Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda is Stephen Schwartz's Magical Musical, "Wicked"
What price popularity? Popularity governs and powers any number of aspects of life in a free society--not all, but many. A presidential candidate has to be popular with some of the voters but not the majority of voters; the electoral college system can get a president into office who is not preferred, or even liked, by the majority of American voters. But I digress, and here at the get-go--that’s bad! Let me try to redeem myself.
Many of you have heard me tell the story about my emotional trauma when senior superlatives were elected at Halls High School in Halls Crossroads. Most of us who were seniors awaited this final spring of our senior year when, among other things, senior superlatives would be chosen and announced. The highest tier of those superlatives was reserved for two people only: Mr. and Miss Halls High School. Being something of a geek--not a math geek, and, if you can believe it, there were no personal computers so not a computer geek--I didn’t really expect to be named Mr. Halls High Even so, I told myself lying in bed late at night contemplating my future--I deserved it. After all, I was president of the Student Council and Editor of the yearbook. Still, I probably wouldn’t get that honor--though I deserved it. Did I say that?
Most Likely to Succeed wasn’t a bad title with which to leave Halls High, but a better option in my mind was Most Popular. Most Talented wouldn’t be too bad in a jam.
As the time drew closer and closer for the results of the elections to be announced, without being cocky, I had in my mind that a suitable consolation prize, should I not be named, Mr. Halls High School would be either Most Likely to Succeed or Most Popular. Since there was a female and a male named in each category, I even dared to wonder who I’d be paired up with, and I previewed in my mind the pix of us I’d proudly place in the Superlatives section of the yearbook.
Finally, the morning came when the announcement would be made. There was certainly nothing fancy about how the news was transmitted. The teacher who made announcements simply read the names over the intercom as we sat in our homerooms. One was under EXACTLY the same pressure movie stars are under when they’ve been nominated for an academy award and had to have thought about how they will respond if they get one and, more complicated, how they will look to others if their name is not called.
MR. AND MISS HALLS HIGH SCHOOL
MOST LIKELY TO SUCCEED
Oh my god! My name wasn’t called for any of the best spots, and after all the work I’d done for my classmates and my school. How dare they!
The announcements continued. FINALLY, I heard my name: Vickie Bridges, Nancy Coker, and David Farmer, MOST DEPENDABLE. The only one worse than that was SHIEST where some young lady and some young man would be remembered forever for how little they talked throughout high school.
It was time for first period. Out in the hallway in a sea of faces, all sorts of shrieks and congratulations being passed around, some few of them sincere. I would have to congratulate the big winners too, if I saw them...and I did.
“Congratulations on Mr. Halls High [what I so badly wanted to add was: “even though I should have gotten that hands down! If I’d only known that sleeping around yielded these kinds of dividends I’d have changed my ways long ago!”]
“Man, you are truly the Most Popular guy at Halls High School. I’m sure you won it by a landslide [and what I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying: “I guess staying drunk day and night for four years has its rewards.”]
Everyone congratulated and praised those top winners. I don’t think anyone other than a few teachers sincerely congratulated me for being named MOST DEPENDABLE. Oh, there were a few students who tried, but couldn’t hold back the snickers in the midst of their supposed congratulations. “Hey, Farmer. Congrats on [muffled laugh] on being not just dependable, but MOST DEPENDABLE. Isn’t that what they say about laxatives?”
“Yeah, yeah. Good ole laxatives. You know, it’s a crying shame we didn’t have a MOST HUMOROUS. You’d have been a shoe in!”
Almost all of those superlatives, regardless of the names, were awarded to the popular students: cheerleaders, jocks, and majorettes. I shouldn’t be critical of them at all. I wanted every bit of the popularity I could scrape together too.
It’s tough to grow up in this culture and not want popularity although some few are saved or mostly saved from it. Lucky them!
By definition, at least by the standards of our culture, popularity is reserved for only a few. It’s an elitist thing. If everyone could be popular, then many fewer people would want it.
Popularity is determined by a number of factors, all of them externals. Sometimes money alone will settle the issue; the kids whose parents make the most money or the grown ups who now themselves make the most money can be rather automatically popular if they wish.
