When I am tempted to think that, actually, I am all that, I try to remember to reach for my copy of Fairweather Johnson. Holding it reminds me that follow-ups are fraught with problems, perhaps especially in the Christian life.
Take Peter, who went from champ to chump within a few verses in Matthew 16. One moment he’s Jesus’ Exhibit A in hearing from God (“This was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven”) and the next he’s being accused of having switched teams (“Get behind me, Satan!”).
Maybe this had something to do with Peter getting so full of himself that there wasn’t much room left for God. I have the same tendency. On occasions something deep and profound pops out of my mouth—rarely planned, of course—and people appreciate it. Though I can’t really take the credit, I do, and then feel responsible for topping it the next time. I’m trying to shine when I’d be better shutting up.
When I used to travel and speak on communications for a week in missionary training programs, I’d find it took me twice as long to say something on Friday as it would have on Monday or Tuesday. Because I’d grown to love my own voice so much, I did less self-editing: Andy Butcher, Blowhard.
The follow-up challenge is perhaps most clearly seen in the music world, where the sophomore album syndrome is well known. Cue Fairweather Johnson, follow-up to Hootie & The Blowfish’s chart-busting debut Cracked Rearview Mirror, in the mid-nineties. It sold a mere fraction of the first effort’s ten million-plus units.
Sophomore albums often suck for three reasons:
The first album was typically drawn from material that had been honed and marinated for years. The new one has to be pulled together in a hurry to take advantage of the first’s success, which means out-takes from the debut, or rushed new material. It’s drawing from a puddle, not a well.
The second album has to be recorded while the artist or band is still touring behind the first one, forcing a split focus. The crowd wants to hear the hits, not the unreleased new stuff. There’s not the same time to come aside and be single-minded about the new album.
The huge success of the first recording gives the musicians an exaggerated sense of their own ability or importance. They think they’re as good as their PR people say they are. As a result, they may be less likely to listen to critical input from others.
This kind of thing is all too common in the Christian media world. Someone writes a knockout book, or a great song, and we hang on their every next word as though they have a direct line to God. This creates huge internal and external pressure on them to “top that.” We put people up on a pedestal, and then are shocked—shocked—when they fall off because no one wants to question them, and they become a law unto themselves.
But we also need to be careful in determining what is this “success” we are pursuing?
Fairweather Johnson may have tanked compared to Cracked Rearview Mirror, but I liked it OK. It still charted, and sold a couple of million copies. Bigger is not necessarily better.
There’s a train of thought in some Christian circles that numbers matter because “healthy things grow.” In other words, more people in church=good church. But that analogy is only true to a point. Humans stop growing physically at a certain point—even reverse. But they can continue to be fruitful, in due season, if they know when to be quiet.
Sometimes, after success, we should aim to fallow it, not follow it. Remind me of that if you like this.