Tag Archive for authenticity

Without Wax

To recover the word sincerity from its current mangled form, we might remember some etymology. The etymology of sincerity is a favourite among preachers, and for good reason – it’s an interesting tale. It seems in the Graeco-Roman world, unscrupulous merchants had found a nifty way to sell otherwise useless cracked pottery. By using wax, which could be coloured to match the pottery, small or larger cracks in the clay could be concealed. Not repaired, mind you, merely concealed – for when the Mediterranean sun did its work, the wax in those pots would soften or even melt, and the pottery could collapse and lose its contents. Like the used car rigged to last just one test drive, pots with wax could impress while on the shelf, but not endure real-life use. At some point, merchants decided to offer a guarantee of sorts: in Latin, sine cera: “without wax”. The “sincere” pottery was simply the real deal, not hiding flaws that would render it useless.

While etymology doesn’t determine the meaning of words, the proper meaning of sincere is not far from its root. A sincere man is one without pretense, without deception. Sincerity is very close to what the Bible calls integrity: wholeness, consistency. A man with integrity does not have a private life which contradicts his public claims. His character is not shot through with waxed over fatal flaws. A sincere man is a man with integrity, who seeks to be as much on the inside what he is on the outside.

Sincerity has nothing to do with formality or informality. One can be completely sincere and observe custom, ritual, or manners. Conversely, one could throw off all formality, be as casual as a surfer on Sunday, but remain a hypocrite, having different faces for different places.

Sincerity also has nothing to do with how public you make your inner or private world. Many of our private moments should remain just so. Instead of supporting the weird exhibitionism and voyeurism that much social media encourages in all of us, we should foster a healthy privacy, without cultivating an unhealthy secrecy. Sincerity is not making a public confession where none was asked for, venting your frustration because you want to be “open and honest”, or expecting some kind of therapeutic listen-‘n-share group in the church.

Sincerity has nothing to do with how sensate your feelings are to you. While worship must come from a sincere heart (1 Timothy 1:5, Matthew 6:1-18, 15:8), that really has nothing to do with how intensely you feel your feelings in worship. On a given Lord’s Day, your physical condition, relative mental sharpness, or overall spiritual maturity may render your sense of your own affections less acute. That does not mean the worship was offered insincerely, or with the aim of impressing others, or to mask some monstrous sin.

Sincerity has nothing to do with how relaxed, casual, and familiar you feel. You may feel quite tense, nervous, or awkward, and be entirely sincere. Indeed, in circumstances or occasions of great moment, we would expect both sincerity and carefulness. It’s true that awkwardness can tempt men to posture and act seriously, so as to fit in. It’s equally true that casualness can tempt men to be flippant and profane so as to fit in.

Sincerity has everything to do with truth. The sincere man wants the truth of reality, so he does not immerse himself in amusement. He wants truth in his words, so he learns to say what he means and mean what he says. He wants truth about God and man rightly symbolised, so he does not fear custom, tradition, or formality, but can penetrate their meaning and use them sincerely. He wants truth about himself, so he is able to acknowledge his failures, even among other believers (James 5:16), without polluting the minds of others with graphic descriptions of his every sin (Eph 5:12). He wants truth in his own affections, so he works on chastening and training his affections to love what he ought to love, in the way he ought to love it (Phil 1:9-11), and not giving place to every emotion that emanates from his heart.

In short, the sincere man is wrestling against the deceptiveness of his own nature, fighting man-pleasing, pride, hypocrisy, and narcissism. The very last thing he needs is to become intensely self-conscious of just how sincere he is (compared to all those fake, phony people out there, you know). That’s like becoming proud of your achievements in humility.

Instead, he prays David’s prayer for truth in the innermost man (Ps 51:6). He repents of eyeservice. He seeks to love men, not please them. He does not “really want sincerity” as much as he sincerely wants reality.

As Real As I Feel

An assumption of a generation intoxicated with authenticity is the notion that feelings don’t lie. Given their spontaneous and often uncontrollable nature, emotions are seen as the inevitable and unstoppable eruptions of the heart. Breaking through the surface layer of ‘masks’, ‘forms’, or some other supposed act of evading one’s inner truth, emotions represent pure, authentic, sincerity. You’ll find this all over modern culture, and sadly, modern Christianity.

