See, this article from earlier this year was too fun not to bring back. The thread between Carl Trueman's observations on the dangers of hagiography and Neil Genzlinger's complaint about the proliferation of memoirs revolves around the narrative as a prism that breaks up a beam of light into clearly delineated colors and then invites us to look at merely one part of that spectrum. The memoir, Genzlinger seems to say, has essentially become auto-hagiography.
The memoir has become (and arguably always was) a form of self-beatification. It was actually this aspect of Nehemiah that made some rabbis strike his name from Ezra/Nehemiah as part of the title of the book. Nehemiah, of course, lived such a life as warranted a memoir by Genzlinger's measure of the necessity for a memoir.
But he points out, rightly, that most of us do not live such lives. Most of us won't. Most of us shouldn't. Yet with the advent of blogging we are able to fashion for ourselves such a life, if only in our minds. To use an otherwise useless expression from communications-major-speak, this is what we would call a constructed mediated reality. We are cynical and cautious about these when we encounter them in other people but our cynicism does not necessarily make us more able to tell when we are being decieved. Our cynicism as a stance, or as a reality, hides from us our capacity to modify our own story so that we are saints and martyrs in our own narrative.
Christians can create contemporary auto-hagiographies by way of blogs. Now while I don't wish to say there is no value to a blog or a podcast or a vodcast or books these are often the ways in which many Christians crave the adulation of men while thinking what they are doing is providing a service to God's people. I don't blog with some unalloyed goal of being a servant to God's people. I hope that I can do that along the way but, honestly, a lot of my blogging is simply for fun and because I'm looking for work and I like to discuss, read about, and write about things.
I also, obviously, love to write about cartoons and watch cartoons. So, sometimes, I write about cartoons. But what I don't wish to do is to present here any impression that I am a particularly good or thoughtful or righteous Christian. I like to write about music but I would hesitate to say I am any kind of expert on music. I know a few things and God has given me opportunities to play music in settings I have enjoyed, but there are plenty of other places where you could learn about music. I wouldn't have shared my difficult in appreciating and understanding the psalms f my goal were to create an auto-hagiography on this blog.
Other Christians, however, may create blogs that are functionally auto-hagiographies. There may be discussions of suffering or indignity but not of sin. There may be moments where they talk about teachable moments that they implicitly say you can and should learn from but not discuss their mistakes. Or they may discuss mistakes from long ago but not ones that matter. Now if the goal of the blog is to promote one's place in a profession, fine, that's what these things are for. I like reading blogs by people who deal with culture, music, religion, politics, and all that stuff. These tend to, basically, be types of journalists.
In fact some of them, like Alex Ross, basically are music journalists. Michael Spenser eventually got published in the Christian Science Monitor. Other bloggers get known within their circle of like-minded friends and are fun to read but don't get the same traction. Traction, of course, isn't a high priority for this blog. There has been plenty I have written here where if people don't know about it that suits me fine.
But at another level I admit that some of what I have done here has been an at times ill-conceived and at times poorly written attempt to create an antidote to certain things that often look and feel and sound like contemporary hagiography for Christian races that are so far from being run I don't wish them to be whitewashed. I say this particular in cases where, honestly, I am just informed enough to feel it necessary to deflate the balloon once in a while. I don't want the balloon to pop but too much hot air in the balloon will make it pop. It's not something I need to do these days because I have far more important things to do, like keep hunting for work and writing things for Mockingbird, and composing music, and helping with church music as I can.
But I won't say that attempting to provide an antidote to aspects of auto-hagiogaphy in certain Christian circles has not been a vital concern of mine. Some of that antidote comes in the form of admitting there are things that I struggle with or find difficult. This is the internet, so I won't do it in a way that deals with gory details and relentless tedium but I trust you get the idea. Some of that antidote, however, has admittedly come in the form of raising issues that certain fanboys and adversaries of certain folks I don't really need to name, don't know or care about, or would like skimmed.
