Pursuing Obscurity: A Call to Pastoral Humility

by Mike Phay

Please note: This article originally appeared at Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought, in their online magazine, The Table.

“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious, as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”

– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

In the 2013 Ben Stiller comedy film The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, the title protagonist embarks on a worldwide search to find eccentric photojournalist Sean O’Connell (played by Sean Penn). Walter finally catches up with O’Connell in the upper Himalayas, where the globe-hopping photographer is stalking the elusive snow leopard. Motioning Walter—who has uncharacteristically pushed himself far beyond the borders of his comfortable, predictable, daydreaming life in New York City—to take a load off, Sean describes his quarry:

“They call the snow leopard the ghost cat. It never lets itself be seen.”

He continues, profoundly: “Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

A few lines later, Sean ambiguously refers to Walter himself as a “ghost cat,” calling attention to the nondescript beauty of an ordinary guy faithfully doing his job day after day, year after year. Pursuing excellence without calling undue attention to himself.

Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.

This is, of course, not how our culture functions. The idea that there is a shyness—a modesty—to beauty is antithetical to our society’s understanding of beauty. Isn’t it the beautiful things and beautiful people that constantly vie for our attention? Whether on the best and most expensive big screen TV, the magazine racks in the checkout line, the pop-up ads on the internet, or in the sports car in the driveway of the designer home, or the growing ubiquity of CrossFit “boxes,” it seems that beauty is always front and center, constantly demanding our attention. Beauty seems to be defined by calling attention to itself.

Pastoral Narcissism

Our culture parades and flaunts its version of beauty. It vies for it and pays for it. It worships beauty—or at least a caricature of it. To be beautiful is to deserve the spotlight; to demand attention. Youth, physical fitness, personal charisma, humor, charm, and popularity are imbued with such power that they shape an understanding of beauty that—like moths attracted to the light—we can’t help but be drawn to. To be a celebrity is to be recognized as a “beautiful one” and to leverage that beauty for reward.

This kind of attention seeking is not, of course, relegated to the marketplace. It has infiltrated the church and especially the ranks of the pastorate. Sadly, much like ancient Israel—who constantly allowed the shrines of foreign gods to invade the land—the church has fallen prey to the overwhelming siren call of this cult of beauty. Pastors are not immune to this kind of narcissism.

In this life, even the most humble will never fully be free from the human impetus towards pride. Pastors are no exception, and to make matters worse, there are peculiar temptations toward pride that seem to be unique to the pastoral vocation. The proximity of pastoral work to things that are holy—God’s people, God’s Word, the sacraments—brings with it an especially surreptitious form of pride. “It is a terrible thing,” C.S. Lewis observed of pride, “that the worst of all the vices can smuggle itself into the very centre of our religious life.”

It is difficult for those who are publicly identified as God’s servants to separate themselves from what Henri Nouwen called “a success-oriented world.” Outward definitions of success line up so neatly with the inward temptations to receive applause, adulation, and affirmation. Put a man in any place to receive applause—on a stage, a platform or a podium; behind any pulpit or microphone—and resistance to ego-stroking is (nearly) futile. Suddenly, even we servants of the church no longer see an incongruity between our pastoral vocation and the potential for prominence among the ranks of the beautiful. As a result, we end up exalting our own beauty and brilliance.

Although celebrity pastors are not necessarily a new phenomenon—Martin Luther, George Whitefield, and Charles Spurgeon were all well-known in their time—the past five decades of globalization have seen their rapid multiplication. This, in turn, has fueled a cult of personality and a culture of celebrity among the rank and file of pastors that is endangering the pastoral vocation.

In their essence, these temptations to mimic the surrounding culture find their modern clerical expression evidenced in our metrics of success: Dollars, followers, and platform. Success is synonymous with numerical growth: whether it be church attendance, giving, blog traffic, Twitter followers, book sales, social media clout, speaking gigs, or the breadth of one’s national or international influence. ‘Good’ pastors—so the narrative goes—are those that are growing along these lines.

Strategies for gaining this kind of success are legion and are mostly tied to our cultural understanding of beauty. In other words, the more beautiful—i.e., charismatic and winsome—a pastor, the bigger the numbers he or she will be able to produce. Pastors are told—either implicitly or explicitly, sometimes by the church and always by the world—that they must not only cultivate beauty but also flaunt their beauty in order to achieve success. The need for any successful pastor is to gain a voice—a platform—in order to amplify and project their charisma, intelligence, beauty, and charm beyond the scope of the local congregation and into the broader world.

Continue reading at Biola Center for Christian Thought



Published by Mike Phay

Husband. Father. Pastor. Teacher.

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