The image of God

February 2001 'Small Fire' column for Ship of Fools

Christians have always seen themselves as above concern with appearances. 'Man looks on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart'. But the Lord is in eternity, and Man doesn't have time, not when deciding whether the oncoming person in the dark and lonely street is friend or foe. In this matter, as in so many others, the Church continues to play a rural game in an urban world.

Our rural past is one of stable communities and lifelong acquaintance with character. The urban world is one of fleeting encounters and countless possibilities. We navigate by appearances, because we have no time to investigate in depth. We select by first impressions what might be worth pursuing further, be it boyfriends or beliefs. We are far more skilled at this than we imagine, as we have had to do it all our lives without pausing too long to think. We need only remember the bewilderment of defectors from the Eastern Bloc on entering a Western supermarket - "How do you choose?" And even for sophisticated Western consumers, option paralysis [a Douglas Coupland coinage] lurks - the tendency, when faced with too many options, to choose nothing.

Not only do we choose by appearances, we advertise by them too. We are all players of this game, presenting edited aspects of ourselves to the world. It is wrong to see this as hypocrisy. Few of us are downright liars in this matter, fewer still are convincing ones. Mostly we try to give accurate signals about the kind of people we are, even though we often stand convicted of wishful thinking.

In a society of options the claims of religions, too, are subject to first impressions. Each person who professes belief, each act of worship, is a snapshot of what I might be and do if I take that path. If the initial assessment isn't favourable, we won't bother hanging around for five years to find that people have good hearts underneath and that the worship is fulfilling in the long term.

The Church has tended to assume that it can advertise its concern with deeper matters than appearances by not concerning itself with appearances. But neglect of appearances makes us victims of other people's readings. Our values may be misread, our good intentions misconstrued. Worse, we may end up proclaiming one thing while doing another because we have lost sight of how to read our own actions. I am in danger of sounding like a spin doctor. But they exist in our society for a reason.

Christians know that life in Christ is life in all its fullness, and desperately want to communicate that to others. But Christianity has lost control of its image. We are beset by negative stereotypes, often created by our own co-religionists busy modelling life in all its narrowness. We want to improve the image of our faith. We want people to know, at the glance that is all they are going to give us, that this is something worth having.

Cool is our culture's signifier for something worth having, its shorthand for life in all its fullness. It seems to offer the makeover we need. The cool are cultural athletes. It takes training and dedication to one's chosen discipline. Cool comes unasked-for to those fortunate ones who embody society's current dreams. The jazz musicians and the skateboarders do not do what they do purely in order to be 'cool'. But many others hang around jazz or skateboarding not for love of the thing itself but for love of the kudos that comes from association. And cool by association means ridding yourself of all that will damage your image. The inherently cool may not have to worry too much about keeping up appearances, but the rest of us measure how much we share their light by marking out our distance from the unenlightened.

It can't honestly be said that Christianity embodies our society's current dreams. Perhaps it never embodies any society's dreams, unless corrupted. This means that cool for the church can only be achieved by a partial presentation, or by association with cool parts of the culture. This is a dangerous game to play deliberately - it entails exclusion of those who don't fit, or the embracing of external value systems. No wonder many Christians reject all consideration of image, and hold cultural participation at arm's length.

But there is another way, between the deliberate cultivation of image and the deliberate rejection of it. Worship whose form and content is authentic will be cool or not, depending on those who make it. The image it presents will be inherent, not imposed. That alternative worship often appears cool is a by-product of its being made, most of the time, by culturally aware people - if they were not, they would not have the knowledge or motivation to attempt cultural shifts in the Church. The methods of alternative worship allow a great range of stylistic possibilities to be explored, some of which will indeed be cool - or seem so in comparison to the prevailing church culture! But cool is neither guaranteed nor the point. Those who encourage people to be authentic in worship will have to affirm results not to their personal tastes - some people will be liberated to produce cutting-edge art, but some will be liberated to produce authentic kitsch!

Cultural particularity and stylistic sharpness in worship automatically exclude some people. But that particularity and sharpness is what opens the door to God for others. This inherently divisive tendency is why cultural engagement is shied away from or denounced by many in the Church. But perhaps it is also a challenge - if we feel put down by 'cool' worship it shows that we, too, are infected by our culture's values, that we share its ways of assessing our worth. If we believe that God so loves us, maybe we could relax, give the cool people space and encouragement to do their own best thing for God and not worry too much if it's something we can't all join in.

And maybe the cool people could then be less uptight and defensive, knowing themselves to be valued. Their anger with fellow believers stems from their feeling that to be uncool is to let God down, to be a poor witness to God's passionate creativity, to betray Christianity at a time when it cannot afford betrayals or lapses of judgement. There is a fight for hearts and minds, for the credibility of the Christian faith, and the Church needs to listen to those who know what credibility means in our culture.

Maybe then the window-shoppers outside would all find some form of Christianity to catch their eye, without the appeal proving to be a hollow promise. The Church is no place for those who want exclusivity. But neither should it be a place which insists on mediocrity as the price of inclusion.

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