Brené Brown's call to courage ... or the cross
The world needs more people willing to share their vulnerability, says Megan Powell du Toit
Brené Brown is that rare being: an academic who has had great popular success. The other recent one who springs to mind is Jordan Peterson. Brown is arguably more successful. Her 2010 TED talk The Power of Vulnerability is among the top 5 of all time, with over 35 million views. She has written five New York Times #1 bestsellers. And now, a hit Netflix Special, The Call to Courage. An unusual outcome for a woman who refers to herself as a shame researcher.
It was Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability which catapulted her to fame. Yet as she reveals in her Netflix special, the topic was a last-minute change. She planned to present her academic findings as usual but realised she would be truer to her own conviction of the importance of vulnerability if she more vulnerably spoke about that. This is a parallel with how I discovered her work. Asked to preach at my alma mater, I tried to think of the most impressive sermon I could give. I was overwhelmed though, with a conviction that what these Christian leaders needed to hear about was vulnerability – and that in doing so I needed to speak openly about my own weaknesses, including an experience of ministry burnout. I spoke on 2 Corinthians 4, and used Brown’s work as an illustration.
We need these people who can speak into the messy reality of human existence.
I was struck by the alignment of her work with the Christian understanding that power is found within weakness. This connection led me to wonder whether her research arose from faith. Brown though, left the church in her early 20s. She returned to church in 2005, after she had already begun her work on shame. It may be too much to say that her research led her back into faith, but certainly she discovered her faith again when she was able to accept her own vulnerability. In a video about her faith made by The Work of the People, she says “Church wasn’t an epidural, it was a midwife. It just stood next to me and said ‘Push, it’s supposed to hurt a bit’”.
Brown’s message isn’t about faith– she’s a social work professor, and she speaks about her research. But she also doesn’t tidy it out of the picture. In her Netflix special, she casually mentions God a couple of times. It seems to come from a genuine relationship with God, that she can’t help but mention as she tells her own story.
I believe her immense popularity is because she is speaking truth about how to live as broken and breakable people. She does so with earthy frankness (yes, she swears). We need these people who can speak into the messy reality of human existence.
She comes across like a preacher. In this, she mirrors another vulnerable Netflix special hit, Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette. In Nanette, we also have a lone woman on a stage, talking about the deep realities of life through the vulnerable sharing of personal stories. I’m a preacher, and preachers are often told these days that the monologue doesn’t grab people any more. It is the era of action-packed Marvel movies. But if that is the case – what do we with these two Netflix specials?
I don’t think people will ever be over listening to a person speaking truth in vulnerability. If people are watching these in their millions – it turns out, they don’t mind preaching. So, what’s happening in our churches, then?
Shame has a communal side to it that society needs. It can serve to hold us back from wrongdoing before we have really understood for ourselves why something is wrong.
Now, I’m not baptising everything said by either woman as gospel truth. Brown speaks to me in my own experiences as a flawed oddball who wants to find a way to make a difference. But that’s not to say that her philosophy is without its own flaws. I said she was like Peterson in her move to popularity. Though, they have very different philosophies. Peterson stresses strength. Brown, to my mind more in tune with a crucified Christ, speaks of vulnerability.
Here is the other commonality I noticed though: they both speak from a white American context in which it is primarily about the individual’s ability to achieve. I like Brown’s version of this more. The achievement she envisages are satisfying relationships and creative lives.
But the way she uses a couple of her key terms is interesting. For her shame always has a destructive effect. But I can remember being relieved when my own kids learnt shame. Shame has a communal side to it that society needs. It can serve to hold us back from wrongdoing before we have really understood for ourselves why something is wrong. It is destructive when we become ashamed of the wrong things, or if we never move out of shame and feel worthless.
… when you talk about the messy realities, when you show yourself as part of that messy reality, people are ready to listen.
Similarly, her understanding of vulnerability is individualistic. In her usage, vulnerability is a good thing that opens you up to joy. I agree. But I also use vulnerability as a communal word, to speak about those more likely to be harmed in our societal structures. In that sense, it can be negative.
And the outcome of this individualistic bent is that sometimes, she veers into valuing courage for its own sake. She finishes the Netflix special with something that sounds like the Loreal tagline “You’re worth it”. It goes back to being about getting the best for me.
I want to tell people they are valuable too, but I want to give them a worth based firmly in God. I also want to encourage people to try being vulnerable. But I want to urge a vulnerability that isn’t centred on the good for me that results. I want to turn our eyes to the vulnerability of the cross, so that we might all take up our crosses and live for God and others.
I think we can learn some valuable research-based approaches to life from Brown. But I also want to take a look at why people are so drawn to the preaching of Brown and Gadsby, but not to the church. I suspect one reason is that we often haven’t had the courage to be vulnerable that Brown speaks about. I find, when you talk about the messy realities, when you show yourself as part of that messy reality, people are ready to listen. And that’s when we get to talk to them about shame taken away in Christ, about the incredible worth found in belonging to God, and about a God who was so vulnerable in love, that in Christ he became a human and went to the cross. This is our story to tell.