As research for my novel (what a good excuse that is), I’ve begun watching the fashion-industry reality shows on Bravo. I’m sporadically following “Project Runway”, since I haven’t warmed up to this year’s contestants, but my real addiction is the ultimate bitch-fest “Make Me a Supermodel“. I could do without the manufactured interpersonal drama, especially this week when they all ganged up on Katy because she was eating carbs. Honestly, I’m just interested in the clothes. (I was pulling for Holly a couple of weeks ago because her Christian principles made her uncomfortable doing a soft-core photo shoot, but since then, she’s been just as catty as everyone else.)
For maximum cognitive dissonance, I’m currently reading Gregory Boyd’s Repenting of Religion: Turning from Judgment to the Love of God. Boyd argues that Christians should be characterized by nonjudgmental love, rather than by willingness to make moral pronouncements. Only an omniscient God can truly understand all the factors that go into another’s virtuous or sinful behavior, and only God can pass judgment unbiased by ego-defenses. Since the Fall, we compulsively divide people into “good” and “evil”, but these judgments are always in reference to our own psychological needs, not the truth. We set ourselves up at the center of creation, where only God belongs.
Boyd recognizes that there is a need to hold sinners accountable, for their own good and that of the community. However, he says that the church should not be in the business of listing categories of sinners who are excluded from fellowship (he singles out Christians’ mistreatment of homosexuals here). Instead, accountability should occur within loving personal relationships, such as a small group within a church, where the message and remedy can be tailored to the individual’s needs.
So what does this have to do with Katy and Holly? “Supermodel” may be an extreme example, but the everyday business of life is all about judging. We choose one book over another, one type of car, one career, one job applicant, one church. And when we put our own creations out there, be they sermons or shoes, we know that someone else will be approving, rejecting, or misunderstanding the value of what we do. How do you function, how do you stay motivated to strive for excellence, unless you judge? But how do you love yourself and others unless you suspend judgment?
It’s awful that Katy’s housemates make fun of her for snacking. On the other hand, leaving aside the unrealistic weight standards of today’s fashion industry, if she wants to be beautiful, she needs to stay in shape. “Fine,” a serious spiritually minded person might say, “this just proves that the fashion industry is stupid and evil.” Well, let me tell you, the poetry world is no less competitive, it’s just that the stakes are so low that the whole thing seems kind of cute, unless you’re a poet. Should I stop writing poetry because in order to improve, I must evaluate my own work harshly and compare it to the greats?
I like Boyd’s preference for interpersonal, individualized accountability. As he observes, moral abstractions distance us from one another, subverting the primary command to love. However, the church also has a social role, which is complicated in a fallen world. Must accountability be confined to the private, individual level so that we can live wholly in grace? Where is the dimension of social justice? As an institution in the world, the church cannot be neutral between good and evil. That would be like hoarding grace for ourselves, preserving the nonjudgmental purity of our interactions within the church at the expense of speaking up for those outside.
Moreover, because sin still exists, we need to have some categories of “sin” and “not-sin” or else accountability has nowhere to begin. This is where Boyd’s approach to homosexuality, though an improvement over the evangelical mainstream, still falls short.
It’s magnanimous of him to say that we should extend fellowship without discrimination to gays and transvestites along with obese people, greedy people, racists, prostitutes and murderers. (Just as an aside, why are “prostitutes” always named as the sinners in that transaction rather than the pimps and johns who enslave them?) But if he’d added blacks to that list, we’d all be offended, even though it’s equally true that churches should avoid racial discrimination.
There’s a crucial difference between flaws that we graciously overlook and neutral characteristics. The former, we separate out from the person in order to maintain our relationship with him. The latter is part of who he is. In practice, a solitary gay person may not notice the difference, but it’ll soon become clear that his spouse and adopted children aren’t accepted on equal terms as the other men’s wives and families. Being gay is not something you only do in private. (Then again, in this great land of reality television, what is?)
That’s why I’m rooting for Ronnie.