Witness the pop songs about ‘admitting how we feel about each other’, ‘surrender to what our hearts want’, ‘these feelings don’t lie’. A whole generation has been catechised by pop music to understand their emotions as truth, and repression of these feelings as both unhealthy and a form of deception.

Pop psychology has championed the cause of ‘listen to your heart’. Anger management classes include verbalising your anger to a present or absent object of your anger, venting one’s wrath through shouting, or even physical rage. I once sat bewildered in a “pastor’s” fraternal, where one pastor told the group that a suicide in his church had made him angry with God, and he felt it was healthy and healing to speak openly about his anger with God. The nodding and smiling heads around the table made me realise I was alone in my narrow theology of the book of Job.

Rare is the person today who doesn’t see value in telling a group all his heart, in “admitting how you feel”. Carl Roger’s encounter groups have taken on myriad forms, from group therapy, to market research focus groups, to church cell groups. Indeed, churches which don’t give people the chance to “express themselves” must be repressive, authoritarian institutions where the male leadership is too insecure to allow the healthy emotional expressions of its members’ spiritual struggles. Emotional catharsis is taken to be some of the healthiest purgation available: let it all out.

Christian worship has been almost completely colonised by this approach. Because worship is rightly to be an act of sincere love for God, the Christian brought up in this culture begins to think that unless he has a strong sensation of his own feelings during worship, he must be less than sincere, perhaps falling into ‘mere ritual’. So he pursues an intensity of feeling, closing his eyes to concentrate (usually scrunching up his face, too) hoping for the most emotive music, and longing for a preacher who can pull on the heartstrings. Many Christians go looking for churches that have perfected the emotive approach, and enough churches see the market in creating a form of worship where everyone can feel his feelings. Of course, they won’t call it “feeling your feelings”; they’ll call it it “connecting”, “creating a worshipful atmosphere”, “being authentic in our worship-expressions”. But it amounts to using music, lights, and atmospherics, to give a generation whose primary art form is the movie an experience of escapist-like sensations during worship.

Actually, this is a fairly old idea which keeps getting a fresh coat of paint each year. French philosopher Rousseau taught that man in his natural state is at his best. The noble savage, uncorrupted by pretentious European civilisation, is man at his most honest. So, too, is the man who does not manage and chasten his emotions, but lets them come out, raw and unfiltered. He is the sincere, authentic, Man of Passion.

Old-fashioned Romanticism, and its step-child sentimentalism, live upon these old lies. Feelings, like unrehearsed responses, represent our honest side; while feelings controlled and shaped represent inauthentic, phony people who just can’t “be themselves”.

Consider a contrasting view, by Roger Scruton:

In a striking work published a century ago the Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce pointed to a radical distinction, as he saw it, between art properly so-called, and the pseudo-art designed to entertain, arouse or amuse…[He was] right to believe that there is a great difference between the artistic treatment of a subject matter and the mere cultivation of effect…Genuine art also entertains us; but it does so by creating a distance between us and the scenes that it portrays: a distance sufficient to engender disinterested sympathy for the character, rather than vicarious emotions of our own.

 — Beauty

Scruton goes on to argue that true art works with imagination, representing ideas for our contemplation, and deliberately placing some distance between us and what we are contemplating. By doing so, it avoids evoking impulsive and visceral reactions, and trains us, if we are patient with the process, to feel more carefully, and more circumspectly about the object portrayed.

Manipulative art works with fantasy, trying to grip or excite us with a supposed portrayal of reality, where we get surrogate fulfillment of desires, substitute emotional experiences, purely for self-gratification.

To put it another way, art that lies takes shortcuts, shows us a mirror, and leads us to believe that hyped-up passions are evidence of how sincere and passionate we are, that our most superficial and immediate responses are the truest kinds. In reality, we are actually feeling less, like the hyper-emotional person who perpetually finds crisis and alarm in every situation. We don’t envy such a person; we pity her, because we know that her intoxication with her own feelings blinds her to feel more deeply or carefully about the world. She is self-consciously hyper-emotional, and so she uses her drama as a perpetual shield from patiently thinking and feeling as she should.

