I’ve learned that there’s absolutely no way a grown man can purchase a copy of Seventeen Magazine at our local Barnes and Noble without looking like some kind of pervert. I’ve learned that lesson numerous times over during the course of the past umpteen years. . . and each time I step to the counter, it never gets easier. Trying things like sandwiching the teen rag between copies of Sports Illustrated and Guns and Ammo only makes you look and feel more suspicious. And then there’s the little “yeah. . . right” look you get from the cashier when you try to explain that you’re a researcher studying youth culture. I was reminded of this last night when I stepped to the counter one more time.
Why do I put myself through such humiliation??? Trust me, I don’t enjoy reading Seventeen one bit. It’s painful. First and foremost because I’m a middle-aged man. Do you really think I have fun reading about how to “get a great butt by the first day of school!”? And secondly, it’s painful reading because it offers insight into what it means to struggle through the teen years as a girl in today’s youth culture. It makes me wonder, “what would it be like to have to have a great butt by the first day of school?”
Today, I’ll be exegeting Seventeen along with some other magazines just to get a sense of what marketers are telling our kids about what’s really important in life, what our kids believe is really important in life, and how youth workers and parents can best contextualize the Gospel in ways that kids can see and know what’s really most important in life. Judging from the cover of the August 2009 edition of Seventeen and the sentence trumpeting the virtues of appearance – “1,081 Ways To Look Amazing!” – what’s most important is what’s on the outside, or stated another way, what we make ourselves to be in front of others. Our teenage girls cultivate that in certain ways. Our teenage boys buy into it as well. As adults, we’re fair game to get succoured into believing the same silly lies. Now, with the help of today’s rapidly advancing technology we can create, brand, and sell the “me” we want the world to believe is really me through Facebook, Twitter, and countless other technologies. It’s not just about physical appearances either.
One of the guys I’ve come to appreciate most in my reading is Brennan Manning. If you haven’t read any of his stuff, you should. Start with The Ragamuffin Gospel. Manning is what we all should be. . . painfully transparent. Admitting the temptation to appear to be someone he’s not, he’s spent his adult life pursuing a life under the Cross that puts to death giving into that temptation, in exchange for a life of messy vulnerability and experiencing deep and liberating grace. I’m currently working through his old book The Relentless Tenderness of Jesus. Ironically, on the same day I was concerned about what I looked like buying a magazine that convinces a generation of girls to be concerned about what they look like, I read some very amazing and challenging stuff in Manning’s book. Let me share an extended portion. . . .
I can really relate to the temptation of the contemporary world to look good but not be good. When I was a closet alcoholic, I almost always drank myself into oblivion out of the public eye. Through an elaborate series of pretenses and disguises (you know, Listerine for tell-tale breath and Visine for bloodshot eyes), I tried to cover up my impoverished inner self. When I glanced into a store window, it was to check out myself more than the merchandise on display. Even sober, I still sneak glances at myself to make sure that I don’t lose my trial membership in the fellowship of “beautiful people.” I am painfully aware of these small vanities in myself. I hear the Southern novelist Walker Percy when he asks: “Why is it that, when you are shown a group photograph in which you are present, you always (and probably covertly) seek yourself out? Is it to see what you look like? Don’t you know what you look like?”
Concern for appearance might be the American original sin; it goes right along with fake furs, paste jewelry, sawdust hot dogs, and deceptive advertising. Such self-deception is subtle, even for a while relatively harmless. But the temptation to settle for looking good while everything is falling apart inside can be dangerous. After a long season of accepting appearances for reality, a Christian forgets what truth even sounds like. We end up asking with Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” The prayer of Gregory Nazianzen, esse quam videri – “to be rather than appear to be” – rises often from my heart.
Manning goes on to describe living life with Jesus at the center. He tells readers about an old beat-up wood frame in his kitchen that contains this saying: “God will not look you over for medals, diplomas, or honors, but for scars.”
A wise friend once told me, “Never believe your own press.” That’s good advice. In today’s world where we make, Facebook, and Twitter our own press, we need to be extra careful lest we 1) show the world someone who doesn’t really exist, and 2) come to believe that we actually are the facade/brand we so readily present to the world in fear that somebody might find out who I really am.
That “Great Butt” we all seek. . . whatever it is in our lives. . . is symptomatic of deeper issues. “Lord, show us what it means to live with integrity.”