A Review of
PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities
Reviewed by C. Christopher Smith
On a Sunday morning early in 2019, Ben Kirby had a curmudgeonly moment, in which he noticed in an online video that a worship leader from a certain megachurch was wearing $800 shoes. This observation unsettled him, and he posted about it on Instagram. Before long, Ben had started the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, which highlights similar observations about the shoes and other attire worn by celebrity preachers, and never seems to have a shortage of material to post about. The Instagram account lit up and got attention from a number of media outlets and rapidly grew to over 100K followers (and now boasts over a quarter million followers).
For Boomers like me, who never really got the hang of Instagram, Ben Kirby has just published a book tells the story of the PreachersNSneakers phenomenon, and reflects on what it might mean. Although PreachersNSneakers (the book) has all the hip vibes that one would expect from a book based on an Instagram account, it also contains an undercurrent that (like the biblical prophets of Ancient Israel) asks some really timely and pointed questions of those in power. The truest gift of this book is precisely these questions that Kirby asks, and the ways in which he invites us to explore the same unsettling feelings about preachers and their lavish clothing that led him to create the Instagram account.
Early in the book, Kirby writes:
In twenty-first century America, three forces have united to make living as a follower of Jesus more complicated and nuanced than at any other time in Christian history: capitalism, consumerism, and celebrity culture. We are plagued by the seductive traps of fame, comfort, and love of wealth that most people across the world never have to worry about. These forces are raising questions that most Christian leaders, perhaps due to fear, are only brave enough to ask in private. It’s time to drag these questions out of the shadows. (emphasis added)
The three C’s that Kirby names here, and that are recurring touchpoints throughout the book, are indeed ones that too often go uninterrogated in American Christianity. Indeed, since at least the 1970s these forces have propelled the so-called Christian marketplace, and particularly the publishing and music industries. These industries have made more than a few of their own wealthy celebrities, and they in turn thrive from the admiration of ordinary Christians, and in the process, our sense of what Christian faithfulness might look like gets warped in the direction of fame, luxury, and comfort. “I really don’t care about who wears what sneakers or how much they cost,” writes Kirby, “I do care about how our faith is being presented to the world.” What stands out about Kirby’s book is that he isn’t trying to understand these forces intellectually, as an academic might, but rather approaches them earnestly as a lay Christian, wondering what they might mean for the shape of our faith. As such, the book is immensely accessible.
In the book’s conclusion, Kirby challenges us to think about the resources God has given us and what our stewardship of these resources portrays about our faith. Drawing from several books on faith and wealth, including one of my favorites: Ron Sider’s Rich Christians in An Age of Hunger, Kirby challenges us to do what is nigh to impossible in evangelical Christianity: to think carefully and to talk with others about money. I hope that at least some readers of this book will take this challenge seriously. My experience asking similar questions over the last several decades has been that leaning into these questions will radically transform your life and deepen your faith.