Someone recently showed me an old magazine interview with, now fallen, Christian leader, Ted Haggard. Of course his answers to certain question were ironic in light of what the future would reveal, and there were serious issues to be sure, but the article captured a deeper problem having nothing to do with Ted Haggard: a hidden sin affecting all of us, more deceptive and far more systemic.
Alongside the article was a typical photojournal image of Haggard only it looked like it had been taken in the Oval Office. The light was streaming through the windows creating a backlit halo. He was laughing, an apparently approachable potentate, with just a touch of graying wisdom at his temples, a handsome suit, and a power tie with the gravitas to bring warring nations together. Had Mitt Romney been standing beside him he would have appeared a vagrant by contrast. The heavy mahogany desk that he presided over bore several books and the weight of the free world. The magazine was Christian: the image, not so much. It embodied regality, dignity, power, wealth, intelligence, confidence and strength: everything my flesh could have hoped for.
Now, I’ve exaggerated the photo a bit—just a bit—but not the problem it represents. See the image was taken and placed in the article quite unconscious of intending meaning, which is what makes it such an accurate portrait of our worldview. This is how we see the successful Christian life; this is what we think it should look like. The picture oozes of success, power, strength, confidence, invulnerability, wealth and control. Unless there was a crucifix on the wall, the cross is not visible anywhere in this picture. And we can safely assume the power of Christ is not manifest in situations where we are either drawn to asking for someone’s autograph or drawn to signing one.
Stories and images are powerful and we’re all affected by this distinctly American narrative of the abundant Christian Life, one that’s told to us over and over in similar conscious and unconscious ways.
In 1938, De Beers Consolidated, owners of the global diamond monopoly, approached the NY advertising agency of N.W. Ayer and Son. DeBeers was in crisis and if it couldn’t open up the American market they’d be in ruin. So N.W. Ayer took them on as a client and produced one of the most successful advertising campaigns in history. We all remember it but not as advertising; the narrative they invented was so deceptive we remember it as history.
See, in America, prior to 1938, people did not give diamonds as engagement rings. As Tom Zoellner, author of The Heartless Stone, makes clear, the ads were “a brazen denial of three centuries of American cultural history, in which diamond rings were generally regarded as foppish extravagancies.” Year after year, ad after ad, we believed the tale that engagements were incomplete without diamonds, that diamonds were an essential part of the history of love, and our history as well. It was all a story, told so well we didn’t even realize it was a story. And some eighty plus years later, here we are: our perceptions and understanding of the entailments of love and engagement, deeply, irreparably flawed.
Well however such wizardry was enacted upon us—perhaps Satan hired N.W. Ayer— we’ve all been effected by an alternate narrative of victorious Christian living, and the only answer is to come back to the words of Jesus, his narrative of discipleship, his vision of faithfulness, his definition of “normative,” his cross:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.