What if Celebrity Pastors Were as Honest as Ta-Nehisi Coates?

Coates’ take down of Kanye West is receiving push back, but it has this very perceptive section on notoriety:

In the summer of 2015, I published a book, and in so doing, became the unlikely recipient of a mere fraction of the kind of celebrity Kanye West enjoys. It was small literary fame, not the kind of fame that accompanies Grammys and Oscars, and there may not have been a worse candidate for it. I was the second-youngest of seven children. My life had been inconsequential, if slightly amusing. I had never stood out for any particular reason, save my height, and even that was wasted on a lack of skills on the basketball court. But I learned to use this ordinariness to my advantage. I was a journalist. There was something soft and unthreatening about me that made people want to talk. And I had a capacity for disappearing into events and thus, in that way, reporting out a scene. At home, I built myself around ordinary things—family, friends, and community. I might never be a celebrated writer. But I was a good father, a good partner, a decent friend.

Fame expletive with all of that. I would show up to do my job, to report, and become, if not the scene, then part of it. I would take my wife out to lunch to discuss some weighty matter in our lives, and come home, only to learn that the couple next to us had covertly taken a photo and tweeted it out. The family dream of buying a home, finally achieved, became newsworthy. My kid’s Instagram account was scoured for relevant quotes. And when I moved to excise myself, to restrict access, this would only extend the story.

It was the oddest thing. I felt myself to be the same as I had always been, but everything around me was warping. My sense of myself as part of a community of black writers disintegrated before me. Writers, whom I loved, who had been mentors, claimed tokenism and betrayal. Writers, whom I knew personally, whom I felt to be comrades in struggle, took to Facebook and Twitter to announce my latest heresy. No one enjoys criticism, but by then I had taken my share. What was new was criticism that I felt to originate as much in what I had written, as how it had been received. One of my best friends, who worked in radio, came up with the idea of a funny self-deprecating segment about me and my weird snobbery. But when it aired, the piece was mostly concerned with this newfound fame, how it had changed me, and how it all left him feeling a type of way. I was unprepared. The work of writing had always been, for me, the work of enduring failure. It had never occurred to me that one would, too, have to work to endure success.

The incentives toward a grand ego were ever present. I was asked to speak on matters which my work evidenced no knowledge of. I was invited to do a speaking tour via private jet. I was asked to direct a music video. I began to understand how and why famous writers falter, because writing is hard and there are “writers” who only do that work because they have to. But it was now clear there was another way—a life of lectures, visiting-writer gigs, galas, prize committees. There were dark expectations. I remember going with a friend to visit an older black writer, an elder statesman. He sized me up and the first thing he said to me was, “You must be getting all the vulgarity now.”

What I felt, in all of this, was a profound sense of social isolation. I would walk into a room, knowing that some facsimile of me, some mix of interviews, book clubs, and private assessment, had preceded me. The loss of friends, of comrades, of community, was gut-wrenching. I grew skeptical and distant. I avoided group dinners. In conversation, I sized everyone up, convinced that they were trying to extract something from me. And this is where the paranoia began, because the vast majority of people were kind and normal. But I never knew when that would fail to be the case.

This has to be the experience of pastors who have attained fame and regularly speak on conference circuits. This is also a set of psychological bags that cannot period be good period for pastoral ministry period. How do you separate awareness of how you appear, sound, and come across when you preach merely to a congregation? But how much more is such a sensitivity when you are someone so recognizable?

Celebrity is a burden that some have to carry. It is also an attribute that any serious pastor who wants to get out of the way and let the Word and Spirit do their gracious work should avoid like Donald Trump.

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5 thoughts on “What if Celebrity Pastors Were as Honest as Ta-Nehisi Coates?

  1. Not that I approve of, but being a celebrity has its advantages in particularly conservative churches. That is because conservative Christianity unfortunately lends itself to authoritarianism and passive authoritarians love celebrities. Of course, who is a celebrity depends on the circle of people one is with.

    D. G. is correct about being a celebrity. Some must endure it but it should be avoided when possible.

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  2. D.G. Harts says Celebrity is a burden that some have to carry. It is also an attribute that any serious pastor who wants to get out of the way and let the Word and Spirit do their gracious work should avoid like Donald Trump.

    really appreciate Paul’s example:

    1 Thessalonians 2: 3 For our exhortation does not come from error or impurity or by way of deceit; 4 but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who examines our hearts. 5 For we never came with flattering speech, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed—God is witness— 6 nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, even though as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority.

    2 Corinthians 11:12 But what I am doing I will continue to do, so that I may cut off opportunity from those who desire an opportunity to be regarded just as we are in the matter about which they are boasting. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

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  3. D.G. Hart says should avoid Donald Trump.

    perhaps; but ought he not a) be prayed for, and as he claims to be a believer b) be corrected, if perhaps God may grant repentance and c) be reminded of His Lord’s character hating six things, seven an abomination to Him: 1) haughty eyes, 2) a lying tongue, 3) hands that shed innocent blood 4) a heart that devises wicked plans; 5) feet that run rapidly to evil; 6) a false witness who utters lies; 7) one who spreads strife among brothers

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  4. Dr. Hart,
    A little off topic, but do you have analogous concerns about celebrity historians, and have you seen cases where it results in damage to the profession?

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  5. PAH, since historians generally don’t do the kind of public speaking (conferences of those hoping to be inspired), I don’t see celebrity as the same problem. Then there is the public intellectual vs. academic question that Russell Jacoby discusses in The Last Intellectuals. But I see that as a different dynamic. Niall Ferguson is in a different class from Tim Keller though folks may be tempted to put them in a similar box.

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