Thursday, April 14, 2016

pastoral activity in an era of sinecure, a riff on megachurch pastors who are now anything but pastors.

I've been going through Richard Taruskin's Oxford History of Western Music this year and he spends a lot of time discussing the history of what I'd call empires of patronage for the arts and the aesthetic and ideological rationales for what was funded in each of these empires.  Along the way, tossed off in a blink-and-you-missed it observation was how the majority of musicians and composers are forgotten because they literally couldn't afford to get their work out in a way so as to be noticed--even vocational musicians needed the kind of low intensity work that left them enough energy after the official work day was done to make art.  The term he used is a great old-school Latin thing, a sinecure. 

The sinecure was a position that was any basically not-demanding work in a capacity that let you leave work at work.  For instance, earlier in his career Fernando Sor had a military position that left him time to compose.  He ended up marrying a ballerina who was added to a Russian ballet company and while in Russia Sor was able to compose.  What's easy to miss in the history of music as music is the history of music within the dynamics of patronage systems.  Many artists in the history of the arts have never "made it" doing what they do.  There are the literally legendary historical figures who were vocationally in the arts thanks to time and chance and meeting the right people with crazy amounts of money, and then there are the rest of the often forgotten masses of people who have made art from a love of beauty. Then there are people kind of in the middle, who have day jobs that don't necessarily involve the arts and yet who may now only be known for the art they made.  Nobody's celebrating the legacy of Fernando Sor for his military career that I know of.

Scott Timberg's specious invocation of how rough aristocratic patronage for Haydn was a while back was specious because it glossed over Haydn getting free room and board; free health care; a good chunk of free food; and the goodwill of a patron who pretty much let Haydn write whatever he wanted.  The strings attached came about because Haydn wasn't being compensated for any given musical work, he was compensated for his labor, which was agreed upon by way of a contract that stipulated he was part of the military class.  You could think of it this way, a few famous musicians here and there had desk jockey jobs in the military forces of their time and place.  It's one of the reasons I think it's foolish for people in the liberal arts to look down on people who have made careers in the military--no honest and thorough survey of the history of arts patronage or even the careers of some higher profile

But there's an older meaning to sinecure and students of religion may well know it had a reference to church activity ... or lack thereof.  Sinecure referred to "without care", a desk jockey role but within the formal church of the time.  Think the church secretary or any role in a church organization that didn't involve visiting people or performing sacramental functions. 

Megachurch pastors who don't visit the sick or pray for them, who don't even know th names of all the people in their church, maybe guys like Justin Dean would call those people pastors ... but in terms of practical weekly activity the megachurch preacher can live in a workplace that is functionally a sinecure.  All the celebrity preacher has to do is assemble the right materials (or contract a research assistant out to assemble said materials) and then deliver the content one day a week.  When Driscoll used to brag about how it took about as long to put a sermon together as it did to preach it this sort of boasting seemed to take place chiefly after someone was supplied to him from the Docent Group to help him do research.  When Mark Driscoll talked about how much he loved his "job" and kept putting the word 'job' in scare quotes ... it turned out there were reasons for that.


Functionally Driscoll had managed to become what he called a pastor to pastors but he had lost connection to rank and file members along the way.  He had transformed into pretty much everything he used to preach against from the pulpit. Maybe he can start over and maybe this tie around he can remain connected to people who aren't just leadership material in his taxonomy of worthiness. 

In the megachurch pastor, in the pastor of a church who is technologically savvy and engaged in the mass media through podcasts, vodcasts, book deals and the like we're seeing people who are what Ellul would describe as propagandists.  That much has been a topic for discussion plenty here but there's another element at play, which is that the nature of this activity, activity that Mark Driscoll used to jokingly refer to as his so-called job, is sinecure.  That is to say these men and women who take the title pastor but are not visiting the poor and sick and are not performing spiritual offices have resurrected sinecure in spite of having formal titles that would suggest the opposite.  These are not shepherds, they have delegated the work of shepherding to hired hands if they aren't hired hands themselves.  But for the press releases for a book publication or a conference ... all of a sudden these men and women who have functional sinecure can't wait to present themselves as pastors.

Right now Mark Driscoll's recycling his old hits.  As news outlets (if we MUST call them that) recount Mark Driscoll on the topic of whether Christians can have tattoos (a topic fielded at least a decade ago in the MH context) Driscoll has the luxury of bringing back a "long tail", bringing back content that's been away for long enough an ignorant new audience can be presented it as if it were actually new material.  Driscoll used to warn us here in Seattle about guys who do their thing for a few years, pull up stakes and quit, and then go somewhere else recycling their old stuff.  Driscoll's study of 1 John is self-consciously revisiting and recycling only now it seems the branding is re:birth and a re:turn to roots. 

Sinecure is an archaic and esoteric term but I think ife we recapture an understanding of what it was and what it is we can see that Christian celebrities ranging from Mark Driscoll to Rachel Held Evans are self-appointed voices who in reality may have a self-obtained sinecure.  They have no formal responsibilities they grant to anyone to bind them by.  But they're more than happy to present their own voices as if they say things we should bother paying attention to. 

We may live in an era where those who have secured sinecure and Christian celebrity are eager to tell us all what to do and think while those who are doing the more anonymous and thankless tasks of caring for the souls of those who seek Christ are treated as if they aren't doing what they're supposed to be doing because according to some self-appointed gurus the primary purpose of the shepherds isn't feeding the sheep and tending to the sick but refining the branding.


Gail Wallace said...

I agree with your premise and conclusions, but am curious as to why you mention Rachel Held Evans in this context. She is not a pastor and has never claimed to be one. Perhaps there is a better example?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

What RHE and Driscoll have had in common is promotion through Thomas Nelson and undergraduate studies in communications. Driscoll took more efforts to come up with what he considered to be "ordination" but in the end he concluded he was qualified in some fashion before he started and sought credentialing later. An imperfect comparison in terms of formal credentials for pastoral activity but that might be a personal shortfall in concerns.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

Rob Bell "may" have turned out to be another "pastor" who is more a media figure.