Friday, October 18, 2013

Following Jesus and the Cult of Self-Promotion

I have written my umpteenth cover letter accompanying an application packet for a faculty search committee seeking to fill a vacant academic position.  In this letter, I am supposed to tout my abilities and experience in such a way as to set me apart from the 200 other applicants for the same job.  And whether one does this in a way that’s understated or an in-your-face, the way to get noticed and then to get hired is by shameless self-promotion. 

And it isn’t just secular positions that require this peacock display.  ‘Christian’ institutions are doing the very same thing, requiring the very same credentials and publishing record and evidences of competence and references that magnify one’s strengths and don’t mention one’s weaknesses.  And the only way we set ourselves apart from our secular counterparts is that for Christian institutions sinners need not apply.

The same is true for men (and women) seeking pastoral positions.  Twenty years ago I applied for what a church said was the position of associate pastor, but what they were actually looking for, if their job description was to believed, is Jesus on a good day.

I am being pushed relentlessly to present a side of me that would be worthy to set up in the Pantheon.  It’s the way our secular employment system is set up.  It’s the way our churches are set up.  It’s a system that encourages us to hide, dissemble and cover up those aspects of our lives that we’re afraid do not measure up to the judgmental scrutiny of others, especially those on search committees giving their verdict on our applications and on our persons.

 So self-promotion is the game.  Given them what they want.  Tell them what they’ll like.  Get your foot in the door, be it in a relationship, in a job, in a ministry.  By the time anybody figures out that I am less than what was advertised, then hopefully it will be too late to do anything about it.

Such a culture is understandable if inexcusable in the secular world.  But our Christian institutions and churches have done a remarkable job of aping the way of the world in this regard.  And the tragic result is there is no safe place.  It makes hypocrites and liars of just about everybody.  We keep the truth away from people in positions of responsibility because if they knew what I was really like, I wouldn’t last much longer.  And so I sell my soul for a false security based on keeping everyone else in the dark.  I wonder how many others find themselves in a similar situation?  I wonder how long Christians in churches and Christian institutions will continue thinking that this is an acceptable way of being Christian?

 The cult of self-promotion sickens and kills Christianity wherever it is found.

I found a profoundly challenging antidote to this cult of self-promotion in the journal of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.  On Tuesday, January 20, 1981, he writes this:

‘If I were a starets – an elder -  I would tell a candidate for monasticism roughly the following:

Get a job, if possible the simplest one, without creativity (for example as a cashier in a bank);
While working, pray and seek inner peace; do not get angry; do not think of yourself (rights, fairness, etc.).  Accept everyone (coworkers, clients) as someone sent to you ; pray for them;
After paying for a modest apartment and groceries, give your money to the poor; to individuals rather than foundations;
Always go to the same church and there try to be a real helper, not by lecturing about spiritual life or icons, not by teaching but with a “dust rag” (cf. St Seraphim of Sarov). Keep at that kind of service and be – in church matters – totally obedient to the parish priest;
Do not thrust yourself and your service on anyone; do not be sad that your talents are not being used; be helpful; serve where needed and not where you think you are needed;
Read and learn as much as you can; do not read only monastic literature, but broadly (this point needs more definition);
If friends and acquaintances invite you because they are close to you – go; but not too often, and within reason.  Never stay more than one and a half or two hours.  After that the friendliest atmosphere becomes harmful;
Dress like everybody else, but modestly, and without visible signs of a special spiritual life;
Be always simple, light, joyous.  Do not teach.  Avoid like the plague any “spiritual” conversations and any religious or churchly idle talk.  If you act that way, everything will be to your benefit.
Do not seek a spiritual elder or guide.  If he is needed, God will send him, and will send him when needed;
Having worked and served this way for ten years – no less – ask God whether you should continue to live this way, or whether change is needed.  And wait for an answer; it will come; the signs will be “joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.”’

Just makes me wonder if self-promotion was drained away from our practice of Christianity, where would we be?

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