Revisiting ‘Who’s Your Guru’

 You know what?  If you only have time to read one thing about Josh Harris and his announcement, only one thing about the kind of reaction Christians ought to have, don’t read this post.  Read The Beggar’s Daughter instead.


I excel at being blunt, so I will just start here: I don’t like the tendency we have to put people up on a pedestal just because they are public figures of a sort or they excel at doing something we admire, whether that be mountain climbing, painting, playing chess or football, singing, preaching, acting, writing, making money, looking organized, or public speaking.

Yes, I am kind of writing this in response to the news that Josh Harris has divorced his wife, says he is no longer a Christian, and there are lots of unsavoury rumours floating around about what the next announcement will be.  I don’t know.  I also don’t care.  I mean, I mildly care for their own sakes, I want them not to be miserable and unhappy and I want them to be right with God as I want everybody to be right with God. But there are lots of other people I care about more deeply, more personally, who my heart aches for in a personal, connected way because I *know* them, have loved them, touched them, hugged them, fed them or been fed by them.  There are also *other* people I don’t know that I care more about than these people who I also don’t know, such as street kids and families living in garbage dumps in the Philippines, stateless children in Malaysia, prisoners in China, victims of mass shooting and their families, people with cancer, people in Hong Kong fearing a crackdown….   I just don’t have the emotional energy to be that concerned with the well being of two total strangers who by all appearances live comfortably and well and have the time and desire to instagram their soul-searching and shattered relationship and damaged faith, and by all appearances also have enough food to eat and live in a country where they don’t worry about whether or not they might be hauled off to prison in the middle of the night, where it is not illegal for them to go to school if they want, or to work, and their drinking water is likely clean unless they live in Flint. I care more about people in Flint, to be honest.  Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but it’s just… an ‘oh, that’s a shame’ kind of reaction from me.

In fact, kind of funny story- a couple weeks ago my oldest daughter told me that they were getting a divorce, and my face crumpled, and I gasped, “Oh, no” and she looked at me oddly and said, “Well, that’s what I heard.  I mean, I don’t follow them on social media or anything, but some of my friends do…” And I stopped her and ask her to tell me again who was splitting up.  Because I thought she’d named a couple I do know and love and go to church with and it was devastating and I couldn’t get why my daughter wasn’t more upset and what social media had to do with it, and she couldn’t figure out why I was over-reacting.

If I’m making you feel small and foolish, remember that I probably lean too far the other direction from making people gurus.  I don’t trust gurus to begin with.  I start from a position of ‘prove yourself to me,’ and remain in a semi-neutral but mostly waiting for the mask to drop stance when it comes to Christian leadership.   I am seldom crushed by fallen heroes because I don’t have many. I’m not saying it’s always a good thing, but neither is it always a bad thing.

As a psychopathic preacher’s kid* I know better than others how oft our authority figures have feet, legs, torsos and even souls made of clay, so I’ve always been disinclined for hero worship. It’s not good for us, and it’s not good for them. Respect for genuine, God-given authority is one thing, but fawning hero worship is another.  I also think that too often we imbue certain people and positions with ‘god-given’ authority when they have no such thing, they’ve just draped themselves in the trappings. *You could read this two ways, I am the psychopathic PK, or my dad was the psychopathic preacher.  I mean the second.

Fawning, as opposed to respect, is stultifying to both worshiper and worshippee. Should we look up to people as minor deities long enough or in large enough numbers, lo and behold, they begin to think more highly of themselves than they ought, and sooner or later they fall, and how the mighty are fallen. It’s sad. And yet, we do it again and again.  Even if it never comes to that, we give even the best of the actual leaders a stumbling block they have to fight all of their lives- pride, love of praise, a misguided sense that they must do a. at the expense of b, because a gets all the attention and rewards and b is behind the scenes but possibly more what God had in mind for them.  Our adulation and gratifyingly positive attention can be a distraction.

