The Normcore Opulence of Preachers Wearing Four-Figure Sneakers
The Instagram account @preachersnsneakers began to reveal its teachings in the Lenten season. In March, it started pairing photographs of megachurch figures with screenshots documenting the street value of their casual clothing. Scrolling through, we spy a lot of Gucci accessories, a dazzle of Louis Vuitton patterns, and a selection of high-end athletic shoes—a collective document of the giddy extremes of contemporary costume, as practiced in a subculture where all the world is a pulpit, and players flex and strut in their streetwear. @preachersnsneakers is not devoted exclusively to sneakers, but sneakers are the foundation of the fashion culture it studies. And it goes without saying that sneakers are bigger than Jesus.
On May 26th, for example, the account featured a photo of a youth pastor at World Overcomers Christian Church, in Durham, North Carolina, who looked to be rumbling through a sermon in a black leather jacket, biker jeans, and a pair of chunky-soled running shoes produced by Versace, in collaboration with 2 Chainz. The value of the shoes in the secondhand marketplace—the price tag on their clout—was about fifteen hundred dollars, a function of both their scarcity and their modish chunkiness. The silhouette shares a normcore opulence with the Balenciaga Triple S trainers, which @preachersnsneakers spotted, a week earlier, on the praise-music singer Jake Hamilton. Offering social commentary in the form of digital collage, @preachersnsneakers has attracted more than 171,000 followers to date and exegeses from outlets as varied as Footwear News and Christianity Today, where a contributor wondered, “Perhaps the excess and superfluity of our present-day leaders’ clothing is a subconscious compensation for not being clothed with power from on high?”
@preachersnsneakers, which is run pseudonymously by an observant Christian who lives in Texas, blew up by probing the sensitive area where the values of the prosperity gospel and the Protestant work ethic intersect with both Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption and Tinker Hatfield’s design work at Nike. The matter of the pastors’ Sunday best touches on questions of temperance and lust. In an interview with the Times, the account’s proprietor explained that he began the project in the spirit of protest, but he soon shifted to self-examination. “This is a pretty slippery slope to be judging people’s hearts behind how they spend,” he said.
Eager to continue the conversation that he sparked, the founder, inevitably, has launched a podcast, titled “Preachers,” with promotional art that pays homage to the typographical design signature of Virgil Abloh—who, as a streetwear eminence, a luxury-house luminary, and a Kanye West collaborator, is a natural favorite of these fabulous shepherds. Last week, joined by a pastor from Fort Worth, Texas, our host spent a pleasant fortyish minutes moseying around the question of “mainstream celebrity Christian culture and how the fashion and brand-name stuff fits in.” Also inevitably, the preachers featured on the account have little interest in the discourse. Discreet to the point of evasive, they have tended to greet press inquiries with silence, or with expressions of sorrow that some observers might damn them as profligates, or with a harrumph of how-did-you-get-this-number disgruntlement. The bold logos and dramatic vamps do the talking for them. The shoes proclaim power but also an eagerness to demonstrate fluency in a specific idiom of youth culture.
In a foundational scene of monotheism, Moses doffs his kicks to approach the burning bush; shoes are, by their pedestrian nature, unfit for holy ground. In the Gospels, when St. John the Baptist proclaims that he is unworthy even to loosen the sandal strap of Christ, he chooses his figure of speech to describe a posture of humility. Since the Byzantine era, the most important footwear in the Catholic faith has been pontifical shoes and papal slippers: two related categories of laceless red shoe worn by the Bishop of Rome. It was once the custom of a pilgrim to kiss the cross embroidered on its vamp. The current pontiff, Pope Francis, a Jesuit cutting a humble air to suit his message, shuns such finery, in contrast to his immediate predecessor, Benedict XVI. Keen on the iconography of pairing a steep mitre with a pair of flashy slip-ons, Benedict celebrated the majesty of clerical garments. His preferred shade of red, a kind of succulent tomato, closely approximates the color of the roughly five-thousand-dollar Air Yeezy 2s worn, as @preachersnsneakers shows, by John Gray, formerly a pastor at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church, in Houston, Texas.
Gray tends to the soul of Justin Bieber, among many other matters, and has balanced his work in service of the Lord with a film-acting side hustle and a line of collar stays engraved with “Romans: 8:18-19,” which reads, “For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” But the glory of the Yeezys, which are kissable in their plushness, is his in this life. Gray told the Times that they were a gift from the production company behind his reality-TV show, “The Book of John Gray,” which airs on the Oprah Winfrey Network—an explanation that elegantly combines a defense of the shoes’ expense with a nonchalant demonstration of his clout.
The Bieber connection is meaningful. Like pop idols hoisted for worship, these pastors aspire toward casual majesty and achieve prefabricated fabulousness. Another of Bieber’s spiritual leaders, Carl Lentz, was among a vanguard of pastors who, in selecting their vestments, aimed to swagger in investment pieces; Lentz is a main character in Sam Schube’s canonical “Hypepriests” piece, which ran in GQ two years ago. “It appears as if the hipster pastor has evolved,” Schube wrote. “It’s no longer enough to no-comment gay marriage while wearing a biker jacket. Instead, you need to do it while wearing skater socks. Aggressive glasses. Very long drawstrings. Bieber merch.” The disparate subjects of @preachersnsneakers all dress in the same key of fashionable garishness. For all its glorification of the self, this way of wearing clothes, as practiced by these people, studiously avoids distinctive personal style. These are basically outfits chosen for Drake to wear to the airport.
Or, put another way, the contempo-clerical look is as regimented as any other religious habit. Laypeople who cannot expect to receive five grand’s worth of Yeezys will be well served by other merchandise from Kanye West, who naturally joins Bieber as the other leading saint of this scene. He has a true heart for gospel; his trend sensors seek heat with great ardor; his talents have risen to the microcultural moment. A choice @preachersnsneakers post featured his merch table at Coachella: in an extension of his Sunday Service gatherings, which are A-list praise-music occasions, West retailed a muted sweatshirt, blazing with the phrase “Holy Spirit,” in a style observers have likened to the cult garb seen in “Wild Wild Country,” at what a fancy department store would call an accessible price point. Meanwhile, preachers, though unworthy to unstrap the sandal of Jesus, are with their private shoppers, browsing for shoes that don’t resemble sandals as much as they do the hobnailed boots of Roman soldiers that were favored by Caligula.