I have at times been accused of casting things in very black and white terms. These sorts of statements are either made by people who don't know me at all, or have a very black and white approach to things themselves that they wish I possessed ... but in such a way as to agree with them. When you see the world in black and white and I point out that there are some grays in there then depending on whether or not you agree with me you may say that I'm casting it in black and white simply for not having the same view you have. I don't get this often, just every once in a while and fortunately it's something that's fairly easy to leave be.
So while Genzlinger proposed that you save your memoir for a blog or hit the delete key if you didn't learn something about yourself through your memoir, I've got a playful variation on it. If you are thinking of writing a memoir or something like that to justify yourself then reconsider the value of that memoir, whatever form it takes. If you wish to invite other people to view you as a martyr for your sufferings or back you as a soldier in what you consider a holy cause, maybe the time you spend writing a memoir should be best saved for after you've accomplished that thing, not as a shill to enlist people into helping you get that done, let alone doing that for you. This is why people are selectively skeptical about political memoirs for the other team and so happy to absorb political memoirs for "our" side. We can have this peculiar double standard because, well, the heart is deceitful above all things and who can understand it?
The apostle Paul described himself as chief of sinners and as a man who violently persecuted the church. He described himself as having been perfect in keeping the Law and yet not being saved thereby. Paul shared that the Galatians would have gladly exchanged their eyes for his, suggesting to many scholars he may have had some ocular disease or disability. As someone who had to have the macula of his right eye reattached I am totally on board with this scholarly proposal. Paul boasted in his weakness and boasted, in one of the strangest of all paradoxes, in consistently rebuffed prayer. Christians are told to rejoice in suffering and to remember that the testing of our faith produces perserverance. How many of us are reminded that Paul pled three times that that thorn in the flesh would be removed and was told that strength is made perfect in weakness?
Then there is Paul writing that the church in Corinth was his letter of recommendation. If this is not an antidote to hagiography as many Christians have practiced it I don't know what is. Why, of all the churches Paul worked to plant, did he consider Corinth, so riddled with factions and sin, his letter of recommendation? I don't wish to belabor the point this late at night in any detail but offer it instead as a kind of boasting in weakness that Paul would later develop at a more personal level when he would boast of his sufferings in apostolic work.
While some pastors today will talk about how much God has blessed them these might, to Paul's ears, still sound curiously like boasting in accomplishments. I don't know but I'm throwing it out there for consideration. A pastor, or really any Christian, can make a laundry list of things to be proud of and not having a thorn in the flesh removed would not be one of them. A Christian might not discuss how his or her failures reveal the faithfulness of the Lord. A pastor is not likely to talk about how this or that thing was a trainwreck, an ill-conceived idea, a ministry idea that died because of poor planning or wrong-headed goals.
America is not so different from other societies, we don't really want to hear about the failures unless it's about how to overcome them. As Michael Spenser wrote years ago, there is a kind of prosperity gospel to this that can go unobserved. I suggest that even though we often pay lip service to Paul because he was an apostle, we studiously ignore applying his example and teaching in our lives when we set up for ourselves an auto-hagiography just as we do if we attempt suppress unpleasant realities about saints whose salvation has not depended upon our making sure that the saint is photographed from the right angle and with an appropriate amount of airbrushing and strategic lighting.
Samson was a beligerent stupid horndog. Gideon was fearful. Jephthah made an incredibly stupid vow the keeping of which compelled him to sacrifice his daughter. He is mentioned as one of the saints in Hebrews 11. His love for the Lord was beyond dispute but he was only mentioned in Judges as, well, a moron who made a remarkably rash vow before the Lord. Cue Ecclesiastes 5 and the observation that it is better to not make a vow than to make one and not keep it. If you make a vow and keeping that vow means you break laws in the Torah, well, that's pretty terrible. All of these men were commended for their faith and yet all of them did terrible, sinful things, things the scriptures do not fail to discuss even as the scriptures do not fail to discuss the genuineness of their faith.
It is one thing for hagiographers to praise the dead and skip over their failures and so belittle the significance of their sins, it is another thing for us as living Christians to engage in auto-hagiography and risk the substantial and terrible sin of bearing false witness. There are lies that are deliberate falsehoods but there are also lies of omission. I don't mean here to say that everything goes out on the table for everyone. If anything one of the errors of our time is to so conflate public persona and private experiences that Neil Genzlinger has complained, if you will, that if you aren't a virgin we don't really have any need to hear about that. We don't need to hear that sometimes you fought with your brother or sister and then made jokes. Everyone does that. That isn't special. It also, for the sake of my rumination, does not make you a martyr or a saint.
