Image and character - Proverbs 27:2
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~~Image and Character
‘Advertising,’ says the cynic ‘is the art of getting people to buy what they don’t need by describing it in ways they know are not true.’ Today, advertising is more than big business it is a way of life, for what is most commonly associated with advertising is now the very thing which shapes the way many people look and behave. And that something is style. And, as Os Guinness has pointed out, ‘style is self-advertising.’ You see, to choose a certain style is to choose a certain image we want to project to others. The result is that identity- who we are- merges into image-what we want to appear to be. Increasingly as a society we find ourselves in a situation where looking good takes precedence over being good.
The seduction of style
The dominance of style found its zenith in the fashion industry as vaunted by Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue. Her motto was ‘fake it, fake it.’ ‘Never mind about the facts’, she used to say, ‘project the image to the public.’ The art of success, according to Vreeland, is to create a world ‘as you feel it to be, as you wish it to be, as you wish it into being.’
The person who has elevated style to the level of a new art form is, of course, Madonna. She lives out the cliché that the medium is the message. So she has total control over her shows: she writes the songs, she produces the music, she choreographs the dances, she designs the stage set and she even does her own make-up and costumes. Richard Morrison of the Times says this about her: ‘The likes of Madonna and Jackson aim to offer what can only be called the total egocentric experience: they control every aspect of their acts and are willing to dissolve the line where art ends and reality begins..’ In other words, for Madonna, image and reality coalesce so one is very difficult to distinguish from the other.
But when we talk of ‘style’ or ‘image’ what do we actually mean? Traditionally the term ‘style’ identified the leading characteristic of a period or school, and so in terms of art one might speak of an artist being ‘classical’, ‘impressionist’ or ‘cubist’. And each new style is an attempt to break away from the style of the past, but nonetheless there is sense in which the inner core of the earlier period remains, it is there to be identified and contrasted.
But generally speaking when people think of style it is no longer concerned with the inner substance, it is only concerned with outer expression. Style, now by definition, is changeable and changing, fashionable and fleeting. It is in effect projecting an illusion. Who we are takes second place to who we can become and who we want to appear to be. It was said of President Clinton, the first post-modern president, that he was ‘whoever he spoke to last’. Someone described him as being like a chameleon- he just changes to fit in with whatever environment he finds himself to be in. If the name of the game is gaining supporters, then you are what you need before whomever it is you are speaking. If it is in gaining friends, getting on in your career, even being accepted in the church- the image we have is all important to impress.
Not surprisingly the pursuing of style over substance comes in for some harsh criticism by Lady Wisdom in the book of Proverbs. One of the most memorable applies equally to men as it does women, although it is couched in feminine terms -Proverbs 11:22, ‘Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion.’ This is a proverb for our age of the celebrity where some people are only famous for being famous: they have no particular talent for singing or acting, they are not particularly clever or quick witted, but they do look good- but the moment they open their mouths- such attractiveness is shown for the sham it is. And even when there is genuine talent which is to be admired, it can be overshadowed by the most appalling behaviour. Back in 1997 there was a TV documentary on the life of Sir Elton John, aptly entitled ‘Tantrums and Tiaras’. The tiaras symbolised his lavish and extravagant lifestyle- full of glitz and glamour, with celebrities appearing at every turn. The tantrums punctuated the whole documentary like machine gun fire- with Elton throwing a hissy fit if his egg wasn’t boiled properly, or his costume had a cat’s hair on it. What’s attractive about that? That is like being fixated on the gold ring in the snout of a pig -and remember what a pig meant to the Jew!
Here’s the thing, if you are on the lookout for a life partner- husband or wife, or thinking of taking on someone at work- don’t be bowled over by how a person seems to be-appearance. Proverbs 31: 31 says, ‘Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.’ People can talk up a good game and tick all the right boxes- but when you probe a little more deeply you discover it is all rather shallow. There is no discretion- they couldn’t tell right from wrong, truth from lies if they came up and bit them on the proverbial rear. That is the last person you want to have a family with or entrust with responsibilities in your work place.
But let me bring this a little closer home to the church.
