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One evening some time ago, my wife Monica and I were channel-surfing and wound up watching the movie Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping — a witty and telling satire of pop culture created by the comedic trio The Lonely Island. Near the beginning of the film, the character Connor4Real, who’s just become a breakout R&B star, performs his hit single “I’m So Humble.” The scene is great comedy, and rich irony: a sexy pop superstar, in a stadium full of screaming fans, singing:
Bar none I am the most humblest
#1 at the top of the humble list
My apple crumble is by far the most crumble-est
But I say that it tastes bad out of humbleness”
“The thing about me that’s so impressive
Is how infrequently I mention all of my successes
It’s a tongue-in-cheek picture of the paradox of humility, that most culturally-unsexy of Christian virtues — one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.
“I Am The Brand”
“What can we do about this?”
My colleague’s question has stuck with me. We had both just finished listening to the latest episode of the “Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” podcast, a penetrating and wide-ranging look at the explosive growth and subsequent unraveling of the prominent Seattle megachurch and its iconoclastic founder, Mark Driscoll.
Mike Cosper, the podcast’s creator and host, plumbs the congregation’s story in a way that opens a window into many of the recent trends of American evangelical Christianity. We had just listened to the sixth episode, entitled “The Brand,” which takes its title from an infamous moment in which Driscoll told his church staff, in a meeting about branding and marketing, “I am the brand.”
“What can we do about this?” my friend asked me. His question was an apt one, and as someone who’s both a pastor, and involved in the formation of women and men pursuing vocational ministry, my best attempt at an answer in that moment was, “we need to learn to care about humility again.”
Our allergy to humility is as old as Eden, of course. Our ancient mothers and fathers in faith, as they began categorizing the varieties of human sinfulness in the monastic communities of fourth century Egypt and Syria, identified pride as the “mother-sin” of all the deadly vices. To their thinking, pride is both the sin in the biblical drama which plunges God’s creation into ruin, and is the root from which all the various ugly weeds of wickedness grow.
But I think our particular cultural moment has been especially fertile ground for the proliferation of pride in the life of the Church. The Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, in her carefully-researched Jesus and John Wayne, details the ways in which modern American evangelicalism, in pursuit of cultural power, has fostered a vision of Christianity that trades the humble Jesus for a cocktail of machismo, patriarchy, and white nationalism.
My friend Chuck DeGroat, in his penetrating book When Narcissism Comes to Church, traces the narcissism that is endemic among modern American Christian leaders and many of our institutional systems. DeGroat writes
We swim in the waters of narcissism. We are witnesses to power that exploits, deceives, manipulates, coerces, and abuses. Political personalities compete in the arena of Twitter in an age in which scathing indictments of the character of a rival is sport. Meanwhile, stories of abuse and coverup plague the church. Celebrity evangelical pastors face unceremonious falls from power while former celebrities scheme premature comebacks. It’s hard to know who to trust. I hear stories regularly about the rural pastor caught in multiple affairs, the multisite leader abusing his staff, the institutional leader covering up the institution’s history of racism and sexism.
As DeGroat explains, the corrosive effects of narcissistic pride aren’t the purview of one or another kind of leader, congregation, or organization. It infects, and affects, every personality type, Enneagram number, and doctrinal persuasion, conservative and progressive alike.
Humility, Humility, Humility
In the wake of Mars Hill, Willow Creek, and Harvest Bible Chapel controversies, denominational scandals and abuse cover ups we’ve become painfully aware of over the last years, I think it urgent to recover a cultivation of the unsexy virtue that lies at the heart of the Christian story.
At the conclusion of his book, as DeGroat points the way toward healing from the damage of narcissistic leaders and systems, he meditates on the “Christ hymn” of Philippians 2. The way that God acts to heal creation from the ravages of pride is through a cosmic act of self-giving humility: “[Christ] emptied himself… And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2.7-8)
Because we believe that the humble Christ is the Lord of the universe, humility has always been woven deeply into the very center of Christian life and leadership. In the New Testament, St. Paul featured humility in the characteristics that ought to define church leaders.
John Chrysostom saw humility as the cornerstone of Christian faith: “the foundation of our philosophy is humility.” The desert fathers and mothers ruminated deeply on humility in their collected sayings. Abba Poemen, for example, would teach, “We ought always to be absorbing humility and the fear of God, as our nostrils breathe air in and out.”
In the Reformed tradition, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin approvingly quotes an adage of Augustine: “When a certain rhetorician was asked what was the chief rule in eloquence, he replied, ‘Delivery’; what was the second rule, ‘Delivery’; what was the third rule, ‘Delivery’; so if you ask me concerning the precepts of the Christian religion, first, second, third, and always I would answer, ‘Humility.’”
I’ve Kept My Feet On the Ground
Still, humility is hard. It’s difficult to cultivate. And it’s elusive — how do you know when you’re humble? Is humility just low self-esteem dressed up in religious lingo?
I don’t know that I’ll ever “arrive” at humility. But I do think the journey always begins by looking inward, at myself. Like Luke Skywalker’s dream on the planet Dagobah, battling Darth Vader in a cave, where he unmasks his evil nemesis only to see his own face, rooting out pride and narcissism begin not with Twitter rants or smug condemnations of fallen Christian “celebrities,” but by looking hard at my own depths.
And, I also think that Gospel humility isn’t self-loathing, either. The signature picture of the humble person in Psalm 131 is of someone who can say,
“I’ve kept my feet on the ground,
I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.”
The humble soul is rooted in the humus, they’re at home and grounded in life as God’s child, content, trusting, and satisfied in God’s parental care.
These are the sorts of souls I hope God raises up in the Church: ones with feet on the ground and hearts shaped by the self-emptying humility of the crucified Lord himself.