Try telling the average person that he needs to have his emotions and sentiments properly trained, and he will think you are from outer space. Tell a man that his first and immediate emotional responses will usually be wrong, malformed or inappropriate, and he will think you represent some Organisation for the Suppression of Human Happiness. But the Christian understands the strange propensity of the human heart to deceive itself, and realises his feelings are some of his least reliable members.

Sincerity and Profanity

Many pastors and Christian leaders believe they are purifying Christianity and worship when they remove any kind of formality from corporate worship. Formal dress, an exalted tone in prayer, or reverent music are eschewed for a more casual and informal approach. They appear to believe that retaining forms that are not immediately recognisable or penetrable by the average Christian represents an attempt to “appear religious”. To them, this is hollow priestcraft and chicanery. In fact, the term hocus pocus grew out of the medieval peasant’s presence at the Mass, where he would hear the priest say “this is the body of Christ” in Latin: hoc est corpus Christi. At some point, the hoc est corpus got mangled into hocus pocus. How bread became God was a kind of magic, impenetrable to the average peasant. Many modern Christian leaders believe divesting Christianity of formality will purify it of hocus pocus, and make it more sincere, authentic, and real. But this profoundly misunderstands the difference between the profane and the sacred.

Since Cain and Abel, man has understood that when something is performed, offered or used in an act of worship, that thing is set apart for that purpose. It is sacred. It is not always intrinsically so; it becomes sacred because it is so dedicated. It is sacred in purpose, not in makeup. This applies to animals, altars, human bodies, clothing, spaces, music, speech, times, even whole days or weeks or entire buildings. This is the act of consecration: setting things apart for holy uses. Once a common thing or place or time is set apart for worship, it is considered sacred.

The Mosaic Law made this point in hundreds of ways. Ordinary animals, utensils, tents, clothes would be consecrated and re-consecrated through sacrifices and ritual cleansings. When something was not consecrated or ritually cleansed, it was not to be used in worship, with dire penalties for disobedience. God kept explaining that by these acts of separating the ordinary from the sacred, Israel would be taught that God is holy: “that you may distinguish between holy and unholy, and between unclean and clean” (Lev. 10:10). God is other. And because He is other, He is not known or worshipped by what is purely familiar or common. Even in pagan worship, common things, such as shoes were to be left in front of the temple (Latin= pro fanum), not brought inside it. To bring the unconsecrated into a sacred space was to profane that space, and indeed, that god. To obliterate this distinction between what was specifically given for worship, and what was for use in ordinary life was an act of profaning the name of the Lord. To profane God is to drag God and His worship down to the level of the ordinary.

No one, in all these millennia, misunderstood the nature of sacred things. They knew that the wood of the altar is still wood. They knew that anointing oil is still oil, and that the Sabbath is another twenty-four hours like all others. They did not waste time pointing out that priestly linen was the same material as regular linen. Nevertheless, they knew that what was consecrated had changed in its purpose, and since that purpose was now sacred, the objects or space or time were to be considered such.

Although the New Testament church is no longer restricted to a Tabernacle or Temple, and although it is true that all of our lives are to be offered up as worship, this does not mean that we by this fact lose the distinction between the sacred and the profane, particularly regarding corporate worship. Romans 12:1 is not meant to profane worship; it is meant to consecrate the mundane. The Lord’s Day is still His day. Ministers still ought to dress as if they were handling the most serious message in the world. Christians still ought to dress as if they were going to appear before God. Prayer still ought to be speech set apart to speak to the Most High. The Bible still ought to be read and heard like no other book. The space we meet in still ought to be treated like a space given over to worship. In various ways, we New Testament believers still ought to show that what we set apart for worship has a consecrated purpose, and therefore we should treat it as sacred, and not as common.

However, the realness police do not understand this. They rightly recognise that all of life is sacred, but then they take this to mean that the difference between worship and life is precisely what they should eliminate. They must make worship seem as ‘real’ or familiar as driving, eating, or walking through the mall. That way, they reason, no pretense exists in worship.

But in fact, such people turn out to be destroyers. Their efforts do not elevate normal life to a state of consecration; instead, they debase everything. Instead of a deep sense of reality permeating worship, they end up with a profound sense of mundaneness in corporate worship. Instead of filling the Christian church with sincerity, they fill it with what is average. Life does not become elevated and consecrated; worship becomes predictable, everyday and ordinary. Awe and reverence is lost, and the small consolation is that “we’re all so real about it.” Like Titus, they tear away the veil, and find nothing is there, and feel satisfied that at least they’d removed the mask.