The “right” kinds of clothing and styles often mark one as a candidate for popularity. Then there are the people with whom a person is connected. Hanging around with other people who are popular enhances one’s own popularity.
Sometimes acting up or acting out in the ways admired by the social group to which you belong or want to will win you popularity. Some cliques will welcome you if you smoke pot or snort cocaine, for example. Rarely, so very sad to say, will good grades, respect for teachers, and moral commendability win a kid popularity. That is really sad.
The quick answer to this growing crisis is that we have to stop allowing how others view us to determine how we view and value ourselves. I know that’s nearly impossible, but there are no other alternatives.
Isn’t electronic harassment one of the worst uses of modern technology that could ever have come along? Various venues are being used by the “popular” to demean, humiliate, and threaten the unpopular. Statistics that are now a few years old shock us, especially as we know that things are probably worse now than they were then:
57% of students surveyed said someone has said hurtful or angry things about them online; 13% of these said it happens frequently.
53% of the students surveyed said they had been the ones posting mean comments about other students; 7% of these said they did so often.
35% of the students said they’d been bullied online, and 20% said they’d actually been threatened.
Oh, by the way, students surveyed were in grades four through eight.
Parents, and I use the word loosely, have been known to join with their children in harassment. We can’t forget the woman named Lori Drew who with her daughter and a work colleague created a fake identity online for the singular purpose of bullying one of her daughter’s former friends. The 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide in response. The dynamics here sound akin to those in the Texas situation a few years ago where a mother so badly wanted her daughter to be a cheerleader that she hired a hit man to kill the daughter’s chief competitor. If some measure of presumed popularity weren’t at stake here, I’d have a hard time believing that things like this could ever happen. Popularity is that much of prize to some, though.
Last week, I introduced you to the stupendous Broadway musical, “Wicked.” I introduced you to Elphaba, the young, green-skinned sorceress who would grow up to become the witch whom most of the residents of Oz believed to be the Wicked Witch of the West. I introduced you to Galinda, who’d become Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. I introduced you to L. Frank Baum, who wrote the first Oz piece--namely The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--in 1900 and Gregory Maguire who wrote a prequel to Baum’s work and titled it Wicked and Stephen Schwartz who adapted Wicked the novel and made it “Wicked” the most popular musical, of all things, on Broadway right now.
We heard Elphaba’s rousing song, “Defying Gravity,” and we talked briefly about the strong friendship that grew between Elphaba and Galinda after a very rocky start. At first, meeting by happenstance at Madame Morrible’s sorcery school, they didn’t like each other at all. There were many reasons for this, but essentially Elphaba was not popular at first, and Galinda was and remained so. That they ended up as roommates, against each young woman's will, made all the tension between them that much more humorous.
The song we’re going to hear in a little while is Galinda’s big song in the show, “Popular.” Galinda decides to take Elphaba under her wing and teach her how to be popular. The song by Stephen Schwartz is a hilarious critique of all of us who have ever desired to be popular above all else or even just popular enough to be noticed. Galinda’s ditzy arrogance makes her the perfect character to sing the song, and as played by Kristin Chenoweth in the original Broadway cast, the audience was in stitches performance after performance.
The whole popularity theme is introduced because Galinda offers to make Elphaba more beautiful to look at and, in concert with a physical makeover, to teach Elphaba how to be popular as well. Elphaba is largely polite about it, but has very little interest in Galinda’s take on beauty or popularity--especially as both of those are Galinda’s all-consuming passions.
In a bit, you’ll hear Krintin Chenoweth as Galinda singing this:
Whenever I see someone less fortunate than I,
And let's face it, who isn't less fortunate than I?
My tender heart tends to start to bleed.
And when someone needs a makeover,
I simply have to take over!
I know, I know exactly what they need!
And even in your case,
Though it's the toughest case I've yet to face,
Don't worry, I'm determined to succeed!
Follow my lead....
Don't be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis,
Now that I've chosen to become a
Pal, a sister and advisor,
There's nobody wiser!
Not when it comes to...
I know about popular.
and with an assist from me,
to be who you'll be,
instead of dreary who you were...
there's nothing that can stop you,
from becoming popu-ler... lar...
