Conan O’Brien has always been funny in my book, but my esteem increased a few years ago when I heard him tell Charlie Rose about his Harvard senior thesis on Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner. Anyone who can write intelligently about great American fiction and pen dialogue for Homer Simpson is worth getting to know.
But smarts are not particularly valued in a media culture driven by bottom-line realities like ratings and advertising revenue. Loyalty is not much prized either, it seems, as evidenced by NBC’s pulling “The Tonight Show” out from under O’Brien and handing it back to the aw-shucks-if-you-really-insist Jay Leno.
It’s just business, some say; nothing personal. Conan will be fine. He’ll move on. He’s leaving NBC with a handsome payout — an obscene amount of money, actually.
All true. And none of this matters in the grand scheme of things. Haiti has reminded us of that. The trivial preoccupations of a culture like ours are an embarrassment and a scandal in light of the monumental suffering that goes on everywhere around us.
But the late-night melodrama is instructive in a few important ways. It has reminded us of some correlated pathologies we seem to suffer from individually and collectively: our need for instant success, our lack of patience and disciplined persistance, an inability to see beyond the present moment. These are qualities often associated with toddlers and adolescents, and yet Americans generally are astonishingly unrepentant, even unaware, of them.
We see this in collegiate and professional sports, where the coach hired yesterday has until tomorrow to turn the team (and the whole program) around. Success. Now. No? See ya.
It’s pervasive, too, in Christian ministry, where leaders are expected to be miracle workers — where, come to think of it, they’re supposed to increase ratings and revenues.
But as with a TV audience, it takes time to build trust and friendship and loyalty in Christian community. And what is “success” anyway in pastoral, ecclesial terms? More bottoms in the pews? Raves for the pastor’s charisma? An exhaustive list of programs to ensure that everyone’s always exhausted?
Success measured in these and a myriad of less-overtly troublesome ways is deeply problematic — a trap that feeds egos but nothing (and no one) else.
Maybe we need the kind of leadership that reminds us of the strangeness of the gospel, its incompatibility with the myth of the American dream, its critique of consumerism, corporatism, and war.
Makes me think of a quote by Flannery O’Connor that perhaps Conan O’Brien knows well: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”