Patton Oswalt & Prodigal Sam – A Love Story

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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!

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About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter was released in 2012. Twitter & Facebook.

  • chrislinzey

    I admit that I haven’t yet seen the Tumblr page, but it seems that you are presupposing guilt on Rhodes’ part. Is it even within the realm of possibility that he had similar ideas as other comics? And if he did use other material, where does one draw the line between thievery and “riffing” off of someone else?

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      chrislinzey My gut (and the evidence) tells me that he intentionally copied material from other comedians. Because there isn’t the slightest attempt to credit sources, this is wrong. It’s not riffing.

      • chrislinzey

        zachhoag Just checked out the Tumblr page. All of those people were comedians? Or were some just people sharing funny stuff? And if a person shares a funny one-liner is it off limits to post it in one’s own feed? As to the evidence, some of the dates between the “original posts” and Rhodes posts were years apart (not all, granted…).

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          chrislinzey zachhoag i hear you. i still think the evidence points in that direction. but if i’m wrong, i’ll be the first to say, “woops, sorry!”

        • emilyisspeakingup

          zachhoag chrislinzey I think it has less to do with whether or not what Sammy did was illegal, but that it was unethical according to the long-standing code of honor in the humor/comedy/creative world. 
          Whether or not Sammy made a profit (although leveraging a book deal and huge recognition are benefits, even if they aren’t profit) isn’t the issue, it’s that his version of “inspired by” was unacceptable in the community he was entering. When he was told that it was unacceptable, a year + ago, he took those tweets down but then continued in the same pattern. 
          It may not seem like a big deal to you, but to people in the humor/comedy/creative field? You’d better believe it is. And I’ll let them set their own set of (very very loose, and I don’t always like that) ethics for their community.

        • chrislinzey

          emilyisspeakingup zachhoag Pardom my ignorance, but what happened a year ago? Honest question now: does allusion speak into this conversation at all? We can utilize allusion without footnoting the orignial source (look at the prevalence of memes or movie quotations). Why is it acceptable in one sence to appropriate material but not from public statements?

  • DZRishmawy

    Good post. D.L. Mayfield had some different but complementary reflections on the whole thing over at Christ and Pop Culture. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/christandpopculture/2013/06/oswalts-revenge-sammy-rhodes-and-the-dangers-of-self-promotion/
    The thing is just sad and sobering. Sam was legitimately funny on his own and he didn’t have to do what it looks like he was doing. And the non-apology apologies don’t help either. I mean, as a known Christian leader…sad. What’s scary is how easy I can find myself slipping into a mode of thought that would lead me right there when it comes to blog hits, facebook likes, and retweets. Petty things to sacrifice your integrity for, but the heart just is that deceived sometimes. 
    Well, anyways, like I said, thoughtful post.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      DZRishmawy yeah man, i learned a lot from watching this. i’m hoping sam comes back better than ever, and a solid apology would help that. d.l.’s post was really good.

    • chrislinzey

      DZRishmawy Rhodes said in an interview a few days ago: I definitely have been inspired by tweets, but have never intentionally stolen a tweet.” So we either give him the benefit of the doubt or we are call him a flagrant liar.

      • emilyisspeakingup

        chrislinzey DZRishmawy My question is in his definition of “intentionally stolen” and “inspired by.” He’s not using those lines the way that the rest of the comedy/creative world seems to use them.

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          emilyisspeakingup chrislinzey DZRishmawy yeah, the whole “inspired by” thing is semantics. it makes use of the fact that there is no hard and fast definition of “stealing a tweet” and tries to muddy the water. fact: he copied jokes and tried to rephrase them a little bit to hide that. and: he never once credited the source (as in an “HT” or an “RT”). basically, he retweeted and quoted people but pretended it was original.

        • chrislinzey

          So if i tweet a movie line without saying the movie name I’m trying to pass it off as my own?

        • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

          chrislinzey If you are a screenwriter claiming to promote your own movie by quoting lines from *it* and those lines are actually from another movie, then YES.

  • emilyisspeakingup

    Zach, I generally agree with what you say here, but this part doesn’t sit well with me: “a person like Patton can be truthful and hurt and angry about suffering wrongdoing without spiraling into meanness and nastiness.” 

    I’m not exactly sure why yet. Maybe because since he’s outside the Christian community, we’re more likely to view him as suspicious or “mean” inherently, and I want to be generous with my presuppositions? Or because you’re asking him to pick up your value of “niceness,” in a certain way, when he has other legitimate values like “honesty” and then you critique his actions based on your ranking, not his? Maybe because it seems like pushing this invisible, fluctuating line (that I’m very familiar with, as a woman) of being “TOO upset” and once you magically cross it, you’re discounted thereafter? I don’t like all of the words Patton used, but I think critiquing word choice of an angry person is a standard pattern of distraction from the problem that made that person upset?

    Again, I’m not really sure which of these is accurate or why this statement rubs me the wrong way, but I appreciate you letting me speculate broadly here. Would love your insight on this, as I know you’re careful about words and have integrity in the way you use them.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      emilyisspeakingup Yeah, that’s actually a sentence that I struggled with nuance-wise. What I think I mean is that once anger is expressed (which honestly may look mean or nasty to critics) there may be an opportunity to prevent escalation/spiraling. That’s a super subjective opinion on my part, but I think it lines up with real situations like this. 
      BUT, you are 100% right on (along with shoopscope) that even possible meanness doesn’t take anything away from the responsibility of the offender to admit wrongdoing. In other words, when someone identifies a real problem like this, it doesn’t matter *how* they say it – because it happened! And the hurt caused will doubtless produce real emotions, and those emotions are valid.
      Hope that makes sense.

  • shoopscope

    This was the best article yet (from a Christian perspective) that I have read. Thank you! I think the thing that KILLS me about this is that Rhodes and most of his defenders seem to be totally ignoring the actual, legitimate anger that his (perhaps unintentional) actions have created. Where is the self-reflection? Where is the curiosity about why they are so angry? As a Christian, this was a PERFECT opportunity to show some humility–to demonstrate “open heart and thick skin.” Instead, it just seems like the same old pattern: Christian is “attacked,” wagons are circled, no responsibility is taken, and the attackers are labeled as just non-Christian jerks who hate everything about religion. What if they do? It shouldn’t change anything about how to respond. Now, it’s just turned into yet another battle in the culture wars, and it’s a damn shame.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      shoopscope spot on Kevin. amen.

  • chrislinzey

    Rhodes has publicly said he did not steal, yet you’re ready to crucify him. Public opinion does not determine guilt or innocence. The photo evidence only shows that people influence each other or have similar thoughts. It is not “proof” of theft.

    • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

      chrislinzey Chris, based on the interaction with you below, I don’t think this is a fair comment.


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