'PreachersNSneakers' Will Fill Your Sunday With Fashion, Flexing And Faith In 2019 the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account started calling attention to famous preachers and their designer clothes. Ben Kirby, the no-longer anonymous person behind the account, has a new book.
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This Sunday, Visit 'PreachersNSneakers' For Fashion, Flexing And For-Profit Faith

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This Sunday, Visit 'PreachersNSneakers' For Fashion, Flexing And For-Profit Faith

This Sunday, Visit 'PreachersNSneakers' For Fashion, Flexing And For-Profit Faith

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, here's a question you may have asked your teen, your spouse or yourself. How much is too much for a pair of sneakers? And does that number change if those shoes are on the feet of a religious leader? That is the fundamental question behind PreachersNSneakers, the Instagram account that posts pictures of megachurch leaders and their frequently fabulous fits alongside the resale prices of said outfits, especially the shoes. It started anonymously, but now the creator of the account has gone public. He spoke with NPR's Andrew Limbong.

(SOUNDBITE OF ELEVATION WORSHIP'S "RESURRECTING")

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Elevation Worship, the hugely popular band connected to Elevation Church in North Carolina, is on stage performing the song "Resurrecting."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RESURRECTING")

ELEVATION WORSHIP: (Singing) The head that once was crowned with thorns...

LIMBONG: The camera pans over the stand. Everyone looks beautiful. The lead singer wears an oversized T-shirt and jeans perfectly cropped to show off his sneakers. This is the video Ben Kirby was watching on his couch one Sunday when he posted this Instagram story, where he zooms in on the guy's shoes and starts talking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEN KIRBY: Yo. I don't know what these LA worship bands are doing or how much they're getting paid, but big homie is wearing an $800 pair of Yeezy 750s. Elevation Worship, how do I get on the payroll, my man?

I didn't have a strategy or a big, like, agenda. I was just pointing out something that I thought was interesting or made me feel a certain type of way.

LIMBONG: Kirby is a Christian and a sneakerhead. He didn't mean to become a minor Internet celebrity. At the time, he was in business school, but a friend thought the post was funny and nudged him to do more. So he started the PreachersNSneakers Instagram account, and it blew up. It got traction on sneaker websites and on Christian ones, and national news, too.

KIRBY: I was sitting in class, and one of my classmates who knew I was into sneakers and knew I was a Christian sent me the account and said, dude, have you seen this? And I thought he was messing with me. And then I screenshotted him the DMs from the account and said, yeah, dude. Keep it quiet (laughter).

LIMBONG: Kirby kept his identity private at first for a few reasons. The megachurch culture he was critiquing - it's just a portion of Christianity at large in America, but it is a vocal one. His wife also happens to work at a megachurch in Dallas. Kirby also didn't want the conversation to be about himself, but about capitalizing on Christ's name.

KIRBY: As the conversation got more nuanced and more deep, I realized, like, hey, if I want to actually provide any opinions or commentary to this thing, I do need to be out in public. But yes, I recognize the irony about an anonymous account trying to get people to be authentic.

LIMBONG: Kirby is out with a new book called "PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity In An Age Of For-Profit Faith And (Wannabe) Celebrities." The book questions other aspects of megachurch culture - the high production values of the services, the self-help style sermons, the pastors who post pictures of themselves on beautiful vacations, rubbing elbows with celebrities.

Of course, preachers living aspirational lifestyles is nothing new. Marla Frederick is a professor of religion and culture at Emory University. She says that it really took off after preachers started appearing on TV.

MARLA FREDERICK: You started to see many more people performing a kind of wealth, especially as the '70s rolled around, and you saw the rise of what became the prosperity gospel.

LIMBONG: That's a theology that says if you're faithful and give to the church, God will reward you with health and wealth.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

FREDERICK J EIKERENKOETTER II: How many of you used to use the term spend money? Let's see your hands.

LIMBONG: Frederick points to the famous 1970s prosperity gospel preacher Reverend Ike, who presented himself as living proof of the teachings.

FREDERICK: He was so flamboyant in his dress and his performance and so unapologetic about it because he felt like Black people in particular had always been told that to be poor was to be godly. And he felt like that was a mindset that really needed to be broken.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

EIKERENKOETTER: All of the money that I use returns to me multiplied in a never-ending cycle of increase and enjoyment, thank God.

LIMBONG: For Reverend Ike and other TV preachers like Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland, the look was suits, but the aesthetics of aspiration are changing. Kate Bowler is a professor of history at Duke University and author of the book "Blessed: A History Of The American Prosperity Gospel." She says that a central tenet of the theology is that these gifts will come today, that God is here today. So preachers focus on...

KATE BOWLER: Becoming on the leading edge of what entertainment celebrity culture looks and feels like.

LIMBONG: So you get pastors hanging out with Kanye West, and you get music leaders dressing up like Justin Bieber. In the PreachersNSneakers book, Ben Kirby critiques but holds back full-blown judgments. Instead, he firmly pushes back at people saying he's a gossip, that he's tearing down the church, that he's driving people away from Christianity.

KIRBY: I don't think it's me posting the price tag that's making people hate Christianity more. I think it might be the guys that appear to be getting rich off of a gospel that's free, and free for everybody.

LIMBONG: For him, it's just about questioning, how much should flexing be a part of the faith?

Andrew Limbong, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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