First, if the church is preoccupied with image then this will undermine the communication of truth itself. I think there is little doubt that even preaching has become more of a matter of performance and sadly, in some cases, pretence. Surveys show that only 8% of an audience pays attention to the content of a speech, 41% to the speaker’s appearance and 50% to how the person speaks. A one consultant put it, ‘Animation is the greatest cosmetic in the world.’ So be careful of clever communicators-they will dupe you every time. Why does Steve Chalk more or less get away with the heresies he is espousing- that homosexual relationships are acceptable and the doctrine of atonement abominable? Part of the answer I am sure is that he is photogenic and a brilliant communicator. By nature we are impressed by the impressive- how else are some of the bishops getting away with promoting immorality and undermining Christian truth? Because when someone comes into a church wearing an outfit which looks better suited for a member of the cast of the Mikado, and is to be referred to as ‘your grace’ and ‘my Lord’, you are immediately placed at a disadvantage- psychologically. As Blaise Pascal said back in the 17th century, if a person said exactly the same things as these people or even spoke the truth, but was unshaven and shabbily dressed you wouldn’t give them the time of day. But because they look impressive we somehow think that what they are saying must be impressive too.
Furthermore, both these proverbs when applied to believers are really targeting religious hypocrisy. It was the American comedian, George Burns, who was once asked ‘What was the secret of his long and successful career?’ To which he replied, ‘When I learnt to fake sincerity, the rest was easy.’ And just as Madonna carefully stage manages her shows, Christians can stage manage their lives so they appear all well and good, wanting to impress fellow believers, but beneath it all there is next to nothing- spiritually speaking. It is all about performance. And to bring it even closer to home personally I need to ask, ‘Is there anything that resembles an audience more than a congregation? That is when there is the temptation to think that provided the sermon has been on form, the accolade ‘Good sermon Pastor’ has been received, we can bathe in the warm glow of success of a job well done. But I tell you, many a sermon’s throat has been effectively cut by the ill temperate behaviour of a preacher who for all his impressive rhetoric exhibits none of the graces he enjoins upon others. What did Ghandi say? ‘We would all be Christians if it weren’t for the Christians.’ Don’t let the concern for having the image of a Christian become a poor substitute for the reality of being a Christian.
commendation of character
The contrast with character could not be greater. Character is rooted in a Greek word for the graphic device depicting a hallmark or distinguishing sign, which stamps a person decisively behind all masks and poses. It is the inner core of a person, which in the Bible is linked to the heart. As Proverbs 4:23 says ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the well spring of life.’ In other words, being a follower of Christ is a matter of integrity- the outward life being a genuine expression of the inner self. One writer talks about it like this, ‘Godly character is the integrating force that unites and directs the entire person… blamelessness, or integrity, speaks of completeness, a wholehearted allegiance to Yahweh which flavours every aspect of life.’
In the past, a person of good character was someone who exhibited certain virtues like sexual purity, self-control, generosity, diligence, patience, kindness and humility- the seven virtues which contrast with the seven deadly sins - lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, anger, envy and pride. Looking at Paul’s letters these virtues are very much the fruit of the Spirit. Since God has made the world to operate in a certain way morally by Wisdom (Proverbs 8), we are to conform our lives to that moral world. This is the difference between living as a rebel in God’s world or as a child of the king. The rebel seeks to make reality conform to his desires, hence us living in a ‘post truth’ culture; we shape so -called ‘facts’ to what we want them to be. The wise person does the opposite; he brings his desires into conformity with the truth. Christians are meant to be truth seekers not truth twisters. And developing character is about getting this moral world God has made embedded in our own nature. You know, in the 19th century people carried around letters of commendation which were foremost character references. Now days it is not so much character that counts but competence. What a person can do- sell houses, win games, takes precedence over what a person is- kind, generous, discerning and so on.
Interestingly enough virtues have been replaced by values because we have by and large left the moral world behind. And as the term suggests they are largely subjective and liable to change- it is what this person values or that society considers important and something can increase or decrease in value depending upon time and temperament. At one time honesty was highly valued, that has been superseded by achievement and so we should not be surprised that schools and colleges are complaining about increased cheating in exams and plagiarism in writing essays- if you can get a good result- which is now seen as the main aim in education- what the heck- does it matter how you go about securing it?
But if your life is centred on ‘fearing the Lord’, which is the beginning of wisdom, then what he thinks will matter most and what he says never changes. This is the idea of living before ‘the audience of One’. Winston Churchill was once asked why he was not stung by a vicious attack from a fellow MP; Churchill replied, ‘If I respected him, I would care about his opinion. But I don’t, so I don’t.’ If we are developing a character which is so Christ centred we will say to him, ‘I have only one audience. Before you I have nothing to prove, nothing to gain and nothing to lose. I am by your power going to do what is right anyway.’