The very contrast between worship and everyday life is exactly what invests worship with its power and transformative force. The gap between the common and the sacred is what makes worship a numinous and spiritual experience. The sacredness of worship is precisely what engenders the fear of the Lord. When we tear away at form – those things and ways and acts that remind us that this occasion is sacred – we tear away at worship itself. Indeed, we tear away at our own dignity as being made in the image of God, and not mere animals concerned with the material. When we refuse the distinction between the sacred and the common, we are nothing more than what C.S. Lewis called trousered apes.

Do not despise consecration. Do not attribute the setting apart of worship as a sacred experience as a bunch of sham and pretence. Learn to embrace such consecration yourself. Recognise it is part of the way God teaches us that He Himself is holy.

The Colloquial, the Casual, and the Crafted

Those who call for ‘authenticity’, ‘realness’, and ‘sincerity’, are not always sure what they mean, if you press them for a definition. Some mean honesty, some others mean integrity, both of which are virtues the Bible commends and commands. But some of those calling for authenticity are really calling for a removal of formality from worship, communication, and life in general. Things formal are considered posed and vain, and therefore less than real. (Of course, objecting to what is supposedly posed and vain is a tad rich when coming from the take-a-selfie-and-edit-the-photo generation, but let’s leave that aside, for the moment.) People like this believe that any move towards informality is a move towards honesty and openness. Casualness in dress, colloquialism in speech, and the absence of structure means everyone is being more spontaneous and ‘authentic’. Notice how many church websites advertise their meetings by promising a ‘relaxed atmosphere’, as if other churches are deliberately seeking a tense atmosphere. What these churches are really doing is agreeing that whatever feels formal (and therefore unspontaneous and perhaps unfamiliar) has no place in ‘authentic’ worship, and that the more familiar and casual it seems, the more it is ‘connecting’, and ‘real’.

A few years ago, a book came out that, in my opinion, made some remarkable observations.
Doing Our Own Thing (with the sub-title The Degradation of Music and Language and Why We Should, Like, Care) is written by John McWhorter, who, to my knowledge, makes no claim to be a Christian. McWhorter uses examples of letters, speeches, and debates to point to a major shift in our culture. He shows that until recently, most cultures have spoken in two voices. One voice is the everyday, conversational street language, with its slang, colloquialisms, repetition, and impreciseness. Everyday conversation includes a lot of hedging (“like”, “sort of”, “kind of like”, “y’know”), grammatical mistakes, and colloquial expressions. McWhorter has no complaint about this (nor do I), and documents historical examples of how the language on the street or in the kitchen has always been one voice that the culture uses.

The other voice is the voice used for speeches, written prose, sermons, and even letters. This form is eloquent, refined, precise, and polished. It is a tone of carefully-crafted words, adopted for specific occasions. It is quite remarkable to read the letters written by Civil War soldiers to their loved ones at home. The same men who would be speaking in perhaps a coarse and ragged manner on the battlefield would write home in tones of surprising eloquence and literary polish. Clearly, nineteenth-century men did not think that it was hypocrisy to use two different tones for different purposes and different audiences.

McWhorter shows, using examples of speeches and letters, that the tone of formal oratory and prose has been tending towards the conversational and colloquial since the 1960s. Speeches by senators in the 40s and in the early 2000s are markedly different. The formal tone is disappearing almost completely from our society. McWhorter suggests that the counter-culture revolution of the 1960s enshrined informality, and turned the wider culture against any form of artifice. Language that is carefully written, artfully constructed, and poetic in quality has come to be viewed as inauthentic, staged, and one more attempt by some intellectuals to lord it over the common man. Sincerity, authenticity, keeping it real, is represented by an off-the-cuff, everyday style in speaking and writing. Once again, McWhorter is not raging against the conversational language we all use. He is asking why those domains where language used to put on its Sunday best now prefer that it be in beach-clothes.

