Why Do Christians Value Respectability Over Authenticity?

Jason Micheli —  October 10, 2013 — 5 Comments

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The following is a small group reflection written for our church planting planning team. 

“I would rather be with someone who is real than someone who is good.”

– Philip Yancey

During the 2006 campaign, ‘political correspondents’ for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart purported to provide election coverage from locations all over the state of Ohio. You can see a clip here.

From different towns and cities and polling places.

Every correspondent though reported their story while standing in front of an Applebee’s restaurant.

Each exactly like the other.

As usual, the Daily Show skewered something very true about our culture.

Just think of the homogeneity of our shopping centers. When there is a combination of Barnes and Noble, Home Depot, Target and Panera everywhere, it begins to feel as though every place is the same, or that no place is unique. Or real.

What we experience in shopping centers isn’t that different in kind from the fake reality we see on television.

What we see on television isn’t that much different from the abundance of fake foods sold in our supermarkets.

What we find in our supermarkets is but another example of the digitally altered and perfected music we hear on the radio or the false sounds we hear from politicians.

On many levels, ours is an inauthentic culture:

the artificial is everywhere and everywhere it is promised to trump the real thing.

In such a culture, Christians are called to be a People who are honest, genuine and real.

There’s a story in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s the last in a series of 3 ‘Kingdom moments’ in which Jesus non-violently upends the status quo. Jesus calls Simon, who is a tax collector and, as such, is a Jew who makes his living by colluding with the Roman Empire.

Tax collectors were sinners. Outcasts. And even among the ‘ochlos’ (the despised and outcast poor) tax collectors were the most loathed of people.

Not only does Jesus call Simon to follow him, Jesus promptly eats and drinks with Simon and other sinners. Mark’s telling of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners includes the curious phrase “on his left elbow.”

That is, Jesus is reclining at the dinner table on his left elbow.

The left elbow was a 1st century colloquialism for being casual with another.

For being real.

Authentic.

Not a high and mighty Messiah, Jesus was authentically himself with sinners.

And by giving them his left elbow, Jesus gave sinners the right signal to be authentic themselves.

Incidentally, it’s when Jesus and his followers are being real around a table that Mark uses the word ‘disciple’ for the first time.

The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, commenting on the fake reality of contemporary culture, writes that what is needed is a “substituting the signs of the real for the real.”

There’s both a need and a hunger, he argues, for a reality that’s really real. He’s right. From farmers’ markets to home-brewed beer to handmade clothes sold on Etsy, people crave the authentic.

What’s more, today people are so numbed to the artificiality marketed to us from every angle that increasingly they have what Ernest Hemingway called a “a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector.”

[What things in or about church would set off Hemingway’s BS Detector?]

Missiologist Michael Frost says this is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.

On the one hand, more and more people long for authentic relationships and experiences, communities of truthfulness and vulnerability.

On the other hand, this is exactly what many churches tend to avoid.

Churches too, Frost points out, peddle the artificial and inauthentic. Often churches are not places where folks recline on their left elbow with each other, sharing what’s really going on in their lives.

Churches are sometimes guilty, Frost says, of painting the Christian life in the sweet, sentimental glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. When Norman Rockwell fails to match people’s reality (because, admit it, it does for all of us), churches can end up alienating people.

Which leads to an interesting question:

[What are the things you can’t do, say or express in Church that you do in other everyday activities in your life?]

Which is just another way of asking:

[Why do Christians so often value respectability over authenticity?]

It’s important that we have an answer to that last question.

As Frost writes, in our increasingly post-Christendom culture Christians need to earn the right to be reheard:

“Is it too simplistic to say that we earn that right through our authentic lifestyles?

In a culture yearning for authenticity- the real- the pressure is on us in the Christian community now more than ever to put our time and our money where our mouth is and live what we preach.”

We’re called, in other words, not to be perfect Christians.

We’re called to be genuine people.

Who are trying to follow Jesus.

Which is good news.

Because if authenticity is what more and more people hunger after, then they’re searching not for the former but for the latter.

[What does a community of authenticity look like?

What’s the congregational equivalent of a farmers’ market?]

[What might it mean to practice an organic, homebrewed faith?]

 

 

 

Jason Micheli

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5 responses to Why Do Christians Value Respectability Over Authenticity?

  1. Suggest a definition of ‘authenticity’ be added to this article. Is it being authentic not to shower before church to preserve natural body odors, pass gas in the pews because the need happens to occur in the middle of the sermon, curse as ‘my real voice’ despite the presence of small children sitting on parent’s laps. Maybe we have it backwards. Maybe going out of our way in church to be nicer, showered, controlled in our language, disciplined, i.e. more respectful of those around us is a reminder of the way we ought to be the rest of the week. Maybe church is a place that reminds us to live at the outer edge of our own best self. Paul spoke of ‘being all things to all people,’rather than ‘here I am as my authentic self, take me as I am.’ If authenticity is the alternative to hypocrisy, then yea for authenticity. If authenticity is a way of justifying lower standards of personal conduct and speech to show the real me, then I am not a fan. I thought the Gospel inspired us to rise above what we naturally are. Ministry is sharing the real Jesus. Showing the real me doesn’t even make a top ten list.

  2. “What are the things you can’t do, say or express in Church that you do in other everyday activities in your life?”

    I love this question. The only sin or problem that is acceptable to have is one that is firmly in the past tense. Somehow, all of our real struggles happened 5 years ago. Yet 5 years from now, we will share more struggles (if we conquer them). With one notable exception, the only non-medical problem I’ve heard a Christian have is a need for a deeper quiet time.

    Is it because we attack non-believers when they sin, that we are afraid to admit our problems?

  3. Bill,

    When you go a restaurant or visit a friend’s house, if you smell like road kill, pass gas, curse like a sailor, then that’s the real you. Bring it to church. If you slander your boss, gossip about your neighbors, lust after actresses, bring it to church. Don’t add to your sin with lies. Now if you feel awkward acting that way, then maybe you shouldn’t act that way anywhere. When you find something you still do, even though you don’t want to, then you finally will recognize your limitations and be willing to be helped. That process is painful and humiliating. Much better to pretend you are perfect like the rest. 🙂

  4. 3rd comment (sorry for 3, but they were not really related)

    Do you swear when you pray? I realized a while ago that I swear in my head but then auto-correct to the non-swear equivalent. I then realized that my auto-correct wasn’t fooling God. So when I pray silently, I don’t edit. That may sound like a small thing or a bizarre thing, but when I stopped auto-correcting swears, I stopped editing out other stuff and I could be more authentic.

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