was particularly neat in appearance, and derived his name from the fact that his hair was inevitably worn short, soaked in water or tonic, parted in the middle, and slicked back as the current of fashion dictated. The slickers of that year had adopted tortoise-shell spectacles as badges of their slickerhood, and this made them so easy to recognize that Amory and Rahill never missed one. The slicker seemed distributed through school, always a little wiser and shrewder than his contemporaries, managing some team or other, and keeping his cleverness carefully concealed.*
(It’s a bit uncanny to be teased about one’s haircut and glasses in a passage from 1920). The Slicker impresses peers, professors, and potential employers, but his veneer appears gaudy when held up against Jesus’ Beatitudes. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Our friend Daniel McDowell preached a timely sermon on Luke 14 last Sunday, where Jesus lambastes a whole dinner party full of Slickers:
“Do not sit down in a place of honor…for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (v.8, 11).
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (v.12-14).
“…there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who ‘need no repentance'” (15:7).
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. And [Jesus] said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16:14-15).
Woe to us if we, like the Slickers, like the Pharisees, live for others’ acclaim. It is not wrong to end up admired, but if we set out to become famous we will make the wrong decisions all along the course of our lives. When we seek our own honor, God secures his own glory by putting us down. When we pursue proper humility, God displays his own magnanimity by lifting us up.
Last week someone asked President Hollinger how to get involved in the GCTS community. His answer, along with Daniel’s sermon, has become a vital reminder to me this week: “Friendship.” There are societies, jobs, events, etc., but he emphasized that we must not underrate friendship during our time here. Upon reflection, I realized that my vanity often creates “fame vs. friendship” situations. When I walk into a room, I often seek the people who will help me advance, rather than the people in need of kindness. Meeting new people, I often evaluate their utility, rather than inherently valuing the image and the Spirit of God in them.
As I’m learning to let go of fame and gratefully receive friendship, God is teaching me remarkable things. Our various neighbors who have persevered through sickness, sacrifice, and suffering are teaching me more than I ever expected about the world. In appropriate proportion, networking is wise, but I don’t want to spend these two years grasping for the coattails of the renowned and the published. I want to create friendships with the faithful and the meek, regardless of their acclaim, to nurture a humble heart, and leave exaltation to God’s wisdom.
*Fitzgerald, F. Scott. This Side of Paradise. Kindle Edition, location 450.