Awkward is the new normal, or even the new cool. Over the past several years, a young, self-deprecating generation has declared everything awkward: their favorite TV characters, family photos, uncomfortable interactions, themselves. “Socially awkward,” “that’s so awkward,” and “that awkward moment when…” have surged in Google trends as common (and overused) catchphrases.
But for Sammy Rhodes, awkward isn’t merely a buzzword to claim. The college minister knows awkwardness at its deepest and darkest. He’s lived it personally—including when a 2013 controversy over his popular Twitter presence as @prodigalsam pushed him offline and into an identity crisis.
Rhodes, the dad and seminary grad who leads Reformed University Fellowship at the University of South Carolina, returned to Twitter the following year with a new sense of self. He went on to write about God’s power in unbearable times in This Is Awkward (Thomas Nelson, 2016).
“Awkwardness is an invitation to be found. It’s an invitation to vulnerability, and vulnerability is where intimacy and connection are born. It’s also an invitation to throw yourself on the grace that makes vulnerability possible at all,” he writes. “At the end of the day, awkward people are the only kind of people God loves; because awkward people are the only kind of people there are.”
Last month, Rhodes spoke with another Christian humorist who knows the trials of Twitter pressure and the struggle of starting again, Jon Acuff—author of the book Do Over. A condensed version of their conversation appears below.
Jon Acuff: First question: Why didn’t your publishers send me a copy of your book?
Sammy Rhodes: Is that true? Man. That’s an oversight.
I just want to start with awkwardness.
When we hang up I’m going to send you a majorly awkwardly autographed copy your way.
Good. I love what you say about awkwardness. I know this is something you’ve been thinking about for a long time, working on for a long time. What’s the heart of the book and the heart of your belief about what awkwardness can really do?
The way I say it in the book is awkwardness is this invitation to vulnerability, and that vulnerability, as I believe, is where connection and intimacy with God and other people are found.
In my own life, those things that I feel like I’m most afraid of or I feel most awkward talking about are usually, if not always, those very things I need to be talking about. When I do have the courage or dare to go there I find not only does the Lord meet me there but people do too, in this really gracious and beautiful way.
You went through a crazy, loud Internet hate cycle. Everybody online thinks, Oh, I have somebody who doesn’t like me. It usually means one person sent one mildly disappointing tweet where they were like, “I don’t like your shoes,” now they’re all “These haters ain’t going to keep me down!” But you actually turned on the Internet hate machine. You took six months off from Twitter. What did you learn during that time? And it doesn’t have to be like, “God opened the heavens…”
Only after the Lord declared his glory as was with Moses and the rock and he passed by… No, it was such a good moment for me. I learned how to be more myself. I am a pastor, and I do love humor. I deeply believe in both of those things. How can I put them together and not try to escape one world for the other?
I had to take a break away from the thing that kind of became my identity. I like to say @prodigalsam was kind of this caricature; it was me, but it wasn’t all of me. That break helped me helped me figure out who Sammy Rhodes was and get a chance to do the funny thing, but also be the serious thing. That’s what I’m trying to do in the book: use humor. Humor is like this gift that helps us face serious, awkward things.
I’m curious about your writing process. Are you the kind of guy that’s got a notebook and you see something about donuts, and you’re like “Oh, I can relate that donut to Indiana Jones in a way no one ever has before”? Or are you the kind of writer who will set a time for an hour on a Tuesday?
When it came to the book, I had to carve out time. I basically carved out Fridays and would just take the whole day, and try to write in the morning, reward myself, and then if I was feeling up to it, write in the afternoon as well.
What was the reward?
Usually food or a movie. I love going to movies by myself. In fact, after we do this I’m probably going to go see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, the Tina Fey movie. I wish I were a little more disciplined. I’ve tried the Stephen King writing book. It didn’t do it for me. But Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird? That book to me is gold. She talks about having little rewards.
Yeah, that one’s a favorite.
Sometimes for me as a writer, I undervalue humor. For the first time in a long time, I posted just a strictly humorous blog post. It had no teachable moment. It was ridiculous, but it felt like my voice. How do you appreciate humor, value it, and know when you’re going past it to try to make it do what it’s not designed to do?
I’m trying to learn that. That’s how I preach to college students. I do that every Tuesday night. If I’m going to keep them I’ve got to find my voice and help engage. I think all the way back to (Charles) Spurgeon. Spurgeon had this thing where he’d say it's better to preach to a laughing man than a sleeping one. I don’t want to see humor as a tool or a trick, because I do think it’s got value in and of itself. It’s like that scene in J. R. R. Tolkien’s…? The last one. I’m drawing a blank. The last one in Lord of the Rings.
I’m just going to make you not say it, so that it sounds like you’re not a real Christian. You can’t name a Tolkien reference.