All the Gurus in the world are really just people. Trust me on this. They are all deeply flawed human beings just like you and me, and some are actually privately terrible people.  They all have sins and negative personality traits we don’t, along with the other, different, positive gifts and traits that we don’t- and the same is true for me and each of you reading.  You have flaws I don’t and you have gifts I cannot even imagine, let alone attain to.  I have horrible flaws of my own, and in many cases, the flaws we imagine others have…. our imaginations are not on target.   That doesn’t mean we can’t learn from each other. That does not mean that the guru types lack wisdom, insight, and experience from which we can learn. Certainly they are far ahead of us in some area or another. But just because somebody is an expert, and even right smart about one thing, it doesn’t mean they warrant adulation, and we should be chary of assuming that we are their friends, that we know them well, or that they have authority in our lives.

 Once upon a time a ‘guru’ in a particular field where I also had some connections moved to my area. A mutual friend thought the guru and I had a lot in common, and that it would be good for us to meet and become friends. The guru had also expressed a deep desire for friendships with people who could help them… let’s say develop a a particular asset.  That  sounds materialistic and it isn’t, because  need to be cagey here.  If I named this guru, most of you would know that name, and if I said what she wanted, many of you would recognize somebody you’ve heard speak- so let’s say this guru had expressed a desire for something mundane, like free-range chicken eggs. My friend, who is a charming, delightful, warm, wonderful, smart, witty, really awesome person who has really helped me grow so much in my own life,, gave me the contact information, told me she thought we’d be great friends because I had access to just what this person wanted.  So I called the guru explaining where I’d gotten the contact info from and that our mutual friend really thought we should meet. The reply went something like this:

“Oh, yes, lovely person! My spouse and I were really able to mentor that family and help them out. They were so blessed by our help that they wanted to help us out with our projects, so whenever we come to town they just love to do little tasks for us. Mentoring is so rewarding. So how can I help you?”

I was kind of floored.  My friend admired her greatly, but she wasn’t a toady.  She saw their relationship as one of friendship on a fairly even foundation.  But the guru saw it not as a friendship, but as situation where she was the mentor to my needy friend- who was in no way ‘needy’ in that way at all.  I felt uneasy about the way she talked about my friend.  But I repeated again why my friend thought we might want to get together, gave her a couple ideas about where she could find the best produce and the best booksales in town, and listened some more to her talking about how she and her husband mentored people so were awfully busy.  You can imagine how far that relationship went. Lasted as long as the phone call, that did. She promised me when there was time for more personal contact, we’d certainly get a phone call. I left my number, but as I expected, that phone call never did come.

Funny thing was the guru continued, in public and private, to express a real desire for that asset our mutual acquaintance had told me was wanted.  We happened to have several mutual acquaintances.  She started attending a church where I knew there were two or three families who would have loved to be there for her, who were more than happy to respond helpfully to a friendly phone call. The guru had made the request other places, and friends of mine had offered and been rather rebuffed as well. It was even part of the guru’s public spiel from time to time, about how even the lives of gurus were not perfect, and wasn’t it sad that no matter how much the family prayed about it, God’s answer was consistently no, and see, even Gurus have to learn to listen to God’s no and they just couldn’t find this thing they wanted so much- and she made this speech in front of people who had offered and been rebuffed or ignored.

The Guru was a gifted public speaker, very gifted, and popular in a particular field. I have to tell you it’s a field where anybody with enough self-confidence, an adequate grasp of public relations and a reasonable speaking ability could quickly become a guru. I went to listen to such a public performance once, and while I was enriched in several areas because she is a good public speaker and she does have good ideas about several things, I again listened to the guru publicly lamented this unfulfilled yearning, while I knew (and so did the guru) that at least three members of the audience even closer to her who had offered the very thing the guru claimed was unavailable, and that those offers had in every case been ignored. I’m guessing that what the guru really wanted was a touching little illustration for a speech.

