Friday, January 18, 2008

The Dorian Gray Syndrome in the Church

For those of you who are unacquainted with "The Picture of Dorian Gray", the storyline focuses upon a young adult who sells his soul in exchange for eternal youth. While Dorian is to retain his youthful good looks, a painting of him displays his true nature, his soul. So ashamed is Dorian of the reality behind the facade that he keeps this portrait locked away from the prying eyes of the world. Indeed, so ashamed is Dorian of what the painting has revealed, he is even afraid to look at the portrait himself.

I believe that this story has much to say about Christians and their relationship with the wider Christian community. I feel that established churches seem to create this idea of a spiritual checklist by which one's legitimacy as a disciple of Jesus can be measured. In some churches the criteria used to determine one's legitimacy include their knowledge of the Bible and the doctrines which they affirm. In other churches it might be a person's ability to speak in tongues which sets them apart. In all churches one's position and involvement in the church plays a pivotal role in determining one's spiritual credentials, however much they may explicitly reject that notion. I suspect that it is for this reason that a lot of young men seek out positions of leadership. I honestly don't believe that it is usually because they are power hungry or egotistical - I believe that they seek out positions of leadership because this is the holiest thing they can do.

In the same way that the Church determines the elite among its ranks, I believe that they have also drawn a list of cardinal sins that excludes one from the ranks of being a good Christian. This culture is powerfully expressed by Mike Yaconelli in "Messy Spirituality":

Unfortunately, in many religious circles there exists an unwritten rule of the spiritual life. Pretend. Act like God is in control when you don't believe he is. Give the impression everything is okay in your life when it's not. Pretend you believe when you doubt, hide your imperfections, maintain the image of a perfect marriage with healthy and well-adjusted children when your family is like any other normal dysfunctional family. And whatever you do, don't admit that you sin.

I believe that there is a lot of pretending going on in church. This urge to pretend comes primarily from our fear about what it will mean to us if others know we have broken the unwritten rules of church culture. We fear that we will become a pariah in this place that is meant to welcome the sinner and the outcast. Indeed, this fear is often justified. We choose to truly be ourselves in the church community at great risk. More often than not, we choose to respond just like Dorian and keep our portrait hidden from the rest of the church, lest they find out what we are really like.

The whole idea behind "The Ministry of Incompetence" was that it is an acknowledgement that I am a deeply flawed human and a deeply flawed Christian. My life and my faith are not always consistent and there are many times when I fail to live my life with the integrity with which I should. I have never regarded myself as a role model and have always felt uncomfortable when I have been thrown into such a position. At times, I feel that my only redeeming feature is the fact that I care about such things and wish to see such inadequacies rectified. Fortunately, over the last few years I have started to be more graceful to myself because I have realised that the healing that is required for many of my weaknesses is a lifelong process. One of these steps is to be more real to myself and to God, as well as others in the hope that perhaps Christians who suffer in silence because of their struggles will know that they are not alone. I ask that you travel with me with both grace and with patience.

1 comment:

Paul said...

My Dorian Gray has been crucified with Christ, so that now when God looks upon me He sees only His son.

I am no longer ashamed. I love myself knowing God loves me like a son. I can present myself confidently to the world knowing there is no condemnation from God, only from those who I have set behind.

I don't always act this way but I know it's how I ought to act, since Christ died for me. Often I judge by culture's standards, rather than the righteous judgement of Christ. In this I hate myself.

However, we can always have great self-esteem and joy in God's loving act of sacrifice.

Here's some preaching for you and me:
Christian self-esteem and the Kingdom of God