Nihilism and the Bible: The Vanity of Fame

In kicking off this series on Ecclesiastes, I can think of no better example than current events. CNN has put up an excellent article concerning how fame is fleeting. A few of my favorite snippets:

The triple-decker sandwiches at the Stage have traditionally been named for famous men and women. The idea is to appeal to customers whose eyes will be drawn to an item on the menu because of the celebrity associated with it.

So I asked Auerbach about the No. 8 — the sandwich called the Katie Couric. It features turkey, ham and swiss cheese.

It wasn’t always known as the Katie Couric, Auerbach said. Its name was changed in recent years from what it was formerly called. Diners, it seemed, were no longer quite as attracted to the old name of the No. 8:

The Marilyn Monroe.

Milton Berle, 60 years ago, was as famous as a person could be in the United States. He was the first major television star — magazines and newspapers referred to him as Mr. Television. His Tuesday evening broadcasts were so popular that in some cities, restaurants and movie theaters closed their doors on that night because they couldn’t compete with him.

The world and all of its rewards were his, and so was the No. 12 at the Stage Deli: roast beef, chopped liver, onion. No one’s eyes could scan the big menu without stopping at the Milton Berle.

But that was long ago. The No. 12 has a different name now, one with more cachet:

The James Gandolfini.

“The celebrity thing is hard to keep up with,” Auerbach said. “It used to be that fame lasted for 30 or 40 years. Now, it seems to pop up and then it’s gone. Someone like Britney Spears comes along, and everyone is talking about her, and next thing you know you don’t hear her name and everyone’s talking about someone else.”

For all the hyperbolic verbiage during that LeBron James television special (“You’re now looking live at the king”), for all the incomprehensible financial figures being thrown around about other NBA players who recently have agreed to terms (one, it was said, signed a six-year deal for $123 million, another signed a four-year deal for $80 million), perhaps a small dose of perspective is needed.

I find this article interesting because it echoes what the Bible and Christianity have been saying for thousands of years; the pursuit of the things of this world ends in nothingness. This is why I can respect nihilism, because it is the most honest world-system out there. No matter what you do, no matter what you accomplish, you will eventually die and be forgotten. Many are forgotten in their own lifetime while some die as legends. Either way, we are all eventually forgotten. Even those who made lasting impacts on history are obscure figures today. The Bible echoes such sentiment in Ecclesiastes 1:2-11:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes,but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

Solomon is pointing out what Nietzsche figured out thousands of years later; life is pointless. We think of the existential movement and how we are told that man began to feel despair over his creation. Even today, it is considered a new fad to embrace our despair and uncertainty. But as Solomon said in Ecclesiastes, such a movement is new new. We can point to movements in Greek Antiquity that did the same thing, entire cults built up around embracing despair (the Epicureans are one of the more famous groups). All that we do has been done before and will eventually be forgotten.

For those who pursue fame, what becomes of them? How many “Where Are They Now” segments must we endure on television before we realize that the pursuit of fame means nothing? While there is nothing wrong in being famous, for this is sometimes inevitable, there is quite a bit wrong in pursuing fame. Most notably is that it gains you nothing. It gains you temporary treasures and pleasure, but it does not gain you immortality. You will still die and when you die so will your legacy. You might be known one generation or two generations later, but eventually you are forgotten.

Think of William Wilberforce. How many truly know his history and legacy? Most people would not know the name and beyond that, most would not know the person. Wilberforce was a great man who did not seek fame, but rather sought the One who was eternal. Wilberforce fought to free the slaves within the British Empire and succeeded. While Wilberforce is forgotten today because fame is fleeting, the effects of his legacy live on.

That is what Christianity should teach us. Do not pursue fame, but instead pursue God. In pursuing God and seeking to please him, we gain true immortality and the effects of what we do live on forever. While we are forgotten, God is thanked. There is no greater honor than for people to attribute your works to God and thank him for doing such a miracle while completely forgetting who you are.

When we pursue fame we must conclude our lives in nihilism. For what is the purpose of life if all that we gain shall fade away and be forgotten? The cure to nihilism is Christ; when we pursue him, all that we do has meaning and will last forever.