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Friday, March 7, 2014

Reflections on a Boring Scandal; or, Death by Image and the Good News

[Note: This post was written in conversation with Ted Kluck. Ted's post on this subject is part one; this post by me is part two.]

As my friend Ted's post explained, apparently pastor/author/personality Mark Driscoll hired a marketing firm to buy a load of copies of his book in order to launch it onto multiple bestseller lists. That's about all I'm going to say about it, because there are many nutritious things all of us could be thinking about, and this is not one of them, so the less attention it gets the better. I feel icky even mentioning it.

I must mention it, however, in the course of reflecting on a blog post written by a pastor/author/non-personality (personality-in-the-making?) named Jared C. Wilson. I want to point out that I feel almost as icky doing that. The idea that it is worth your attention what one guy writes about what another guy wrote about what a third guy did—this is tied to the very mess I'm writing about today. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I agree with everything Wilson wrote in his post without exception. The heart of his rebuke of Driscoll's action (without mentioning Driscoll by name) is that it is dishonest, and Wilson incontestably demonstrates exactly how it is dishonest. Further, he gives prudent advice to the person who might be tempted to do this about how it can only hurt them and hamper their stated objective (namely, to "reach people with the gospel").

Wilson also demonstrates how this behavior is unfair to others. The need-to-read part of Wilson's post is at the end when he incisively goes after "the preacher[s] [who] got envious of the writer[s]." Some of these preachers "cannibalize the writer class" by employing ghostwriters to elevate their own platform at the expense of "real artists who are getting crowded out of the marketplace" (like Ted, I might add). This keeps these writers from making a living at their art, and it reinforces evangelical readers' taste for middling-fare-to-schlock.

Like I said, all these criticisms are on target, and Wilson helpfully notes that "at least" this many things are wrong with buying one's own book to inflate its prominence. That's a good admission to make, because the most important thing wrong with the behavior Wilson totally ignores.

Wilson writes as if to engage in this behavior for the sake of the gospel hinders the gospel. Hardly—in reality, this behavior voids the gospel. It is the antigospel. It is the bad news that stands diametrically opposed to the good news. It is not merely that someone tried to do the right thing in the wrong way. It is not merely that the method rendered itself ineffective. Rather, it is a manifestation of antichrist. It is Satanic.

Here's why. The bad news for the human race—one of multiple ways to describe it—is that we whom God created in his image stopped finding our glory in his image in us. Following the lead of the devil, who stopped finding his glory in God's image in him, we sought to craft our own images and assert them in God's image's place.

Ever since, we have vainly continued to try to craft our images and by persuasion or violence compel the world to acknowledge them. To the extent that we have held power over others we have endeavored to engrave on others the images we think ought to belong to them as well. In families, schools, workplaces, churches, and communities, we are locked in combat to secure the image of self, resisting others' image-impositions as we use words to impose on them their images as we see them. We kill and are killed by image, all the while killing ourselves.

Paul sums up this entire race-wide, age-old melee with the words "according to the flesh." Life according to the flesh is self-measurement and others-measurement by any and all observables other than sheer virtue. I look at your observables—including your reputed bestseller—and I know what and how much and how high you are, and what and how much and how high I am by comparison.

We have engraved images on our own flesh. Yet "all flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of the grass; the grass withers and the flower falls off" (1 Pet. 1:24). God brooks no rival from graven images and will soon destroy us with his incinerating breath.

This is the bad news to which the gospel is good news. The good news for the human race is that Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God—he eternally is the image that we were created in. By Christ's incarnation the Father restamped his image on human flesh. By Christ's resurrection that stamp was made permanent and incorruptible.

Our salvation is that we may take our eyes off our flesh and the flesh of others, off the images of false gods—this is repentance—and by faith fix them on Christ, the Image of God. When we do, "we all, with unveiled faces reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, which is from the Lord, the Spirit" (2 Cor. 3:18). Christ becomes our image. We get our glory back, which is not ours, but God's. And "[w]e know that whenever it is revealed we will be like him, because we will see him just as he is" (1 John 3:2). This is gospel.

But receiving this image requires that "from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh" (2 Cor. 5:16 NKJV)—including ourselves. Instead, we must now regard everyone according to the Spirit and ignore the flesh.

The reason that buying prominence is antigospel goes far beyond its mere dishonesty and lack of fair play. Yes, those features of the behavior show that it crosses an ethical line, as Wilson competently demonstrates. But though Wilson makes passing reference to "the celebrity culture pervading evangelicalism," he doesn't go to its root. This, right here, is the titanic problem—namely, that behavior like Driscoll's communes in a wicked system that revolves around the self-creation and self-projection of image, the iconography of the flesh. And in this respect it differs not in kind from the rest of the "Christian-industrial complex" but merely in degree. (Though many were scandalized by what Driscoll did, was anybody truly surprised?) From this point of view, how much difference is there really between "earning" attention to one's projected image and "buying" it?

Though this sin is as old as Adam and Eve, it used to be that only a few had the wherewithal to play the game beyond their parochial circle of acquaintances. But late-modern capitalism and technology put the power to make ourselves celebrities into the hands of everyone with a Facebook account (in theory). What Driscoll did is antigospel because no matter what is written on the pages of his book, the marketing impulse around it exalts the very bondage from which the gospel of Christ delivers us—poor, deluded, run-of-the-mill, voyeuristic self-pornographers that we are.

Nevertheless, one irony of how God chose to make salvation work is that the good news is passed from one person to another, one image-bearer to another. You're reading this on my blog with my face or on Ted's blog with Ted's face. Paul's letters were written by Paul, not by Anonymous. As long as we are who we are, we all project our flesh constantly for others to fix on or ignore as they choose, whether or not we've tried to impress or attract with it. And as long as we are in the body we cannot turn this off, including while we tell the good news.

But God provided a right way to do this that is bound up in Christ, his Image. "[W]e do not proclaim ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake" (2 Cor. 4:5). If you have to see my flesh, at least you can see it serving you as your slave. At least you can see it weak, plain, boring, ugly, suffering, despicable, or—perhaps most appalling of all—unsuccessful. At least you can see it as onlookers saw Jesus' form on the cross. And then, hopefully, though all you see is me, all you will see is him.

Even as I write this, I hear a bloodthirsty monster rattling its cage inside me, yearning for me to let it out. It growls to me fantasies that this post will go viral, that hundreds of thousands will bow down to it, that Ted and I will get offered a book deal, get invited to speak at conferences, maybe even get a welcome-to-the-big-time e-mail from John Piper or Andy Stanley. I can't escape the toxic atmosphere of idolatry, because it is my flesh's native habitat. I breathe it in so constantly and so naturally in our image-choked age that I only get hints of what life is like without it.

Those hints come when I stop staring at my image, stop shaping it, stop regarding others' images, stop making comparisons, stop trying to measure up, stop trying to win, and instead fix my eyes on Jesus Christ, the Image of God—my image, my life, my salvation. "Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (Rom. 7:24-25).

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