This has major implications for Christians, and for Christian leaders. When we consider the prayers of the psalms, are these colloquial, conversational prayers, or are they eloquently written? Undoubtedly, David spoke to his soldiers in everyday language, but when he addressed God in poetry, and particularly when representing the nation in prayer, he adopted an elevated tone. Or consider, are the sermons of Scripture, such as the book of Hebrews, informal ‘chats’, or are they carefully written examples of rhetoric? Remove the tone of eloquent address from a culture, and you have hamstrung it from reverent worship.

To turn again to Richard Weaver, we find a gem of insight in this statement: “Unformed expression is ever tending toward ignorance”. To put it another way, when people wish to express themselves in the tone of carefulness and reverence (as worship certainly requires), their expression needs the guidance of form. Speeches need introductions, propositional statements, main points, illustrations, supporting arguments, conclusions and an elevated vocabulary. Poetry needs a particular metre, rhyme scheme, line length, metaphor and other devices. Whatever the device used for human expression, it has a form that such expression must be poured into, like water into a mould. Apart from the mould, water will simply splatter randomly on the floor.

Weaver is suggesting that human expression is just like that. Remove the artifices of form (which the formal tone of address requires), and human expression tends towards ignorance, which is exactly why the casual and colloquial tone is not where we find the clearest thought or the deepest insight. If the thoughts and sentiments of people are never channelled by the discipline of formal speech or poetry, they tend to become disorganised, disparate, and, in a word, chaotic. And chaos does not enlighten or educate anyone, nor it is more real, authentic, or sincere. Think: the unprepared extemporaneous preacher, the painful testimony time monopolised by one long-winded and imprecise person, the rambling and circuitous public prayer, and ‘what this verse means to me’ Bible studies. Ironically, when churches tolerate or foster this kind of thing in the name of sincerity and authenticity, the fog of ignorance and vacuousness of thought that grows is doing the very opposite of getting to the heart of things, or increasing ‘transparency’, ‘realness’, and authenticity.

In my own life, I have experienced the difference it has made to recognise and practice these two tones. During the day, I cannot pray as succinctly or concisely as I might like, so my prayer is made up of momentary phrases, short observations, even unarticulated sentiments – a lot more conversational and colloquial, without, I hope, being irreverent. But in times of private devotion, I have found that a short, carefully worded, ‘prayer of address’ is far more helpful to thoughtful worship, than a lot of rambling conversational prayer and consequent wandering of mind. Like a letter, such a prayer cannot be long, for most of us cannot sustain that kind of precision for very long. But the clarity, reverence, and, ironically, sincerity it brings has been very helpful to me. This also explains why Christians have often written down some of their prayers, because they are artfully-composed addresses to God. No one writes down his conversational impromptu prayers, nor have the sermons of ramblers been recorded for posterity.

Similarly in corporate worship, well-written hymns, well-thought-out prayers, well-crafted sermons and other well-prepared aspects of corporate worship are not acts of hypocrisy, posturing, or quenching the Spirit. They respect form, and use it for beauty, reverence, and precise expression. Where form is respected and steadily explained, it not only shapes our expression, it further refines it. Long-term exposure to well-formed expression has a maturing effect on our own. Our minds start to think in those forms. We find ourselves praying better prayers. Our spontaneous testimonies are more succinct, and more edifying. Our extemporaneous teaching has substance. But when we adopt only the colloquial tone for our corporate worship, we will end up losing not only the thoughtfulness and beauty of the elevated tone, but coherence and substance in the conversational tone also.

Christians would do well to oppose the counter-culture’s emphasis on informality as authenticity. Our own Bible is a formal document, obeying literary forms, and giving us examples of worship that followed such forms. It is time to realise that the use of artifice does not mean we are artificial, that when we adorn our speech, we are not necessarily disguising our meaning, and that when we prepare our expressions, we have not evacuated them of heartfelt sentiment. In fact, like the Psalms, our best expressions of worship, and therefore our most authentic responses to Him, will be those we carefully craft.

What Titus Found in the Most Holy

When Titus attacked Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D., before ordering the Temple’s destruction, he entered the Most Holy Place to see for himself what was really hidden behind that veil. He found, to his dismay, nothing, besides the Mercy Seat. There was “nothing there”.

