Never let them see you think

Celebrity depends heavily on mystique, not just in show business but in the intellectual arena. I’ve learned to remind myself when reading something impressive that it is likely the best of the best, and that excellence on one narrow, heavily studied topic does not guarantee general excellence in thinking. There are a few writers I consider trustworthy in anything they write, but that opinion comes after studying a broad selection of their writing, plus as much as I can find out about them personally.

For good or ill, I think social media is undermining this mystique in ways that celebrities, particularly celebrity pastors, don’t seem to notice. In the rush to burnish their brand, they are pressured into producing a constant stream of commentary. Soon enough the topics they know something about are exhausted, and the only way to meet the demand is to offer opinions on other topics, usually some aspect of the Current Crisis.

And then we get a peek into their thinking, from several angles. Once out of their area of expertise, the content often becomes as shallow and ill-considered as that of any blowhard, violating the old maxim “Better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.” Now, although I think the best approach is to hold no opinion at all on topics you aren’t expert in, this is a pretty high standard, and I think people should be indulged for not meeting it. What bothers me more, though, is when a person of purported wisdom is perfectly comfortable publishing an uninformed opinion—this suggests to me that they have crossed an important line, and now think their opinions are worthy simply because of who hold them, namely their celebrated self.

I first thought about this when one celebrity pastor whose writing I highly respected began blogging about ten years ago. As I began to read his ever more frequent, ever longer posts on ever more broadly ranging topics, I began to develop a more complete picture of him—and it wasn’t pretty. It became clear pretty quickly that he had embraced this new medium as a tool for self-promotion, and so the zeal with which he blogged made it clear that self-promotion was a large part of what he was about. Worse, it became clear that he was highly susceptible to believing his own press, that the volume and range of his output, together with the constant encouragement from an amen corner of commenters, had created a feedback system which could only inflate his sense of self-worth.

More recently I’ve seen another celebrity pastor, who had carefully cultivated his own mystique by keeping his writings few and relatively inaccessible, start down the path to destruction by engaging with Twitter. Short on material, he increasingly sounds off on topics of the day, and the quality of his thinking becomes clearer. I am sure there are many like him, since Lark News thought this situation was worthy of satire.

We loved the idea of Pastor Royal tweeting nuggets of wisdom throughout the day,” says Carissa Black, one of several young staff members who urged Royal to embrace the new medium. “But he’s run away with it. It’s having the opposite effect we hoped for.”

Royal’s first tweets were conservative — scripture verses, previews of upcoming sermons and reminders about church events. Then, over time, his pace picked up considerably and his subject matter broadened.

“The tweets became less about wisdom and more about what he was thinking at any given moment,” says one follower. “The quality went down fast.”

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