The Search for Authenticity

I don’t sing songs in church that are cheesy. I used to feel guilty about this when I made eye contact with the song leader, but now I don’t feel bad. My goal in this is not to make the song leader feel uncomfortable or like he’s failing (which would imply that we congregants are there to boost the leaders’ egos). My intention is to bring an honest heart to worship.

A recent experience with one of these songs made me roll my eyes and sit down in the middle of the song because I couldn’t take it. I realize that sounds melodramatic and needlessly cynical, but let me explain.

We were singing “Anywhere with Jesus,” a song about carrying Jesus with us like a pet for safety and comfort, which is bad enough as it is. But then we got to the last verse. If you look at the lyrics of the song, you can easily replace “blankie” with “Jesus” in many instances, but the last verse is especially cringe-worthy:

 “Anywhere with blankie I can go to sleep,
When the dark’ning shadows round about me creep,
Knowing I shall waken nevermore to roam;
Anywhere with blankie will be home, sweet home.”

Do you see what I mean? Songs that are cheesy or that have bad theology are not rooting us into a rich sense of who God is. They’re giving us pat, deceptive answers for questions that are bigger than us.

This doesn’t just happen in songs. Just visit Lifeway or listen to an inspirational, safe-for-the-whole-family radio station, and you’ll find it. You won’t even have to search for it! It will slap you in the face and call it brotherly love. For example, I finished my degree at a small, conservative, Christian college, and saw a lot of well-intentioned advertisements that made me sigh disappointedly. One such ad was for a mission opportunity abroad, and the phrase irked me so much that it became the impetus for my senior project about the falsities of Christian language. Here’s an excerpt:

“I was sitting next to my husband in chapel one day, listening to the speaker, who was talking about a ministry opportunity in China. He held up the poster for his organization and read off their motto: ‘Take Jesus to China.’ Everyone nodded their heads in understanding and agreement, but I sat there puzzled. I leaned over and whispered to my husband, ‘Isn’t Jesus already there?’ He whispered back, ‘Do you think he’ll fit in a carry-on?’….

How the Church Club language is used can have a profound impact on the faith of those who use it. For example, the ‘take Jesus to China’ bit could lend to some warped theology. If American Christians are to take Jesus to China, then that must mean that he is not already in China. If American Christians have to take Jesus to China, then American Christians must be God’s chosen ones to give light to the nations, much like the function of Israel. If that is true, then the United States must be God’s favorite country. God bless America.”

And this artificial, cheesy, slogan-centered movement, which clearly has been around for awhile, is not overlooked by much of Western media. “Jesus, take the wheel” and “Modest is Hottest” and “WWJD” I’m sure have good intentions. But they are a caricature of what it means to follow Jesus. They tell a small, one-sided part of the story, and they’re often blown out of proportion by believers and unbelievers alike. And if the slogans are caricatures… what are we? A lot of the media portrayals I’ve seen that so many American Christians complain about or label as persecution are actually incredibly accurate. Sure, they’re parodies, but they’re parodies of an already parodied culture. Angela on The Office came from somewhere–she isn’t just a figment of the writers’ imagination. I know people that are like those portrayals. I’ve been those people. But this is not my point.

My point is that in kitschy phrasing and dumbed-down theology, we are setting ourselves up for spiritual failure. What I mean by that is that if our entire belief framework is built on trite faith phrases like “God won’t give you more than you can handle!”, songs like “I’ve Got a Mansion” (which is quite a greedy song that should have its own post), and shallow understandings of suffering (i.e. “God allows us to suffer to bring us closer to him” makes for a sadistic God), how will we grapple with loss? How will we confront tragedies that often seem senseless? How will we respond to a spouse struggling with depression? How will we react to moments in which our theology breaks down?

There’s a Chinese proverb that I read years ago that I still consider some of the sagest advice concerning spirituality: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name.” Sometimes we don’t know. Sometimes we can’t understand. Sometimes we’re afraid to admit something we believe to be true. Like God’s not listening to me. Or God is listening, but He’s refusing to act. Or God doesn’t love me. Hiding behind the dollar-store decoration of Western Christian phrases will not make the ambiguous and murky clearer. They will only throw cheap glitter in the air that clutters an already muddled heart.

There is an artificial quality, a sense of disingenuity in this enterprise, and I’m not interested in living in lies just to feel better. I’m not interested in clinging to things that look like theology but reek of church lady gossip.

To clarify, authenticity does not automatically equate with righteousness. But there is a connection between authenticity and sanctification. Between authenticity and growth. Between authenticity and a right heart before God.

We have to be an honest people. We have to be an authentic people. We have to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” instead of regurgitating poor theology that we heard in a song or from a pulpit or on the radio or saw on a t-shirt. Instead of clutching to the familiar synthetics, may we ask for clean hands and pure hearts.

An excerpt from “I’ve Got a Mansion” for those unfamiliar with the song:

I’m satisfied with just a cottage below
A little silver and a little gold
But in that city, where the ransomed will shine
I want a gold one, that’s silver lined

I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop
In that bright land where we’ll never grow old
And someday yonder, we’ll never more wander
But walk on streets that are purest gold