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Patton Oswalt and Prodigal Sam: A Love Story

06/18/2013 12:31 pm ET | Updated Aug 18, 2013

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Have you heard about that thing that happened with that comedian Patton Oswalt and that dude on Twitter who does funny tweets called @prodigalsam?

How Sam supposedly, like, stole a bunch of jokes from other Twitter comedians and so somebody made a Tumblr about it and then Patton Oswalt started calling Sam a "thieving hack" and stuff? And then this giant controversy broke out on Twitter and in the media and even Salon did an interview with Sam to get his side of the story? And then Sam quit Twitter?

It was crazy.

Anyway, it got me thinking about this Synchroblog we're doing in The Despised Ones blogging collective on the topic of leadership, celebrity, and power in the church. Actually, it got me thinking about the book of Philippians. And how we might learn from Sam, a PCA campus minister from South Carolina, and his recent experience, about what it means for followers of Jesus to practice the same kind of kenosis the Messiah modeled in his life and death when faced with matters of fame, celebrity, and power.

But first, it got me thinking about how Patton Oswalt is a lot like the apostle Paul in Philippians. Now, I know PO probably doesn't want dudes like me dragging him into religious illustrations on God-blogs, but seriously, the similarity is kinda striking. Writing from prison, Paul says in chapter 1:

There are some, I should say, who are proclaiming the king because of envy and rivalry; but there are others who are doing it out of good will. These last are acting from love, since they know that I'm in prison because of defending the gospel; but the others are announcing the king out of selfishness and jealousy. They are not acting from pure motives; they imagine that they will make more trouble for me in my captivity.

Patton called out dubious motives and actions in Sam's self-promoting online presence. (And from that Tumblr, it seems legit.) He saw Sam as trying to steal a piece of other comedians' pies, much like Paul had these leaders running around in the churches trying to steal some of his celebrity, too. And Paul wasn't exactly unaffected by it all -- he was in prison, suffering, and people were trying to take advantage, to ruin his reputation, to "dethrone" him, as it were, so that when and if he got out he would find an unwelcoming church and a leader-ship that had sailed (see what I did there?). It was unjust and unfair because Paul had earned his place of influence through faithful work. It was hurtful and wrong.

Which is why Paul's next statement is so incredible:

So what? Only this: the king is being announced, whether people mean it or not! I'm happy to celebrate that!

Really? In the midst of the very real pain Paul was probably feeling, and his clarity about the injustice of it all, he manages to arrive at a point of release -- So what! As long as some people are being helped toward Jesus, then whatever. I can celebrate that, at least! Paul was not giving up his point here, but he was giving up his pride and power. And in the process, he was subversively taking power away from the people who wanted to hurt him, opening up better possibilities.

Now, my goal here is not to moralize about the outcome of this controversy, as if Patton should have consciously been following the example of the apostle Paul. I'm sure that's not really on his agenda. In fact, given this situation, I completely understand Patton's response; as my friend Kevin said, "PO is generous w/ other comedians: he mentors, produces, etc. That's why he feels a responsibility to defend the industry: he has a leadership role." Makes so much sense.

But perhaps the real lesson happens on the side of Sam, who is, in fact, a Christian leader with a degree of celebrity, power, and influence (even if it is less than Patton Oswalt's).

That is, Sam is following Jesus, and people are watching how he follows him. And when other prominent leaders are publicly caught in the wrong, or questioned in their theology or behavior, people are watching how they follow Jesus, too. Will the defenses go up? Will things be explained away? Will there just be a stronger counterattack or a bunch of PR spin or whatever?

Or will it look more like this from chapter 2:

This is how you should think...because you belong to the Messiah, Jesus:

Who, though in God's form, did not Regard his equality with God As something to exploit.

Instead, he emptied himself, And received the form of a slave, Being born in the likeness of humans. And then, having human appearance,

He humbled himself, and became Obedient even to death, Yes, even the death of the cross.

This self-emptying (kenosis) posture is the opposite of that dodgy defensiveness that rises up all too often when leaders have influence, power, or fame. This cruciform attitude is one that yields, releases, hears disagreements, engages people with openness, admits failure, and, in the words of my friend Stephanie, says "yeah, woops, sorry." It is not a total abandonment of opinion or conviction or passion, and never an abandonment of the truth, but a sense that conversation is good and honesty is best and even if there are bad motives coming from the other side, it's good to say sorry. It is a powerless kind of power, and a leadership that leads without dominating.

In fact, going back to chapter 1, I think both Patton Oswalt and Prodigal Sam would benefit from Paul's humble confidence in the midst of opposition:

Yes, and I really am going to celebrate: because I know that this will result in my rescue, through your prayer and the support of the spirit of King Jesus. I'm waiting eagerly and full of hope, because nothing is going to put me to shame. I am going to be bold and outspoken, now as always, and the king is going to gain a great reputation through my body, whether in life or in death.

On one hand, a person like Sam can be open and humble and admit wrongdoing without giving up confidence in themselves and in their calling. And on the other hand, a person like Patton can be truthful and hurt and angry about suffering wrongdoing without spiraling into meanness and nastiness. So there is encouragement for both Sam and Patton here, and any of us who may find ourselves with a degree of influence or fame: release pride and power -- and, be confident.

Be bold.

Be outspoken.

Continue to lead.

For followers of Jesus, this is the cruciform way to approach all of these things, the self-emptying kenosis way, the way that honors the one we are following by subverting the politics and power plays that are usually behind these situations, even as we continue to lead faithfully, opening up surprising possibilities.

You know, I'd like to think that if there was a little more humility to stop things from escalating, and the ability to quickly admit fault and failure, this story could have ended up being a love story.

And maybe there's still hope.

For real, you guys.

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This is my entry in The Despised Ones Synchroblog this week on "Leadership, Celebrity, and Power in Light of Philippians 2." Check out the other entries on the Facebook Page. Also, I'd love to  hear your thoughts on the post!