An ‘Easy Living’ Epiphany
It was one of those “this is the new that” features (which in any context other than a holiday I would immediately sneer at, obviously), and the big idea was that perfection was passé, and that the fashion today is to be a flawed example rather than an all-too-immaculate one. We want heroes who are broken, ordinary, accessible and within reach, it argued: Miranda Hart, Tina Fey in 30 Rock, Jennifer Lawrence falling over at the Oscars, chefs who love chocolate and roughly chop everything rather than Pippa Middleton’s flawless recipes, Mary Berry rather than Halle Berry, charity shop ensembles with DM boots rather than impeccably coordinated outfits, and so on. I thought briefly about various expressions of popular culture I knew about - fashion, music, cuisine, comedy, drama, interior design - and suddenly saw it everywhere. Zooey Deschanel. “Shabby chic”. Farm shops. Instagram. Phil Dunphy.
And then the epiphany happened. When we as leaders talk about how big our flaws and struggles are, and people respond with immense enthusiasm and encouragement, both we and they are shaped by the cultural zeitgeist more than many of us realise. I had thought, until my Easy Living encounter, that the fact that I was more into self-disclosure than I used to be simply reflected an increased self-awareness or humility, and the fact that people responded so well to it (the most positive feedback I’ve ever had from a talk was from a very personal, “here’s the struggle I’ve faced recently” message at Mobilise recently) simply indicated that self-disclosure in preaching is an intrinsic good. I’d thought that people had always found “authentic” and “transparent” to be obvious buzzwords in Christian ministry, and that stories of personal failure had always put people on your side when you were leading them. So it was slightly crushing, but nonetheless extremely useful, to realise that much of the reason for me doing those things, and much of the reason for people appreciating them, was bound up with a particular cultural moment in which things like that had become fashionable. The narrative of the moment coheres much better with a didactic approach that begins with “I’m just as rubbish as you” than with one that begins, “imitate me, even as I imitate Christ.” And those of us who make that sort of approach a modus operandi need to realise that, lest we unwittingly ape Miranda Hart in all particulars and imagine that in doing so we are doing nothing more than embodying humility.
None of which is to say that openness and transparency are somehow wrong, or that for a preacher to share personal stories is unwise, or that those who appreciate such stories are at fault in any way. We are always products of, as well as contributors to, our cultures, and fashions affect us as much as they affect everyone else. It is merely to say that we may benefit from seeing the connection between our habits and those of the society around us, and that it might stop us from making contemporary fashions into goods in themselves. Specifically, if our obsession with showing everyone quite how messed up we are (and the accompanying conviction that we cannot lead anyone if we haven’t done so) leads us to eschew saying that we can and should be imitated, or that others should observe our lives to see whether or not the gospel is true, then there is a problem. Apostolic leadership involves embodying the Christ-shaped new creation, and not merely saying how incompetent we are at living it out. We should boast in our weaknesses, of course, as Paul did. But we should also look carefully at what exactly he meant by that language (2 Cor 11-12). It may have less in common with Miranda than we are inclined to assume.