“The split between what we say and what we do is a direct expression of irony. Something we see at, say, a ‘70s party, where people dress up in the most flamboyant of clothes and dance to the most idiosyncratic music of the era while simultaneously ridiculing it. Here people laugh at the music they are dancing to and mock the outfits they are wearing. They thus attack the very activity in which they are fully immersed. In daily life we engage constantly in this ironic gesture.” –Peter Rollins
I’m currently reading Peter Rollins’ book Insurrection. The book argues, among other things, that the true Christian experience comes when we feel forsaken by God—when we identify with the cry of Christ on the cross. One of the insights Dr. Rollins has along the way is displayed the quote I’ve included above. I want to use his statement as a starting place for addressing the importance of honesty—honest doubt, honest belief, and honest emotion.
The quote asserts that we engage life ironically—only pretending to engage in whatever action we are engaging in. So, for instance, turning on NSYNC while my friends and I sing along to it while laughing at and making fun of it. The purported reasons for listening to NSYNC is to a) make fun of the stuff we used to listen to and b) evoke nostalgia. But, Dr. Rollins would assert that listening to NSYNC—which we claim is actually poor music—is not actually done ironically. It is done precisely because we actually want to listen to NSYNC. We simply mask that desire—suspecting judgment from our peers—and so assert that listening to it is ironic.
Don’t buy that? Try this one: most of us assert that materialism is a bad thing. We argue that we shouldn’t pursue money at all cost. We posit that there are other things in life more important, namely other people, human needs, and the good of humanity. Yet, consider carefully upon what you base your decisions. Did you take that promotion because it had a higher salary despite the fact that you had good relationships with the people in your old office? When you bought that iPad, did you know that Apple was using sweat-shop labor in China to produce it? How about that $5 cup of coffee you buy every weekday? You couldn’t have sent a portion of that money to an organization like Worldvision which sponsors children all over the world? I don’t want to lambast anybody—Lord knows I do all of that and more—but we’re just not being honest. The reason for buying into materialism is not that it is ironic to do so. It’s because we actually think that materialism is good. In fact, we are materialists. If we didn’t think materialist decisions were good—or at least better than other competing decisions—then we wouldn’t do them. We don’t even have to pretend to anyone that we are being materialists because it is ironic to do so—like with NSYNC—we just have to say one thing and do another because all of us believe we should have whatever we want, just like we actually enjoy NSYNC. What if we were all honest and admitted to being materialists? Maybe we could then start support groups and try to recover from that addictive lifestyle. But, no, we like it too much.
Ok. Sorry for making you feel bad. Here’s another one: What if you go to church most Sundays and you don’t feel like worshipping? In fact, you’re not even sure you believe in God. What do you do? You stand, with everyone else, and sing songs to Jesus. You take communion. You bow your head during prayer. You put a check in the plate. You listen to the sermon, fill in the notes, and go out to lunch with your friends or family. Why? Because you believe you should. You may doubt, but you are willing to let the congregation or the worship leader or the pastor believe for you. Why? Because you believe in a greater threat: the narrative upon which you base your entire life—friends, family, existential sanity—is threatened by your doubts. So you do what you believe. You do the forms. Without them, life doesn’t make much sense. Perhaps if all the doubters in church were honest about their doubts, then we could view each other with the kind of unconditional love with which we all want to be viewed. But, no, that can’t happen. We have all imposed our own conditions on ourselves: God is only God if I believe in him; my friends are only my friends if I agree with them, the church is only the church if everyone toes the party line. We believe that our condition is friendship, is God, is church.
The list could go on forever: A Calvinist who doubts the morality of double-handed predestination, a Catholic who doubts the party line on contraceptives, a democrat who thinks abortion is immoral, a charismatic who thinks that praying in faith won’t inevitably yield results, a Christian who isn’t sure that the tomb emptied, or that God cares, or that Jesus will return, or that only men should teach, or that Adam and Eve were real, or that God is, etc . . .
Because, ultimately, we have set barriers, and lines, and hedges, and rules. We have drawn the borders, if even just around our own heart. We lie and we lie and we lie and we lie because our ultimate belief is that, if we are not accepted, then our hearts will break and our lives will end. You see, we believe that acceptance means agreement or conformity or even shared experience. And so we reject honesty, even while asserting that we should all be honest just like we assert that materialism is bad, even while all being materialists.
I say that we be honest anyway. Jesus was: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”