A friend and I were strolling the streets of Barcelona back in February. Our conversation turned to just how we may identify people. I will tip my hand quickly to say I fear the practice of categorization simplifies our lives. We really have no need to get to know someone. Once we can, by our ruler, measure someone we may then determine their worth to us. We either choose to engage them on deeper levels or we dismiss them. And, everyone knows our goal is simpler lives. Let’s not take the time with people – takes to much out of us.
Slowly I am making my way through Pete Gall’s My Beautiful Idol. It is not a difficult read. Rather, about the time I think I have time to make great strides through the book I encounter people. My vocation will not allow a quick dismissal. I cannot categorize those who come by as having value or merit based on some hidden ruler. Imagine the mental conversation. “Now Joe sure is getting on my nerves. I have spent hours with him and he just does not seem t listen. I am going to have to turn this one off. What a waste of time.” (Yes, fictional character.) Life would be simpler if we could dismiss those who did not benefit us in some way.
In my vocational circles, read – my denominational context, certain code words either endear you or get you into trouble. Liberal. Moderate. Emergent. Progressive. Labels like these would garner attention and you would soon be on someone’s watch list. Conservative. Fundamentalist. Inerrantist. Pre-Millennial. Labels like these would keep a pastor in good stead with the establishment. The fact these labels represent constructs of reality, a way to view the world, rather than always representing the world as it is goes largely ignored.
Recently Ed Stetzer released statistical data and personal commentary igniting something of a firestorm (part 1, part 2). All he really did was describe reality, that is the way things really are in our denomination. He offered a few simple suggestions as to what might offer a trend correction. You would have thought he tore down the edifice that is the Southern Baptist Convention. Questioning sacred movements only brings jeers. It does not provoke much thought.
Why the illustration from the SBC in reference to Pete Gall’s work. I mean do we really need to drag Pete through our stuff? It dawned on me the curious title of his confessional memoir might be a good place of beginning for us all. For those ready for battling in the comment thread, this is the point at which my application moves to something much broader than the SBC.
Pete draws the readers attention to just where he is going when he reflects on “gem” he finds in a television documentary on the Collector Crab, Decorator Crab. He writes,
I do think I’m right though. I’m not happy about the truth, but at least there’s an ego stroke in feeling like I’m one of the rare people who’s willing to face it. Once I saw it, I started seeing it everywhere. For example, the other day I picked up a gem from a program about the collector crab. Of the genus schizophroida, which is Greek for bearer of split likeness. The collector crab, or decorator crab, as it’s also called, attaches to his shell bits of what it finds on the sea floor. According to the narrator with the British accent, the idea is to protect itself by becoming invisible to its natural enemy, the squid. Makes sense, I thought. People do the same thing. And like the collector crab, which sometimes chooses camouflage that actually makes the crab easier to spot, we can’t ever be all that sure about the stuff we pick up and attach to our shells; all we can do is grab what looks good to us. That’s where I come in. My job in advertising is to sell people, all bearers of the likeness of God, baubles to attach to their personal shells. Labels we slap on our lives, like products, services, impressions, approaches, tones, movements, whatever – anything that can help build a consumer’s “personal brand.” Our god is our personal brand, our existential self, our chosen reflection or explanation or defense or excuse to the world. It’s how we hide from the “squids” in our lives, which show up in the form of evil or fear or shame or a host of other things we work furiously to avoid.(p.18-19)
You see, we all work to adorn ourselves. We work hard to build our beautiful idols. Denominations portend health when dis-ease is the order of the day so as not to be cast into the very category so popularly used by said denomination when noting others’ decline. It would be easy to lay this off on some systemic foible bound to show up. Instead systems, groups, organizations and yes, denominations represent people. People given to hide behind their own un-health as though healthy. What would others think?
Gall writes what Philip Yancey considers a work on par with St. Augustine’s Confessions, Annie Lamot’s Traveling Mercies or Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. (I would throw in my new friend Jim Palmer’s Divine Nobodies.) Peeling away the facade and letting people see struggle that turns to faith may be what we all need to undertake. Rather than constructing a reality so we may fit someone else’s “box,” maybe we would do well both for ourselves and our eagerness to see others come to faith in Jesus by writing something of our own confessional memoir – exposing our own beautiful idol. Only when these idols are cast down may someone truly see the abiding Spirit and the ever so difficult wrestling with new creation and desire to shed their shells of those things that merely represent something other than who we really are.
My friend Brian McLaren wrote a book on helping others find faith. He considered the peeling away of the facade that is “pop” faith and honestly engaging another as a person may well lead to a vibrant awakening to the love of God in Jesus, the Christ. Only when willing to own our own beautiful idols may we help others with theirs.