You’ll be popular!
Just not quite as popular as ME!
(words written and copyrighted by Stephen Schwartz)
You’ll have to see the show to find out how all of this plays out, no pun intended. For today, I just borrow the song to help us think about our obsession with popularity--even those of us who are followers of Jesus and parts of the church that has evolved in his name.
There’s not a whole, whole lot in the Bible about appearance and popularity, but I think the passage we heard earlier from Paul to the Corinthian congregation has a parallel. The chauvinism of Paul notwithstanding--the male dominance over women thing--Paul does slip in a bit of a teaching on appearance and popularity.
The context of 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, is Paul’s laying out how prophecy is supposed to be handled in the church there and in all other churches as well, we assume. While setting back women’s rights several paces, Paul, bull in a China shop that he was much of the time, wins some victories for women in the church. He clearly makes provisions for women to be able to prophesy in worship just as men are permitted and encouraged to do if prophecy is a given individual’s gift.
The “rules” reveal double standards and a clear relegating of women to second class status in comparison to men. The men who prophesy are warned not to cover their heads when they speak words of prophecy. Women, in contrast, are told that they MUST have their heads covered when they prophesy. Part of the reason for this is that there should be, in Paul’s reasoning, some essential difference between how a man looks when he prophesies and how a woman should look when she prophesies. The head covering shows the woman’s deference to the prophesying men in the group.
Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man (1 Cor 11:4-7 NRSV).
Why was it disgraceful for a woman to have her head shaved or her hair cut? Seems like that should be a matter of personal choice.
Well, here’s the thing. For the most part, only the temple prostitutes, the female ones, cut their hair short or shaved their heads. In this very strange context for discussing fashion, Paul explains that women in the churches should never even run the risk of having anyone think for a second that they moonlight as temple prostitutes in the temples of the polytheistic deities in Corinth and throughout Asia Minor. You can’t turn something like that into a fashion statement, Paul said. It won’t work. It can’t work!
At this point, Paul wanders, which is not out of character for Paul at all. Rather suddenly, the talk about the head coverings for prophesying women reminds him of how much he likes long hair on women. He says long hair is her glory, and, just to be clear, men shouldn’t have long hair, which wasn’t an option for him, for what that’s worth. Legend tells us Paul was bald. “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Cor 11:14-15 NRSV). I would have to say, “No,” to Paul. “No, Paul, I don’t think nature teaches us anything about hair unless it’s that nobody should cut it.”
Jesus was not popular. There are so many misunderstandings about Jesus that we have to wonder if more than a handful of people have ever had any real clue or insight as to who he really was or what he was about. Trying to be one of those people is a passion of mine. I don’t know how much you can trust me on this, but I think I’m a tad bit more reliable than Mel Gibson or Cecil B. DeMille or those who preach and teach widely but who’ve never figured out that Jesus was a Jew.
One of the lessons the Gospels teach us is that Jesus wasn’t popular and that people who try to live like Jesus will not be popular either. Now, I’m not saying that Jesus failed to attract quite a bit of attention, and I’m not suggesting that he always preached or taught to small groups of people. What know about the “crowds” or the “multitudes,” though, is that Jesus attracted them mostly when they wanted something from him or when they wanted some good entertainment.
Most of those who sought out Jesus were not initially interested in his teachings or his challenges about living for God. They were interested in being healed or getting fed or just watching the magic show. In the end, Jesus had amassed a very small following, and the circumstances of his execution didn’t help the cause of the Jesus Movement. Who wanted to be a part of a religious movement where the main person was executed as a criminal? People have generally wanted heroes and sheroes as their religious leaders, and we can see this in the developing dogma about Jesus as the early church survives and then thrives.
The Jesus who during the whole of his earthly career was a bivocational preacher from Podunk with very little money and a rag tag team of followers gradually became the “King Jesus” and, in some strands of thought, God. Jesus’ humanity alone, though that is clearly the most remarkable trait about him, appeals to very few people. His earthly life wasn’t grand enough to suit them. He simply wasn’t important or high class enough. Bottom line: the true Jesus was (and is!) unpopular. Spin doctors had to recreate him in order to make him acceptable, palatable, to persons at the center, rather than at the edges, of various groups of people where he had ministered and way beyond that Palestinian Judaic setting.