During that public talk the guru complained also about how much criticism the public directed the guru’s way. It is possible. It is true that people can be unpleasantly critical and quite often unjustifiably so, especially towards any semi-public figure. I must say, however, that I’ve never heard anybody say anything negative about the guru. Perhaps the criticism was directly to said guru, which is how it should be. But what the guru complained of was just this: “I don’t know why (funny little laugh), but people just love to criticize their leaders, so of course, we come into a lot of criticism. But that sort of critical spirit towards your leaders isn’t healthy…”

Those pronouns.  Pay attention to pronouns. I was wondering why that guru thought she was *my* leader, or anybody’s, really.  She wasn’t in leadership for any company but the one she and her husband established and their product was their own books and their own public speaking.  She wasn’t in leadership at my church or anybody else’s. She wasn’t elected, ordained, or appointed in any fashion.  Just what makes the guru my ‘leader?’  The leadership seems to consist of charging money to people who want to hear the guru speak and selling books the guru has authored. That’s a resource, and quite often a good one. But it’s not a position that merits the claim of ‘I am your leader, so don’t criticize me.’

How did the guru reach this hubristic point? I don’t know of course, but I suspect too many people for too many years fawned all over the guru until the guru reached a false conclusion- ‘these people seek my autograph and ask my advice in areas where I have no authority because I am wise and wonderful and God wants me to tell others what to do.’ The correct conclusion is that ‘these people fawn all over me because I have said some things that were helpful to them, and because people have a tendency to place other mortals upon a pedestal higher than is good for any of us.’

No guru has it all together in any area.   Even those who have it all together in an area where we need help- they may be working with advantages we do not have.  I have written before, for instance, about my despair over my lack of organization and housecleaning compared to others when it dawned me that I didn’t actually know anybody else who had to try and be organized while moving every two years AND raising a bunch of kids, one with severe disabilities, AND dealing with never knowing whether I was going to be feeding 9 or 29 people in a week, AND… the  other things.   I could learn  from others without feeling worthless and without turning them into two dimensional gothic saints with halos around their heads and their pointed toes keeping them floating above the earthy stuff where the rest of us walk all day.

There’s wisdom in that old saying: “Every man puts on his pants one leg at a time.” Everyone has an unflattering side; everyone has weaknesses and annoying habits, whether it’s leaving his toe-nail clippings on the bathroom counter, speaking harshly toward others, or always making himself the center of attention. Just because someone can whip up thought-provoking, astute text day after day does not make him immune to bad habits and unattractive behaviour, nor does it mean he deserves special treatment or is too lofty to be approached. In fact, James says that the way we ought to govern our relationships should be undertaken with a view to treating others as ourselves. I try to do that, whether the person is “famous” or not. I don’t always succeed; but I do try.

Some people can be a great resource for one thing or another.  Some people you will never meet will be able to articulate good ideas you can use and think about. Some people can be your friends.  You don’t need a guru.

Also, while I am on this topic, here’s a freeby: Instagram is staged. I am not one of the Instagram haters. I like looking at pretty pictures.  But stop comparing your unstaged, unscripted real life to somebody else’s snapshot of a staged instant in their lives.


Previously: Who’s Your Guru?

When gurus change their minds.

WorldMag has more on the Harris marriage and divorce and Josh’s announcement that he is not a Christian.  I don’t agree with everything their two authors have to say, and Mohler’s continued defense of C.J. Mahaney troubles me, but it’s a thought provoking read and they offer food for thought that expands beyond this particular circumstance.  I particularly do not agree with the comfortable theology that when somebody goes apostate it means they never really had faith to begin with.

As a reminder, Sono Harris, Josh’s mom, died of cancer in 2010.  Josh also dealt with the the aftermath of sexual abuse scandals in his church organization and cover-ups, and he may himself have been aware and failed to report. In the aftermath of that mess, we learned that Josh had himself been molested as a child.  That’s a lot of traumatic stuff.  Being molested as a child, and then revealing it as an adult are both painfully difficult.  I am sorry for him and have to wonder how much these issues have rocked him off his foundation.  I can do nothing buy pray.

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