The Pinnacle of Success?

I am an aging, white conservative Baptist. My taste in music runs from Bach to Mozart to Lawrence Welk. Indeed, my staff might say I am the un-hippest man alive.

So you might think that I am surprised by the frenzied and non-stop media coverage of the death of Michael Jackson—perhaps the greatest pop star of all time. But I’m not.

You may think that I don’t “get” why his fans by the millions are grieving, buying up Jackson CDs like they are going out of style, holding vigils at his mansion, desperately trying to get tickets to his memorial service in Los Angeles. But I do.

Here is why they have reason to mourn: Michael Jackson was, by any standard, a musical genius. His albums and his videos thrilled successive generations of pop fans. In fact, I was enthralled myself when I first watched his video presentation at an Epcot exhibit some 20 years ago.

There was, indeed, no one quite like Michael Jackson. And now there will be no new albums, no comeback concert tour, no new dance moves. That’s why they’re mourning.

But here’s why they—and all of us—should mourn the real tragedy that Michael Jackson’s story is. Andrew Sullivan at the Atlantic Monthly blog said it well: Michael Jackson “was everything our culture worships; and yet he was obviously desperately unhappy, tortured, afraid and alone.” He was, as Sullivan noted, nothing but a creature of our culture, which puts “fame and celebrity” at its core, with money as its driving force, without regard for the person caught up in it or the character he exhibits.

By numerous published accounts, Jackson was emotionally abused by his father, a man consumed by the idea that his child could be a superstar. Jackson was a drug addict accused of pedophilia, given to all manner of bizarre behavior. He was, in the end, as Bob Herbert opined in the New York Times , “psychologically disabled, to the point where he was a danger to himself and others.”

It makes the scenes of adoring crowds pushing and shoving to get near yesterday’s memorial service, and the non-stop live television coverage, all the more bizarre and tragic. We worship the celebrity for his fame, degenerate lifestyle not withstanding.

Jackson achieved the summit of what this culture values most—fame—and paid for it with his life. And that is a tragedy. function fbs_click() {u=location.href.substring(0,location.href.lastIndexOf(‘/’));t=document.title;window.open(‘http://www.facebook.com/sharer.php?u=’+encodeURIComponent(u)+’&t=’+encodeURIComponent(t),’sharer’,'toolbar=0,status=0,width=626,height=436′);return false;}

Life is filled with teaching moments. And for parents, this tragedy is an opportunity to talk with our children about what they really want out of life—what matters most.

And it’s also a time for parents to look in the mirror and ask what we really want for our kids. If the answer is success in life, then we had better know what that definition of success is.

That’s because even Christian parents are not immune to the siren song of fame and fortune for their kids. It’s great that your child can sing and dance. It’s wonderful that he can hit a baseball a country mile. She just might win that academic scholarship to Harvard.

But winning that scholarship, or playing in the major leagues, is not the Christian definition of success. Doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with your God is.

Character matters. Not fame. No matter how un-hip that sounds.

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