Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster, Lincoln, seems to be for the past weeks the talk of the town. Political writers have extolled the virtues of a movie which portrays the crude and necessary art of politics, and of a politician who did not shy away from shady practices in order to achieve a worthy goal: the abolition of slavery in the United States. Obama has reportedly screened Lincoln in the White House, and numerous congressmen and political writers are drawing inspiration from Spielberg’s epic to address governing challenges like the negotiations over the upcoming fiscal cliff in the US.
From all the articles I read about the movie, one struck me the most: a Washington Post interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the biography of Lincoln Spielberg used for his script, Team of Rivals. Towards the end Goodwin opens a remarkable window into Lincoln’s motives:
… I mean here is a man who all of his life dreamed that his story would be told after he died in order to make him feel more comforted that death is not the end of you. Because he lost so many people when he was young – his mother and his sister and his first love – he really became for a while obsessed with the thought of what happens to us after we die. He came with the thought that if he could accomplish something worthy then he would live on in the memory of others.
Lincoln’s motives are fascinating. They sound classical, or pagan, depending on the point of view: it made me remember all those eloquent words of ancient Greeks and Romans which extolled honor, greatness, fame, immortality. “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness,” said Seneca. Or take this scene from the movie Troy, where Achilles’ mother tells him that he can choose to be loved and forgotten, or be great and become immortal.
Fame is a curious approach to immortality. If offers a grandpromise: that if our name is recognized by strangers and remembered after we die, we are special. We are great, we are legendary, we are immortal. We become the stuff of myths and are divinized by posterity’s worship. Melodies of power and acclamation rise to our starved, lonely ears, and we are ready to do almost anything to achieve greatness.
Question: but does fame lead to immortality? Well … not quite. It leads to future memory, but of course one day we all die. As a promise it is a half-truth, and one which intoxicates our hearts when we feel it at reach but which ultimately does not deliver.
Yet as seductive as the melodies of glory may seem, I believe I’ve found something better. It is a different, subversive approach to greatness. It is not so much that greatness is not valued and we come to exalt mediocrity, but that greatness is redefined, or, as a theologian may but it, redeemed. In Jesus’ words,
Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)
In Jesus’ vision, greatness is subverted and is thus sanctified: it is a matter of service and utility, not of renown; a matter of humility, not of self-assertion. And why this strange definition? Because for Christians the paradigmatic model of success served others and gave his life for our rescue. The archetype of greatness and the image of humanity divinized emptied himself and then gave us true eternal life. He healed our insecurities and satisfied our thirst for immortality, in a way that we can live differently and pursue a different definition of greatness. Our value is measured not by how much we get but by how much we give.
At this point I can hear Nietzsche turning in the grave and screaming the glories of the super-man based on strength and not on weakness. I can hear the disgust of my own heart, who longs to be worshipped and remembered and who does not want to relinquish my thirst for renown. But you know what? One approach has life, real and true life, and the other does not. So I prefer to place my chips on the second choice. Actually, to come all-in. For in Jesus my quest for glory dies but my life is resurrected. Bit by bit my motives start to change too: I want to start to serve others and make sacrifices for their good, and to try to do that as free of self-serving motives as I can. I may not be remembered a couple centuries from now, but so what, I’ll be living forevermore, and having an a-we-so-me time.
And so can you.