We have secular authors flooding us with memoirs and the Christianese counterpart to these may simply be auto-hagiography. If anything we need less rather than more of these kinds of stories. We particularly need less of them if their goal, despite all the pious platitudes of things like "solo deo gloria" we end up talking about our accomplishments, our feelings, our ideas, our principles for success, and our pet peeves.
I noticed a few years ago as I began reading sermons by John Donne and David Martyn Lloyd-Jones that these were pastors who had surprisingly little personal narrative as the "applicatory part" of their sermons. You don't read in the sermons of these men discussions about their children, funny anecdotes, passing comments of appreciation about the hot wife. You sometimes see reference to events, of course, that would be widely known, but there are no pop cultural discourses on why The Simpsons are a sign of what's wrong with America or why Twilight is demonic because it creates bad messages to teenage girls about what men are like or, conversely, that Twighlight promotes a Christian virtue of sexual restraint. I don't know, I don't care, I honestly am not a huge vampire fan. My observation is that vampire stories and so on were probably available in some form or another to men like John Donne and David Martyn Llooyd-Jones and these didn't factor into their preaching for reasons I trust are not that hard to understand.
Now if I were to take a silly statement by James MacDonald seriously we shouldn't bother listening to McGee sermons or reading sermons by Donne or Martyn Lloyd-Jones because the Spirit used those men for certain times and is using them no longer. This is precisely why such a claim is silly and it, in some sense, is symptomatic of the idea that preaching and teaching must somehow be enfleshed in order to "really" be used by the Spirit, despite universal Christian assent to the inspiration of scriptures and all that. A move like this seems, to me, to indicate a form of auto-hagiography of a different sort. Rather than the obvious neo-Montanist absurdity of "God is doing a new thing" or "God is sending fresh fire" from Kansas City prophet types this makes the same kind of category mistake but through putatively more respectable means, especially among mega church multi-site advocates. The irony of how this necessitates the dismissal of all the dead white guy theologians these pastors like to quote is not something I should have to explain.
The measure of a Christian ministry is, given all the caveats you should expect, whether it goes on without you. The work, indeed, could and would go on without you just as it can and will. This is why "special gifts" is a silly and dangerous notion regarding ministry. This is why it is valuable to discuss the work and calling of the ordinary pastor but perhaps not by pastors who are so widely consider extraordinary. This is not just because of the risk of the cult of personality but also chiefly because, given the responsibilities of the shepherd within the Church, many of these so-called extraordinarily gifted pastors are neither extraordinarily gifted nor, when you get down to it, really all that much involved in the actual shepherding process.
They are, to borrow a useful description given by a preacher, so engaged in the air war they haven't seen the trenches except from 20,000 feet traveling at high subsonic levels, if not Mach 1.8 without the use of afterburner.
The super pastor is most in danger of being the subject of hagiography or auto-hagiography.
He (or she, this is America after all) is in danger of buying into the hype, whether the hype comes from others or from the self. But it is a risk we all face as individual Christians, particularly in the United States. We may come from a Pentecostal or charismatic background where we were told God has a special calling on our lives before birth. We might be told we've been called to be a prophet or a healer.
In less charismatic circles there might be a long family lineage going back to Jonathan Edwards or Charles Finney or whomever. There may be a family sense of vocation that appears pious and sincere enough but can in its own way be a form of manipulation, a kind of family hagiography that becomes a pressure to pursue a particular path. This has happened with families where military service was considered necessary to honor the family, or where science or engineering are considered honorable family activities and thus must be pursued. Well, famously, preacher kids often dislike the profession. They do not have even the advantage of a shrewd Pentecostal when confronted with this kind of pressure to say "But the Spirit isn't putting that burden on my heart so why should I do what the Spirit isn't convicting me to do?" See, those of us from Pentecostal backgrounds in some ways have had it easier.
But I digress and ramble.