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Who are Today’s Secular Priests?

Picture: Daniel Kedlinger

From time to time I am going to post an excerpt from my work-in-progress book More Than This. Here is a snippet from chapter 2 – Guidance for the Path – on how we seek spiritual direction in a secular age. I look forward to your feedback in the comments section below.

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A 21 year-old woman sits anxiously in a soft office chair, her eyes red from tears. Her father sits opposite, his hands clenched in his lap, and a 50-something man sits between them. ‘Is there anything you’d like to say to your father?’ the man asks in a gentle, caring tone. Christina takes a breath then looks her father in the eye.

‘Are you happy?’ she asks quietly.

‘Not totally,’ the father replies, his face a mixture of sadness and defiance. ‘I’m happier.’

‘You’re happier now than… when you were with me?’ She bites her lip, stifling tears.

‘That’s not what this is about, Chrissy…’

‘You said you were happier.’

‘I’m happier as a person. I’m certainly not happy about the distance between you and me. I never wanted that.’

Silence falls for a few moments, then the mediator probes further. ‘But that wasn’t her question,’ he says. ‘Her question was, in effect, if you’re happier living this way than you were as a father, a family man and as a best friend in her life.’

‘The only thing I’m happy about is my own true identity,’ the father replies. ‘I certainly miss the relationship Chrissy and I had. I’d love to have that back. But it’s more complicated than that.’ He looks at Christina. ‘I want you back in my life—there’s no question about it.’

‘What would it take to get you back?’ asks the man to Christina.

‘You’ve got to be my Dad,’ she says, staring at her father, ‘not this! My Dad is a man—he’s a role model and he’s there for his children.’

‘You have burned bridges, have you not?’ says the man to the father now, his words suddenly firm and bold. ‘Have you not said that the old you is gone and your daughter can’t have him back? You have basically said that because you want a change you won’t be Christina’s father anymore. That seems to me to be incredibly self-absorbed, incredibly one-sided and incredibly insensitive.’

Moments like this are expected in a pastor’s office, where both care and confrontation are needed to help a family find peace. In Christina’s case, however, the conversation is taking place in front of a TV audience with her father dressed in long hair, lipstick, a pretty blouse and skirt. The ‘pastor’ in this case is a talk show host teasing out the complexities of a gender reassignment story. After a website plug and a commercial break, the counselling-session-cum-talk-show is over.

Today’s Secular Priests

Whether on TV or radio, the talk show host has emerged as a modern-day priest. They are confessors to whom guests share their sins of adultery, drug abuse, compulsive eating and ‘mommy rage’. They are counsellors dolling out advice on phobias, depression, child-rearing and ‘love matches’. They are preachers delivering homilies on taxes, welfare cuts, injustice and ‘moral decline’. One sociologist has described such TV hosts as ‘revivalists’ who put sinners on stage, call them to repent, and offer conversion through the ‘religion’ of therapy. Christina’s father might well agree.

Some hosts recognise and cultivate this semi-religious status. ‘I’m very clear about what my role and purpose is,’ says the Queen of talk show hosts, Oprah Winfrey. ‘I am the messenger to deliver the message of redemption, of hope, of forgiveness, of gratitude, of evolving people to the best of themselves.’ Often described as the high priestess of religion-less spirituality, Oprah has been lauded as an oracle, a prophet, a spiritual leader and even a religion herself. On The Oprah Show she often resembled a preacher on a mission, spreading a ‘be all you can be’ gospel to an audience hungry for transformation. With god-like power she created other talk show hosts in her image. In saint-like fashion she blessed the work of many New Age authors. Oprah’s farewell show was described as a ‘sermon’. To her devout audience Oprah’s thoughts on life, love and fulfilment are tantamount to revelation. Oprah has been, and remains, a spiritual guide to millions.

We seek out other priestly voices too. Artists have long been hailed as spiritual guides. Poets like John Milton and William Blake, singers like Bob Dillan and Leonard Cohen, the cartoonist Michael Leunig and the graffiti artist Banksy have all been described as modern-day prophets. 

And if the artist and talk show host can claim the mantle of secular priest, so must the writer—especially the memoirist, and especially the memoirist who documents their spiritual life…

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Q: Who do you think are today’s secular ‘priests’? Who else do we look to to find guidance and wisdom for our lives?

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