Titus is like many modern Christians, intoxicated with the idea of ‘sincerity’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘realness’. These Christians similarly wish to strip away what they call “masks”, remove what they consider inauthentic, or even phony, so that we can get at the real reality. You’ll hear them speak about the ‘curse of religiosity’, about people ‘hiding behind traditions’.

What are these masks, in their opinion? Usually, it is any kind of (older) custom, ritual, tradition or form. If something doesn’t seem to be transparent to the mind, colloquial in expression, informal or casual in approach, it seems opaque to their impatient desire for immediate comprehension. They reason that if something is slowing you down when it comes to perception, it must be a deliberate attempt to obscure, befuddle, or even lord it over you. The keep-it-real man is almost always a populist, suspicious of what is not easily perceivable. And if there is an easier, more casual, more informal way of saying the same thing, they conclude that every instance of formalism is some kind of posturing, some desire to be aloof and make it more difficult than it has to be.

It could be a dress code for the pulpit. It could be singing songs with exalted language. It could be preaching in a dignified manner, or even from behind an elevated pulpit. It could be architecture that represents classical Christian ideas. It could be following a set order of service. It could be hymns with dense lyrics, or unfamiliar melodies. It could be a more formal prayer to God.

But for the authenticity hound, this is smoke and mirrors. For him, formal language, formal orders of service, formal approaches to God, chivalry, manners and customs are moves towards unreality. He suspects that the Christians and the leaders doing these things refuse to ‘be themselves’. After all, he has spoken to them outside of Sunday services, and they are ‘normal’, then. So, what can all this be, except an act of some kind? How could the same man adopt two different modes of speech for different occasions? Isn’t that the mark of an actor?

The reason the authenticity hound concludes these things is that he has been inculturated by the counter-culture. He believes the more immediate and unrehearsed the self-expression, the more honest it must be. Rehearsed, planned, or formal expression involves forethought, and is therefore guilty-on-sight of calculating posturing. To him, spontaneous expression prevents insincerity from intruding because it just expels out the mouth whatever is on the mind – there is no time to rehearse. This is supposedly the mark of the honest – those willing to be ‘vulnerable’, transparent’, ‘out there’.

Of course, this would make the poetry of David an exercise in faked piety, because poetry is almost never spontaneous. It would make the Lord’s Prayer an exercise in masks, because it is known and rehearsed. It would make the Bible itself less-than-authentic, for every book was carefully written following a literary form.

What the sincerity-junkie cannot see is that there are reasons for formality other than posturing, hypocrisy or evasion. A suit and tie at a funeral, a wedding-dress and vows at a wedding, opening a door for a lady, using titles for people in authority, table manners, an eloquent love-letter, or a poem are not exercises in deception. They are the ways we “dress-up” physical reality to signify greater realities. A form may not be hiding reality, it may in fact be clothing it with beauty and significance. That is, formality is often a way of improving something ordinary, adorning it with beauty, so that we now see something more than just the physical thing. We see what it represents, what it envisions. We see man made in God’s image, not merely physical man of the dust.

Though his writing is dense, I heartily recommend reading this extended quote by Richard Weaver. Writing in the 40s, Weaver perfectly defines and explains the motives of the Realness Police:

“We turn our attention to a kind of barbarism appearing in our midst and carrying unmistakable power to disintegrate. This threat is best described as the desire of immediacy, for its aim is to dissolve the formal aspects of everything and to get at the supposititious reality behind them. It is characteristic of the barbarian, whether he appears in a precultural stage or emerges from below into the waning day of a civilization, to insist upon seeing a thing “as it is.” The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it; the relation is one of thing to thing without the intercession of imagination. Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy. Where the former wishes representation, the latter insists upon starkness of materiality, suspecting rightly that forms will mean restraint…

The member of a culture, on the other hand, purposely avoids the relationship of immediacy; he wants the object somehow depicted and fictionized, or, as Schopenhauer expressed it, he wants not the thing but the idea of the thing. He is embarrassed when this is taken out of its context of proper sentiments and presented bare, for he feels that this is a reintrusion of that world which his whole conscious effort has sought to banish. Forms and conventions are the ladder of ascent. And hence the speechlessness of the man of culture when he beholds the barbarian tearing aside some veil which is half adornment, half concealment. He understands what is being done, but he cannot convey the understanding because he cannot convey the idea of sacrilege. His cries of aheste profani are not heard by those who in the exhilaration of breaking some restraint feel that they are extending the boundaries of power or of knowledge.

Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom…Barbarism and Philistinism cannot see that knowledge of material reality is a knowledge of death. The desire to get ever closer to the source of physical sensation-this is the downward pull which puts an end to ideational life.” – Ideas Have Consequences

Sincerely Amused

It’s a supreme irony, or perhaps a sad blindness, that the present generation is supposedly in love with ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘keeping it real’. After all, we’ve been doing everything but that for nearly a century. As Neil Postman pointed out in Amusing Ourselves to Death, we took a medium designed for amusing spectacle – theatre – and used technology to turn it into the dominant medium of our time. First film, then television, and now the web, have transformed the most serious moments of life into forms of amusement to be watched by a popcorn-eating crowd. Politics has gone from thoughtful debate watched by patient and intelligent crowds, into a cage-fight, with commentators, bookies, and sound-bytes made for TV and the web. The Courts have become reality-TV sideshows for us to laugh at the sassy judge’s replies. Warfare has become a televised sportsmatch, with blow-by-blow commentators and action replays. Counselling has become a bizarre exercise in voyeuristic curiosity, as we hear strangers’ problems, and watch the psychologist untangle other people’s messed-up lives. Education has become films of amusing characters, fun computer games, and amusing activities that suit each one’s “learning style”.

The most serious, or sincere part of our TV experience is supposed to be ‘the News’, where men and women in suits and corporate-wear speak in sober monotones to “give us the facts”. Stories of human suffering, terror and tragedy are literally sold to us as a thirty-minute product paid for by advertisers, and consequently filled with stories that scare, enrage, or excite – the kind that garner viewers or listeners. No one notices the weird incongruity when we go from hearing about chemical warfare in Syria to fun commercials advertising cosmetics, diapers, cars and insurance. (Imagine King Nebuchadnezzar in his throne room receiving word of enemies coming from the west, and every few moments, a court jester running in singing, showing off something from Babylon’s market.) With the recent political shenanigans and the hysterical ‘news media’ that accompanied it, some of the makeup is beginning to drip off this pig. People are beginning to realise that ‘the News’ was always a sideshow masquerading as serious conversation, flattering our view of ourselves as thoughtful people, where in reality we were drawn in by the amusement of alarmism, and sold to advertisers. Nothing really sincere or authentic about all this.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that we should land up with Reality TV. When serious information is just one more show, we start pining for something without actors. Supposedly setting up a camera in a home, or on an island, or in a car, will make the ‘story’ more interesting, more ‘real’. Actually, it’s a sign of the law of diminishing returns. Once those shows that only mimic life no longer scratch the itch, we want life itself to be the show. Note, the move to reality television is not people wanting reality; this is people wanting reality-as-entertainment.

With the ubiquity of screens, cameras and social media, we’re all now in a reality show. So we have reached the place where people film themselves in a place or performing some activity, and only really enjoy the moment when it’s played back on a screen to them, or placed online. It’s as if the screen has become a priest, a mediator. We can no longer get at life through our five senses, we must film ourselves and then live vicariously through the act of watching ourselves again. Spectacle has become our perception of reality, and we even need to be spectators of our own actions. We cannot even enjoy the simple and the mundane on our own, we must publicise it for the entertainment of others on some social media platform, and only when they comment or ‘like’ or smiley-face it, do we feel validated. We have to entertain others or be entertained to even feel that such moments were real. Entertainment is no longer what people do when not engaged in work, it has become their means of perception, their source of identity, their very experience of reality.

So what should we make of all these cries for ‘authenticity’, ‘sincerity’, and ‘reality’? On the one hand, they are clearly preposterous. People gorging themselves on junk food are not yet serious when they talk about health, and people immersed in amusement are not yet serious when they talk about the real world. On the other hand, there is in them probably a true longing for something other than life-as-amusement, being ignorant of what it might be. When people are feeling bored with life, worn out by images, de-sensitised to shock-value, they aren’t sure if they need another shot of entertainment, or an emetic.