Return of the King! It’s Return of the King. When Sam and Gandalf are talking and Gandalf laughs, there’s a line that says his laugher was like water to a parched land. I love that image. There’s so much resurrection hope in laughter and in humor. Not to get super spiritual, but Jesus is making all things new, and his promises are going to be kept. It’s like the Proverbs 31 woman, which I feel a little left out on, but it says she “laughs at the days to come,” and somehow that’s a picture of godliness. Humor is not just a way to convey truth but actually has this deep companionship with truth.
To that point about humor, who are your favorite comedians?
That’s a loaded question because I feel so blackballed by the comedy world. People who transcend that for me would be like Jim Gaffigan and Louis C. K., even though he crosses that line into crude. He’s the funniest guy, but also the most poignant in terms of his insights into the human condition. Aziz Ansari—I think his new show is genius. I think it’s our new Seinfeld.
Whoa. Whoa. You can’t casually say that. I liked it, but I don’t know that it’s like the most successful sitcom of all time.
Yeah. Good point. That’s true. That’s fair. That’s a bold declaration.
A pastor comes to you and says, “Hey, I want to be funnier.” What would you tell him?
Go watch Seinfeld. Go watch Louis C. K. standup. I’m not easily offended, but I know that’s not for everybody. Watch Jim Gaffigan.
I heard Nadia Bolz-Weber say, “I don’t know how anyone does a sermon or preaches without having first tried to do standup.” Maybe it’s overkill, but I know what she was saying. There’s this craft of connecting, not just to make someone laugh, but connecting in that moment. It’s like almost an aha moment. I think to do that is super hard work. Just immersing yourself in some good comedy is probably what I would say.
What are your thoughts on Twitter right now? Are you still seeing the same interaction?
I’m probably less tied to it than I was, and I’m not sure if that’s a me thing or if that’s a social media landscape thing. Part of it is that, man, it’s so fun. Twitter is so fun to me because you have 140 characters to craft something that connects, whether that’s seriously or in a funny way. I still love that, but it’s not as fun as it was in like 2011 or even 2010.
I tried Periscope. It’s just too awkward for me. And Instagram… I don’t have the eye.
What’s been the most surprising reaction to your book so far?
I feel like the book’s been pretty polarizing—judging from Amazon. I have been living or dying by that in the last two weeks.
It’s the only way to know your self-worth.
Exactly. The reviews are usually five stars or two stars. There’s really not much in between. That’s been humbling. Everyone’s told me not to read reviews, but… do you?
I do once I’ve stepped away from the book far enough. I wouldn’t in the first two weeks! It’s too fresh. Seth Godin hasn’t read a review in three years, and he’s Seth Godin. Sometimes I think we have this thought that we need to man up and read our reviews to be tough enough. I don’t know. Maybe you’re just stronger than I am. You’ve got more Beyoncé in you.
No, it’s definitely not that I’m stronger. This is getting to the heart of my approval stuff. I do long to be measured, so it’s hard not to read the thing by which I feel measured. I’m not saying that with pride; I’m saying that’s a bad thing. I’ve got that depressed mindset where I see a five-star review and think, “Whatever. You don’t really mean that.” But a two-star review, you mean that. It’s like, you tell me nine good things and then one bad thing, and I’m going to fixate on the one bad thing. It’s not healthy for me. So I’m going to take your advice and not read the rest.
There’s part of me that’s fascinated with this. I do want to learn why people didn’t connect with the book. Some might have been very instructive. There are one-star reviews on Start that I agree with. They said, “What an ego trip.” And I look back at it and go, you know what, there were too many stories where it was like, “And then I won.” The more space I put between when the work is created and when I look at that the better, because then the heat of creating it has cooled enough for me to be more objective and be like, ah, I get that.
In the book, you mention your love of fast food. What’s your go-to, “I’m ashamed of myself, I’m going to eat it in the car so that people don’t know,” food? And don’t say Chick-fil-A.
My holy grail is Wendy’s. Spicy chicken #6 with a sweet tea and a chocolate frosty with sweet and sour sauce on the side. It’s that or I’ll get down and dirty with some McDonalds. My wife will not eat either anymore. I have to sneak those in when I can.
That’s funny. Yeah, I think mine’s Taco Bell. I over-order. I end up getting like four items. I’m just confused because the measurements of, like, I don’t know how much a chalupa is. This is not a lie—I’m putting this story in my new book—the seatbelt alarm went off in the passenger seat with a bag of Taco Bell I had. I was like, “That’s probably a bad sign.”
Last question. What did you write the book to? Did you listen to music?
Sometimes. I probably wrote the most to like The National. I love The National, and they chill me out. I have two paces. Girl Talk really gets me going.
It’s so funny you picked that one. I’ll put that on YouTube and listen. The way I see it, it’s like running. I can run in spurts to a pastor, but to finish I need rap. You can’t cross a finish line listening to a podcast of sermons. I’m not like “Thessalonians! Woohoo!”
Dude, this was a blast. I’m glad that we got to do this.
Me too, man. I love talking to you.