This was very much the approach of the Puritans whose ‘inner directed’ world acted as an inner compass set by God’s Word. But this is a million light years away from the ‘outer directed’ world of today which is constantly changing and expecting us to dance like puppets to its latest tune- whether it is its views on sexuality, careerism, materialism or identity. How many times have you heard it said, ‘But in this day and age….’ as if right and wrong can fall in or out of fashion like the clothes we wear?
Although character is what we are at our core-the kind of people we are- it does impact the wider community- the way society will become. But how?
First, in terms of our witness: Proverbs 22:1, ‘A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.’ This doesn’t contradict what we said earlier about doing things for the ‘audience of One’. But it does show that what you do for him is seen and assessed by others. Could I ask: how do you want to be known? For someone to say, ‘You really would love to have her in your class because she is so reliable, honest and hardworking.’ ‘You know, although I might think some of his beliefs to be a bit extreme, you can always count on him being on time and courteous, never grumbling or complaining.’ ‘Those Christians might seem a weird bunch at times but one thing is for sure- they say what they mean and mean what they say- they are people of integrity- good character’?
Second, in terms of our legacy. For what sometimes appears to be rather self-centred reasons you will hear of politicians talking about ‘leaving a legacy’. Not so much something which will be of lasting good to the people they serve, (though it may include that) but rather leaving something by which they will be remembered. Well, the person who has responded to God’s instruction- discipline- can also leave a legacy which is beautiful for God, Proverbs 10:17, ‘Whoever heeds discipline shows the way to life, but whoever ignores correction leads others astray.’ Here is something for those of us who are Christian parents, grandparents or children and youth leaders- how might we develop such a character that those who come after us will say, ‘You know- I want to be like them?’ And as you get older and a little closer to the finishing line, that is a question which begins to loom more in the mind. I found these words of Professor D. A. Carson very challenging when I read them many years ago, and they still come back to me. He writes, ‘Some time ago I was told by my doctor that I had contracted a rather rare disease. The prognosis was uncertain: the disease varies in its power from being quite mild to being lethal. As the months have gone by, it has become evident that my case falls into the mild end of the spectrum. But the news gave me concern to think through my reaction to the prospect of my own demise…….. I decided there were worse things than dying. I do not know how many times I have sung these words, ‘O let me never, never/ outlive my love for thee,’ but I mean them. I would rather die than end up unfaithful to my wife; I would rather die than deny by a profligate life what I have taught in my books; I would rather die than deny or disown the gospel. God knows there are many things in my past of which I am deeply ashamed; I would not want such shame to multiply and bring dishonour to Christ in years to cone. There are worse things than dying.’
So what might a well formed Christian
character look like, leaving later generations to look on with admiration and
gratitude? Perhaps like the great 19th century Christian, General Gordon. This
is what he once wrote of himself: ‘The more one sees of life, the more
one feels, in order to keep it from shipwreck, the necessity of steering by
the Polar star- in a word leave to God alone, and never pay attention to the
favours or smile of man; if He smiles on you, neither the smile or frown of
man can affect you.’ Eventually of course, he was left to die in the
siege of Khartoum, but what enabled him to do so with calm and dignity was
the Gospel centredness he had cultivated throughout his life. So in an earlier
incident the cruel King John of Abyssinia brought Gordon before him and said:
‘Do you know that I could kill you on the spot if I liked?’ ‘I
am perfectly well aware of it your majesty’ Gordon replied. ‘Do
so at once if it is your royal pleasure. I am ready.’ ‘What, ready
to be killed?’ said the King. ‘Certainly, I am always ready to
die..’ countered Gordon. ‘Then my power has no terrors for you?’
the King gasped. ‘None whatever!’ Gordon answered, and the king
left him, amazed. After Gordon’s death John Bonner a Scottish friend
wrote to Gordon’s brother and said this: ‘What at once and always
struck me was the way in which his oneness with God ruled all his actions,
and his mode of seeing things. I never knew one who seemed to live with God
and for God.’
As Proverbs puts it: ‘The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life, and the one who is wise saves lives’. Seek a godly character.
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