Anybody who thinks that Jesus was concerned about popularity or heading up a popular movement knows nothing about Jesus or his core values. Here is one sobering comment attributed to Jesus by the Gospel of John:
If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you (John 15:18-20 NRSV).
The world, such as it has existed up to now--at least in most places and times--has been incapable of understanding God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s special concern for the marginalized. How could God love the unloveable? How could God favor the unfavorable? How could God not give God’s endorsement to the political power people? All the world as a whole has been able to do is to try to destroy such an “upside down” philosophy of life and love and its most eloquent spokesperson, Jesus from Nazareth, along with many who have tried to follow him.
Jesus passed on his lack of interest in or concern for popularity to his followers as is clear in this passage from Mark 6:
Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:6b-11 NRSV).
Some Christian scripture scholars have proposed the notion that, at least at one critical juncture early in Jesus’ ministry, he invited rejection and instigated a rebellion in response to what he said. Here’s a part of the episode in question from the Gospel of Luke:
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way (Luke 4:24-30 NRSV).
This is scary stuff. The anger the congregation felt toward him had changed from their praise of him moments before.
The congregation was so riled up, they wanted to kill him; and they went so far as drive him to the edge of the cliff where they intended to throw him off. He was too quick for them somehow and managed to pass through the angry mob and escape. Needless to say, Jesus was not the first or the last preacher who enraged a congregation, and the little synagogue group was not the first or the last congregation to want to kill a preacher--its own pastor in most cases. In the literature of the old west of this country, there are stories about towns being angry with their preachers and driving them out of town on rails, sometimes tarred and feathered. (This reference is used for illustrative purposes only and, in no way, is it intended to implant ideas in your heads about responsibilities of the present or future Pastor/Staff Relations Committee.)
Ahead of this angry response, Jesus had owned his impetus for ministry by aligning himself with the beloved prophet, Third Isaiah. The people were nodding their heads with pride and affirmation--one of their own, a carpenter, was going to try to establish himself as a rabbi. As Jesus read from Isaiah, the hearers took themselves to be the good guys being referred to or, at least, the beneficiaries of God’s plan for the hurting.
Jesus suddenly turned the tables on them. Their smiling faces became blank and then angry stares. Why? Well, Jesus appeared to be slamming his own people, the Jews, and they weren’t going to stand for it.
Jesus referred them to the much beloved and some would have said the towering prophet among all of Israel’s prophets, Elijah, and Jesus said, “You all remember how all those Jewish widows were suffering during the ministry of Elijah; well, the only widow Elijah bothered to minister to was a Gentile. He ministered to her while the Jewish widows had to continue to fend for themselves.” That didn’t sound right, but it was true.
Jesus went on. Remember Elijah’s beloved protege, Elisha? There was all sorts of Jews with leprosy during the time of Elisha’s ministry, but, Jesus said to the people, did you ever notice that the only leper he tried to help was a Gentile?
That was that. Truth notwithstanding, they didn’t want to hear their heroes slammed so they decided to kill the person who told such stories even though they were 100% true. Most religious people don’t want to hear the sobering truth; they want their fancies tickled as they wait for guaranteed admission into heaven and/or some more immediate material rewards. Jesus told the unpopular truth, and a religious group tried to kill him. Eventually, another group would succeed; this one didn’t.
Various groups through the ages have tried to gain an understanding of Jesus by looking back to the longings of the ancient Hebrew people for the one whom God would send to cause the world to focus on God. It turns out that the “one” God sent was a suffering servant and was initially not an individual at all, but a nation, the ancient Hebrews--called to be a light to the nations and at the same a suffering servant. Listen again to this:
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before [God] like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a person of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Again, this was not a prophecy about a messiah to come, but rather a description of God’s first-chosen people. What is fascinating, though, is that some theologians of old saw Jesus not as King of Glory, but as successor to the suffering servant I’ve just described. Anything but popular, wouldn’t you say?