Holy Folly: On the Billy Graham Rule, Twitter Feuds, and the Idolatry of Reputation

Holy Folly: On the Billy Graham Rule, Twitter Feuds, and the Idolatry of Reputation May 16, 2023

Serapion Sindonites was a devout monk from the fourth century who had the Scriptures memorized, practiced great spiritual discipline, and—surprisingly—never wore clothes, apart from a loincloth. According to his hagiographer, towards the end of his life Serapion meets a pious virgin who lived in solitude. He asks her whether she is alive in Christ and thus dead to the world. She confirms this is the case, claiming that anyone who lives a life of solitude, like her, is dead to the flesh. To prove this, Serapion asks something astonishing of her: “Follow my example and take off all your clothes, put them on your shoulders, go through the middle of the city with me leading the way in this fashion.” Horrified, she responds, “I should scandalize many by the unseemliness of the thing and they would be able to say, ‘She is mad and possessed by a demon.’” He replied, “What does it concern you if they should say? … For you are dead to them” (Palladius, Lausiac History, XXXVII.13-15).

In a world where branding, influence, and reputation is of paramount importance, Serapion’s request to this woman seems completely unreasonable and problematic—how could this possibly be acceptable, particularly from a religious authority? To answer this, we need to recognize that Serapion is a figure who might be described as a holy fool. That is, someone who emphasizes and lives out Paul’s words to the Corinthians, “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:27, NIV). Rowan Williams, in a fascinating chapter on this topic, defines holy folly as: “the conscious adoption of shocking and unconventional styles of action calculated to provoke public disgust or mockery… It is undertaken in order to conceal an inner spiritual purity or maturity – to deflect a reverence or admiration that would be spiritually dangerous to the person involved. (Williams, Looking East in Winter, 197). The behavior of these holy fools, found throughout the Christian Scriptures and tradition, is radically diverse. Isaiah walked around naked and barefoot for three years (Isaiah 20:2-4), the wild men of Ireland (geilt) wandered the wilderness living in treetops, and the Russian holy ones (yurodivye) threw rocks at churches.

Saint Basil, a famous yurodivye.

What connects them is the subversive nature of inner holiness, an unwillingness to conform to cultural patterns of piety. When Serapion asks the virgin to walk through town naked, his motivation is not to sexualize her or to scandalize the town—it is to test if her holiness is based off obedience to Christ or conformity to cultural and social norms.

The Dangers of Visible Patterns of Holiness

Patterns of holy living are manifold in Christian culture and society. In the discussion over gender in the American evangelical movement, for instance, holiness might be described as either fulfilling a certain role in a marriage or, alternatively, being free from any such roles. Both are marketed as the proper model for following Christ. In either proposed model though, there is an implicit danger in reducing holiness to conformity to a certain lifestyle. If holiness becomes about following a pattern, rather than a person—namely, Jesus Christ—idolatry sets in. It is here that holy folly provides a helpful corrective in thinking about following Christ, rather than a visible pattern of behavior. In another account of holy folly, a pair named Theophilus and Maria decided to follow Christ in an odd way: Theophilus dressed himself as a mime-actor and Maria as a prostitute. They went to Amida (now Diyarbakır, Turkey) and made fun of priests and the people, being despised and physically abused by all. Yet, one night, they are seen with “their arms to heaven in prayer in the form of a cross, and after a time they fell upon their faces in prayer … and they went through the same form for a long time.” (John of Ephesus, Lives of the Eastern Saints, 169). Theophilus and Maria were perceived by the townspeople as sacrilegious buffoons, yet they were truly holy ones living after Christ, practicing holiness in a subversive way. Rather than cultivating an image of apparent holiness, these Christ followers fostered an image of perceived unholiness, for the sake of becoming more sanctified. In other words, they acknowledged how the visible appearance of holiness can turn into an idol of prideful reputation at the expense of true devotion to God.

The Billy Graham Rule, Twitter Feuds, and the Idolatry of Reputation

There are many external patterns of holiness across the Christian tradition that are in danger of protecting the self and reputation over true discipleship. An obvious example, here, may be one of Billy Graham’s rules while on the evangelism circuit. He and his fellow evangelists were unwilling to meet with a woman in any situation that might have the appearance of suspicion or infidelity. By protecting their image, so the logic goes, they were better able to protect the Gospel. An unlikely bedfellow with this rule might be social media branding, with perfectly manicured platforms demonstrating holy living. It is telling how those running these platforms feel compelled to defend themselves against any critique, often seen in twitter feuds and public videos. While there may be inner piety from those discussed here, it is the appearance of holiness which is of paramount importance.

In all of this, we need to probe into why we might feel compelled to perform holiness in a certain way. Is it about truly following Christ or appearing holy? If we look at these holy fools as an example of holy living, or Jesus Christ for that matter, we should be comfortable leaving our reputation to the side. After all, we follow a savior who routinely hung out with sinners and prostitutes—can you imagine what Christ’s reputation was around town? Now, I am not exhorting use to walk about naked or to throw stones at churches—please don’t. In fact, I would have a few strong words to say to Serapion, in asking the woman to walk through town naked! In a world with rampant abuse, we need external checks and parameters to protect the vulnerable. But when these parameters become a means to protect the powerful, we have lost sight of Christ’s calling.

I am exhorting us to pay close attention to the idols of our heart, which leads us to perform visible holiness rather than follow Jesus Christ. In this, we can learn much from the holy fools: “They aspire to become the littles ones of Christ, the last of all, the least, the forgotten, the despised, so that they may conquer pride, renounce self, and live only to the Lord; folly for them is the last state or highest grade of humility—the loss of all reputation and esteem” (John Saward, Perfect Fools: Folly for Christ’s Sake, 29). Perhaps we can learn much in losing our reputation to follow Christ.

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