Sunday, March 13, 2011

Cesspool of Plasticity

Recently, I attended a worship service at a large church in another city. The
music was very majestic, the message was somewhat moving, the building was reasonably clean, the people were semi-friendly, and many people responded during the decision ministry time. However, by the end of the service, as I met members, leaders, staff, and the pastor of this church, I felt uneasy and a little bit phony. One thought kept coming to my mind…

This place is a cesspool of plasticity.

That afternoon, I shared my thoughts with my friend Steven, who laughed and
asked, “What is that supposed to mean?”

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
defines plasticity as:

1 : the quality or state of being plastic; especially: capacity for being molded or altered 2 : the ability to retain a shape attained by pressure deformation
3 : the capacity of organisms with the same genotype to vary in developmental pattern, in phenotype, or in behavior according to varying environmental conditions

When I look at the first definition, I shudder just a bit. Ever since my post
secondary education began, I have been afraid of becoming what some people call a cookie cutter Christian, sputtering out memorized phrases that have nothing to do with the way that I feel. After a few semesters at my Christian college, many of the ministry students, in my opinion, seemed to allow themselves to be replicated or altered into inexpensive imitations of some pasty looking and rigid thinking denominational professor.

As I read the second definition, I realize that I have made many mistakes in my life while trying to escape becoming a shape obtained by pressure deformation. I have been running from it since my early college days. There were musical groups and ministry teams that I probably would have enjoyed participating in except that I could not bear to think of myself as a becoming a part of them. They all seemed so fake to me. I sought relief from Christian college plasticity by deciding to attend a different seminary than most of my college classmates. To my dismay, the pressure deformation was even stronger in seminary than it had been in college. I switched degree programs early in my seminary career in order to graduate sooner and I spent a year teaching school in Central Asia, an entire planet away from my perception of the ever present plasticity monster of the organized church in the United States.

I now understand that what I longed for was a strong sense of authenticity in a local body of believers. Authenticity is a word that has been tossed around so much lately that it might actually be losing it’s effectiveness as a word. Remember what happened to the word contemporary a few years ago? It seemed very clear when it first began to be used. Over time, however, it became terribly confusing as to what the word really meant. I really don’t hear many people use the word today, unless their conversation is dated and/or out of touch. To avoid this happening to the word authenticity, let’s explore its definition.

So, what does it really mean to be authentic? According to the Merriam-Webster Online Thesaurus, synonyms for the word authentic are:

bona fide, genuine, real, right, and true.

It further defines the word with the following definitions:

1. being exactly as appears or as claimed.
2. following an original exactly.

I suppose it might help to understand authenticity in a deeper way by stating what it is not. The antonyms of authenticity listed in the same source are:

bogus, counterfeit, fake, false, mock, phony, pseudo, sham, spurious, unauthentic,
unreal, artificial, man-made, unnatural, fabricated, manufactured, deceptive,
and might I add my personal favorite, plastic.

But does anything that is the opposite of these adjectives actually exist in today’s postmodern world?

To search for the answer, I did a Google image search on the word authentic.
I was presented with 471,000 images. Here are a few of the text descriptions of my favorite images that appeared:

Authentic Beauty, Authentic Skis, Exciting Authentic Clothing,
Authentic Hawaiian Music, Authentic Looking Caf├ęs,
Authentic Columbian Coffee, Authentic Thai Cuisine, Authentic
Morrocan Dinner, Authentic Greek Food, and An
Authentic Taste of Texas Heritage.

I must be wrong for it seems that we are completely surrounded by some form or fashion of authenticity.

The other evening, as I sat in an authentic Mexican restaurant, my wife Kathy and
I had a conversation with our friends about the difference between an authentic Mexican restaurant and a Tex-Mex restaurant. The argument is that authentic Mexican restaurants serve food that is much less Americanized in its taste and presentation. Later that night, as I lay in bed and reflected upon the wonderful authentic Mexican meal that I had devoured, I realized that we Americans have taken the word authentic, compartmentalized it, and turned it into a style that we can understand and reproduce quickly. Just think, you can now go into malls and department stores and purchase strategically damaged faded blue jeans with pre-frayed hems that can be worn with specifically over-faded t-shirts with pre-cracked lettering and dirt encrusted Chuck Taylor high top (or low top) tennis shoes. Surely this can’t be the extent of true authenticity.

Are we, as the 21st century worship leaders of the Christian church, following the
same pattern of making authenticity a stylistic choice? Have we turned the word authentic into a word that we won’t be able to stand hearing in a few years? Do we
think that being authentic simply means coming to church in our worn out jeans, raggedy t-shirts and dirty high tops, lighting soft white candles in dark cavernous worship centers, and singing Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, or Jesus Culture songs? Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I prefer jeans and t-shirts and high tops to other types of clothing. I think candles and symbolic icons are great for use in worship. I absolutely love Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Jesus Culture worship songs. But clothing, shoes, candles, and popular songs cannot and do not inherently exhibit true authenticity. They are simply forms of expression.

Authenticity is about the heart. The heart does not concern itself with clothes,
music or candles. The heart reveals what is inside a person. In Matthew 12:34, Jesus
told the Pharisees,

For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.

Earlier in Matthew 5:8, as Jesus sat with His disciples on a mountainside, He told them,

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Notice that Jesus didn’t say that our music, candles or clothes should be pure, but that our hearts should be pure in order for us to see God. He didn’t say that we had to accomplish great things, have a hit worship song, or even be successful in order to see Him. He said that we had to be pure in heart.

Perhaps authenticity should be equated with being pure in heart. Samuel spoke
of just such a pure hearted person as he was rebuking Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14 when he
said to him,

But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after
his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have
not kept the Lord’s command.

David was the man he was speaking of, a man after God’s own heart.

In Psalm 139:23-24, David wrote,

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious
thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and
lead me in the way everlasting.

David made mistakes in his lifetime. For some reason, knowing
this makes me feel better. It’s not because he made mistakes, but because I make
mistakes. For example, knowing that he had anxious thoughts helps me get over my
anxious thoughts. If a man with so many faults and problems can be considered by God
as a man after His own heart, then maybe I might have a chance to be a person of
authenticity, someone after God’s own heart.

This is where the third definition of plasticity comes in:

3 : the capacity of organisms with the same genotype to vary in developmental pattern, in phenotype, or in behavior according to varying environmental conditions.

Somehow, David, even with all of his faults, managed to vary enough from the
plasticity of his day to be a truly authentic person. The only form of plasticity or pressure deformation that he experienced was becoming more like his Heavenly Father. God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, The Lord Almighty, Invisible, Immortal, Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, He is the only One who is truly authentic, the only One truly free from the cesspool of plasticity. I want to be like Him. I want to be totally authentic.


  1. John, I liked this blog entry. It did make me think.....what I thought about was that authentic is more about choices than anything else......and everyone is somewhat influenced by their surroundings whether it be at a seminary or in the jungles of Africa. What makes us special is that God gives everyone the power to make the best choices with what they have been exposed.(I would think that a person who never had a chance to learn about God would still have a chance to go to heaven)I think when judgement time comes all the decisions that a person has made are what will decide our fate into eternity. Authentic mexican food wasnt always authentic. The first recipes were based on choices which had to do with what was available. Over time it became known as authentic.

  2. Interesting comments, Michael. I'm glad that you liked the blog entry. God does give us the ability to make choices. I wish I always made the best choices, but it's obvious that I don't. I think the main bad choice that most people meet is rejecting Jesus as Lord. Let's go get some Mexican food sometime, authentic or not, and talk about it.