Fleeting Fame

fameIt’s likely that the names of 98.6% of authors who top the bestseller charts today will be unremembered a century from now.

This weekend I posted the latest issue of Curtana: Sword of Mercy, a journal I edit about military chaplains. (If you are interested in checking it out, you can download a free copy here.)

The current issue includes an interesting article about two chaplains from Vermont who served during the War of 1812. (For international readers, that was the war following the winning of America’s independence when they British got their revenge—they captured our national capital and burned the capitol.)

In the biographical portion of the article, the author included a final summary of the life of one of the chaplains. Solomon Aiken (1758-1833) left his civilian pulpit to serve soldiers and sailors.

Aiken was quite prominent in his day. Not only was he a well known preacher and writer, he actually served as a member of Vermont’s legislature. Yet, I doubt that even Vermonters would recognize his name today.

Here is the quotation from a nineteenth century tribute published after his passing.

Mr. Aiken enjoyed uncommon health and vigor. He never took a particle of medicine, or lost a relish for food, until his final and brief sickness—a pleurisy fever. He possessed peculiar power as a logician, and was very popular as a preacher. He was kind-hearted and benevolent, almost to a fault. But it is chiefly as a political writer that Mr. Aiken is remembered. He was sent as a representative for two years, by the town of Dracut. He published several sermons and pamphlets, chiefly upon political themes, which excited much attention in their season.

The words that seized my attention were the conclusion, “. . . which excited much attention in their season.”

“In their season . . .” That season must have been brief, since the history was written just twenty years after Aiken’s death. By then his works had either withered or, more optimistically, gone to seed. In either case, their day was passed.

Translating that to our modern era, where things become obsolete almost as soon as they are envisioned, it would imply that our “season” of fame or reputation will last little more than a handful of months. And that, of course, assumes that a person actually achieves some level of renown.

Fame is fleeting. It has always been so, and the good Reverend Aiken is simply another example of that truth.

Thank God (literally) that there is more to life than notoriety.

C.S. Lewis is one of the 1.4% whose fame lasts. His has not diminished; it continues to grow. Just a year ago, on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, he was honored by having a plaque dedicated in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

Lewis never sought fame, as the following discussion from his essay “The Weight of Glory” clearly reveals.

I turn next to the idea of glory. There is no getting away from the fact that this idea is very prominent in the New Testament and in early Christian writings. Salvation is constantly associated with palms, crowns, white robes, thrones, and splendour like the sun and stars. All this makes no immediate appeal to me at all, and in that respect I fancy I am a typical modern.

Glory suggests two ideas to me, of which one seems wicked and the other ridiculous. Either glory means to me fame, or it means luminosity. As for the first, since to be famous means to be better known than other people, the desire for fame appears to me as a competitive passion and therefore of hell rather than heaven. As for the second, who wishes to become a kind of living electric light bulb?

When I began to look into this matter I was stocked to find such different Christians as Milton, Johnson and Thomas Aquinas taking heavenly glory quite frankly in the sense of fame or good report. But not fame conferred by our fellow creatures—fame with God, approval or (I might say) “appreciation’ by God.

And then, when I had thought it over, I saw that this view was scriptural; nothing can eliminate from the parable the divine accolade, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.” With that, a good deal of what I had been thinking all my life fell down like a house of cards.

This exceptional work merits consideration not only by people of faith. It invites all honest readers to gaze within themselves at their deepest yearnings.

Another passage from C.S. Lewis that relates strongly to the subject at hand comes from The Great Divorce. You can read the entire passage here, but the heart of it is this. Lewis views a simple woman, presently in heaven, receiving magnificent praise and celebration. He naturally assumes she must have been some well known saint.

He is, however, informed that she lived an obscure life, despite the fact that she touched countless nondescript people and animals with her compassion. Lewis’ heavenly guide is rather surprised that the Oxford professor has overlooked a simple truth:

Fame in heaven “and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”

Only the second will last.

17 thoughts on “Fleeting Fame

      1. You know, even as a kid, those words seemed comforting. He’s not asking anything unreasonable, or extremely difficult -no hero or Joan of Arc type stuff. Just do as good of work as a loyal servant or house staff would – ordinary being a good productive person stuff. That sounded doable.
        Is this making any sense? Good phrase to keep in any case.

    1. Quite true. Yet, even then, our fame in this life is fleeting. Even among the truly great classic writers and poets, only a tiny fraction of the population know their names. Far fewer ever pause to read their words.

  1. I’m sort of caught up in the last sentence. With the word “last.” Fame in heaven is everlasting; fame on earth may or may not last, though we have an effect for the age in little things that disappear.

    1. I’ve been thinking about how digital records are theoretically “immortal.” However, just as papyrus and vellum decays or is lost, this too would be the fate of disks, hard drives and even the touted “cloud.”

  2. I once heard a minister speculate that the reason Adam and Eve were suddenly conscious of their nakedness after their (and our) Fall is that they had lost their “glory,” which, in the light of what you’ve quoted, makes perfect sense–they having lost God’s “fame” or approval or “the weight” of God’s pleasure, as Lewis puts it.

    1. I like that suggestion. It certainly corresponds with the way that Lewis portrays the possibility of heavenly nakedness in The Great Divorce. It truly is an evidence of our restored innocence, since it would elicit no negative results.

  3. Sometimes, an author’s work remains submerged, or little remembered, and re-emerges long after. This was the case with Robert Howard and Richard Chambers.

    I am also reminded of William Blake, who was little appreciated as an artist or writer during his life (and “little appreciated” might be a nicer way of saying “actively scorned”), but whose works are now some of the most influential and often referenced. Blake was convinced that he was following divine instructions in his painting and writing. He was sure he would be honored in heaven for having been faithful and obedient in life.

    During the most recent Olympic ceremonies, the entire crowd at Wembley Stadim stood up and sang Blake’s lyrics to the song, “Jerusalem,” which is equivalent to an unofficial British national anthem. I remember listening, thinking Blake would be so pleased…but not surprised.

    Your essay reminds me of Paul, writing to Timothy at the end of his ministry, struggling with the depressing thought that all of his work might die with him.

    Thus, Paul writes in Timothy 1:12, “I know whom I have believed and I am convinced that He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him until that day.” (NAS)

    What else can any writer do, other than hope that his work will mean something?

    1. Great observations and insights. I really don’t know anything about Blake, so I’ve done some reading. I had forgotten his name is the first word in C.S. Lewis’ preface to The Great Divorce.

      “Blake wrote the Marriage of Heaven and Hell. If I have written of their Divorce, this is not because I think myself a fit antagonist for so great a genius, nor even because I feel at all sure that I know what he meant.”

      Here is an intriguing post on the significance of that literary connection: http://sites.duke.edu/jdharris2/2011/10/27/william-blake-the-bridge-between-heaven-and-hell/

      As for hoping our work means something… yes, that is a writer’s desire. Not, for Christians, for our own glory, but soli Deo gloria.

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