The Culture of Self-Promotion

David Brooks, a columnist for the NYT whom I read as often as possible, had a great column in Tuesday’s edition titled, High-Five Nation.

In it he contrasts the recent self-promotion and blatant egocentric outbursts we have seen amongst celebrities lately with the more humble, understated culture of a previous generation.

Brooks writes:

When you look from today back to 1945 you are looking into a different cultural epoch, across a sort of narcissism line. Humility, the sense that nobody is that different from anybody else, was a large part of the culture then.

But that humility came under attack in the ensuing decades. Self-effacement became identified with conformity and self-repression. A different ethos came to the fore, which the sociologists call “expressive individualism.” …

Today, immodesty is as ubiquitous as advertising, and for the same reasons. To scoop up just a few examples of self-indulgent expression from the past few days, there is Joe Wilson using the House floor as his own private “Crossfire”; there is Kanye West grabbing the microphone from Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards to give us his opinion that the wrong person won; there is Michael Jordan’s egomaniacal and self-indulgent Hall of Fame speech. Baseball and football games are now so routinely interrupted by self-celebration, you don’t even notice it anymore.

I really do recommend you read the whole thing (here).

Not to belabor the point, but another article I read recently by Rick Reilly (of Sports Illustrated and ESPN) agrees. In Sore Winners he opens:

There is a hideous new trend in sports that we need to stomp out like milkweed before it spreads. Scientists are calling it the Hey, look what I did, everybody! syndrome. There have been three dreadful examples of it lately, all from people who should know better.

And, very much in the vein of Brooks, closes with this:

I don’t remember seeing pictures of FDR rolling up to his fourth election-night victory speech wearing a “Four-ever!” tuxedo jacket. Neil Armstrong didn’t splash down with a “MoonMan” tat on his biceps.

Athletes, coaches … these are your moments; don’t sell their purity. You will get your due, in due time.

Just let it come from us.

Yet despite these insightful warnings, this is, in fact, the world we live in. This is our cultural milieu: the expectations, habits, and norms that define us. We are a self-promoting, self-advertising culture.

How incredibly counter-cultural, then, are the words of Jesus for us today:

Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt. 23:12)

Or Paul:

Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others more significan than yourselves. (Phil. 2:3)

Or Peter:

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for God apposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. (1 Peter 5:5)

Or James:

Humble yourselves before the lord and he will exalt you. (James 4:6)

The Bible – that Holy, perfect book inspired by God himself – relentlessly teaches that in God’s culture, in the culture of His kingdom and His reign, it is the humble who advance, the humble who are praised, the humble who are to be honored by God himself.

2 brief observations:

1. Evangelistic: Isn’t it fascinating that when our reasonable and thoughtful secular (non-Christian) culture comments on our more outrageous secular (non-Christian) culture one thing they notice is that there is something just not right about blatant self-promotion? There is something about the way we are wired as humans that makes self-exaltation unbecoming. Might this be an indication that there is a seed, however small, in the hearts and minds of reasonable, insightful non-Christians that we really weren’t meant to worship ourselves? They might not know why the feel that way, but they DO feel that way. We know why. We know God created us to worship Him and Him alone. Anything else we worship, including ourselves, will leave us empty. Might this be an ‘in,’ one of those places of common ground from which we can move toward the gospel of Christ?

2. Personal:

These articles pushed me to ask myself a few questions.

Am I unwittingly a product of my culture? Am I a self-promoter?

Or, am I intentionally fighting to live in accordance with God’s will for my life, to live a life defined by humility and self-forgetfulness instead of a life defined by self-exultation?

My fear is that I behave counter to God’s call and expectation far more often than I realize simply because it is so normal, so easy, so expected in our world today to be a self-promoter.

And so the issue in my heart, the REAL issue (as it usually turns out to be) is which culture, which world, which kingdom am I really living for? The kingdom of this world, or the kingdom of heaven?

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