I’ve heard it said that millennials are particularly relational because of their social-media savvy. That, in turn, makes them more ‘authentic’ in relationships. If that means they actually spend time with people, put their phones away, stop instagramming and snapchatting every moment, look up from their screens and have meaningful conversations with the other person two metres away from them, then I’d agree. If not, then they are the natural descendants and logical consequence of a twentieth-century generation that made amusement its goal in life, only now its kids get to carry that once-bulky TV in their pocket, and watch it at every available moment. When I was a kid, we at least had the social experience of fighting over the remote. If self-absorption behind a TV has been succeeded by self-absorption while lost in social-media, not much has improved. In fact, the illusion of relationships taking place through these screens has only made the alienation from others more severe.

In truth, behind the lust for the amusement of spectacle is a profound selfishness, and even a narcissism. When seeking amusement, I do not seek to give, to share, to bless, or to grow. I seek only the merest titillation of myself. When this is the dominant form of cultural life, you are dealing with the most loveless generation to see the sun.

We can never become serious about ‘being authentic’ until we are willing to abandon entertainment as our mode of worship, communication, or education. Until we see that the spectacles we use to view the world have become screens, we will no longer notice the ubiquity of them. (I once went into a sports-themed restaurant, and counted around twenty screens from where I was sitting – I was told there were more. And the patrons still had their own screens on their tables in their phones and tablets. At what point do we call this a kind of madness, or sickness?)

If we really desire to “do life”, to “be authentic”, to “keep it real”, it begins by repenting of slavery to the god of entertainment, confessing that we have looked to it for life. We should repent that we have wished that worship, marriage, parenting, work, and obedience could be mediated to us through the mode of passive amusement. To put it another way, we should repent that we have kept ourselves at the centre of our lives, and loved our own amusement more than God or neighbour. The confession of evil works is the beginning of good works, and being real begins with turning away from the narcissistic insincerity of entertainment as the mainstay of our lives.

Ten Mangled Words – “Authentic”

Few words roll off the modern tongue as readily or as frequently as the family of words associated with authenticAuthenticityreal, sincere and intentional are like newly-minted gold for the Millennial tongue. Most previous generations of humans would have looked at you with furrowed eyebrows and pained expressions of confusion, had you greeted them with the line, “Keep it real, bro!”

Only a narcissistic generation would imagine that it had stumbled upon the meaning of authenticity, and that those that went before them were hopelessly mired in inauthentic, fake, insincere ways of life. But Xers, Yers and Millennials can barely contain their glee at how real they’re keepin’ it.

We buy Fair-Trade coffee, eat organic, listen to indie music, practice yoga, post online testimonials, blog about ourselves and our ‘struggles’, take natural medicines, wear mass-produced jeans distressed to appear “vintage,”, seek out pristine vacation spots, and one of the highest compliments we can pay someone is to say “he seems really sincere”.

This has bled into the church, with its own manifestations: accountability groups, informality in worship, a general suspicion of formality and tradition as insincere, a therapeutic approach to ministry, and seeking very different emotional experiences in corporate worship.

Of course, the culture is not aiming at nothing when it makes authenticity its goal, however blurry its general eyesight might be. In a consumer culture, we are bombarded with advertisements and marketing that is the very opposite of truthfulness. A consumer culture lives on fakery, exaggeration, hype, and artificially created discontent. At some point, a kind of fatigue sets in with all the attempts to charm us out of our pocketbook, and authenticity-hunting becomes a kind of consolation, that we haven’t been duped by it all.

Similarly, the Bible has much to say about phoniness and hypocrisy. From Moses to Paul, the Bible condemns religion that is a mere facade for an unchanged heart. A hypocrite, in Greek culture, was literally a stage-actor, and the word came to describe those who maintain religious exteriors for the sake of pleasing man, gaining money or power, or otherwise. Heart-religion is indeed a Scriptural concern, and all the more reason to rescue authentic from its mangled misrepresentations.

To do so, quite a bit of rust needs to be scraped off these words. First, we’ll need to rescue formalism from the accusation that it is insincere, or the corollary that informality and casualness is the natural state of sincerity. Second, we’ll need to distinguish between sincerity and emotion. Third, we’ll need to restore the difference between Scriptural honesty and the modern therapeutic model of counselling, and critique the idea that one’s natural thoughts and feelings are truthful, and should be shared.