Idols in the Church, Part 2: The cult of the beautiful body

Narcissus sees his reflection
Narcissus sees his reflection

The story of the handsome young Narcissus is cautionary. One day he came upon a pool and bent down to get a drink. There, he saw an image in the water, but did not recognize it as his own reflection. Enamored by the vision and instantly in love, he repeatedly reached into the water to touch the alluring face, only to have it dissolve each time in ripples. Narcissus stayed transfixed for the rest of his life, kneeling by the pool, withering away to nothing, frustrated by desire unfulfilled.

From the story of  Narcissus derives the word “narcissism,” whose first definition in Merrian-Webster’s Online Dictionary is “egotism” or “egocentrism.” The second definition is “love or sexual desire for one’s own body.”

In his influential 1979 The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, cultural historian Christopher Lasch observed (p. 5):

“To live for the moment is the prevailing passion — to live for yourself, not for your predecessors or posterity.”

While there are many manifestations of narcissism that infect American culture, let’s look at just one, the cult of the beautiful body. We should ask: How as the People of God can we smash this idol that has been set-up among us?

The everyday media message that shapes how we perceive ourselves is insidious. While we admire the talent of the sculptor, it is dangerous and unrealistic to take the statuesque proportions of a Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s David and expect everyone to conform.

Venus_de_Milo_Louvre_Ma399_n4
Venus de Milo, at the Louvre (Paris, France) See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
A 50-ish mother past child bearing years was on nursery duty at church. One of the toddlers came up to her, put her hand on the woman’s tummy and said: “Are you going to have a baby?” Laughing, the woman replied: “No, dear, some of us are just shaped this way.”

The proverb reminds us that “beauty is only skin deep.” Yet every time we check out at the store, the magazines shout: “You should look like this!” There we behold the twenty-something belles and beaus who are the cultural icons of physical perfection. Those who are older are more resistant to the physical beauty drumbeat, but not so the young. While many think of anorexia nervosa as confined to females, one in ten males in the United States suffer from this disease of self-perception. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders attributes this to “social norms for males, which emphasize strength and athleticism.”

Does our careless use of language contribute to our society’s fixation with physical beauty? In the ’70s, we complimented each other for being “cool.” Now, among the most overused word in the English language is “hot.” “Wow, she’s HOT!” Or, “He’s a hottie!” Seriously? Do we really want to reduce people to a one-word description carrying sexual overtones? Surely that’s beneath the dignity of a follower of Christ.

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Thank you, Dr King

kingOn August 28, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that galvanized a nation, with echoes heard around the world. Coming from the airport in Johannesburg yesterday, the taxi driver who transported me listened to a radio discussion on to what degree King’s ideals have been realized in South African society. I’m proud that a fellow American like Dr King left a positive legacy that is still referenced 50 years later.

The story of Jackie Robinson is brilliantly portrayed in the film, 42. As a baseball player post-WW II, he faced blatant prejudices as he broke the color barrier in professional sports. There can be little doubt that we have come a long ways since the time when “Whites Only” signs were painted on the doors of public bathrooms or over water fountains. Yet much remains to be accomplished.

But let us narrow the focus from society in general to our own personal, daily choices. Here are a few small ways that in recent years I’ve tried to narrow the gap at least a little bit:

1. There is only one race, the human race. Dr Charles Gailey, Professor Emeritus of Missions at Nazarene Theological Seminary, spoke eloquently that there are not “races,” but only one, the human race. Within that race, there are certainly variations and diversity, yet there is so much more that unites us than what divides us! When a political pollster called one evening, at the end he needed to check off the boxes on his questionnaire. “What race are you?” he asked. “Human,” I replied. There was a long silence, then the pollster responded:  “You are correct. I never thought of it that way before.” Thank you, Dr Gailey, for reminding us that what we share far outweighs what differentiates us.

2. Take a bus. You can have some amazing conversations on buses. Everyone is on a journey somewhere, and buses are among the best multicultural crossroads in our nation. (If I had more than one life, I would travel buses between cities and in cities for a year, just so I could write a book about my experiences). They say that love’s first duty is to listen, and on buses you get the chance to hear each other out. I spoke for 45 minutes with several African-American men headed to California, breaking into celebrity in the world of rap music. In that one hour, I learned more about that topic than I had learned before. I also learned that a few of my comments were perceived as racist, even though I had no idea they were coming across that way. They in-turn were interested in my experiences in Africa. We shook hands at the end, and wished each other well. My world expanded in a way that it likely would not have except for riding the bus together.

3. Gently correct. In a rural church, the greeter met me at the door and introduced himself. Within 5 minutes, he had asked me questions that were pejorative toward those who skin is of a darker color. I’ve learned that the best way to correct discordant notes in someone’s narrative is to give them a new narrative. After he had listened to our missionary presentation, you could see the wheels turning in his head as his conclusions about entire groups of people were challenged by new information. Now he knew names and details, a new narrative. At the end of my presentation, I closed in prayer, thanking the Lord that one day we would all gather in worship around God’s throne, black and white, men and women and children of all nations, to worship God eternally.

4. Go out of your way to welcome those different than yourselves. At a recent church gathering, I noticed that there were only two African-American women present. Understandably, they were sitting together. From what I could tell, no one engaged them in conversation. They looked uncomfortable, so I shook their hand and exchanged names, asked them where they were from, and welcomed them to the meeting. You could see them visibly relax as a smile replaced what had been a frown.

5. Grow beyond your biases. A friend recently talked about “Jewing someone down.” When I asked why she would use such an expression, she apologized. “My mother used to say that,” she said. “But you’re right. I’ll do better.” And so must I! You can’t help but breathe some biases growing up in an all-white neighborhood, attending a high school where perhaps only 1% of the student body was black. And I suspect that many Americans are in the same boat as myself. Limited experience with those of a different color or cultural background allows negative stereotypes to thrive since there is little first-hand experience to contradict it. But my world is growing, and as it does, I’m seeing it with new eyes.

6. Accommodate as much as possible the wishes of others. The other day I made a new friend. When I called him “Ed,” he gently corrected me. “Please call me Edward” he said. What would my new friend think if I had insisted on calling him “Ed” even though he had requested otherwise? Would that have harmed or hurt our budding friendship? Likewise, there are minority groups who are sensitive about how they are called. Out of love, we now say “little people” instead of “midget” or “dwarf.” The handicapped more positively are known as the physically challenged. When we accommodate others as much as possible, we are fulfilling the command of the Lord to do unto others as we would have them do unto us (Matthew 7:12).

Dr Martin Luther King held up a mirror to our collective face, and allowed us to gaze into it. He reminded us in his “I Have a Dream Speech” on that warm day in August 1963 that what matters is not the color of our skin, but the content of our character. Thank you, Dr King, for showing us the better path that – by the grace of God – we all can follow.