Sunday, April 29, 2007

American Idol, Dreams, and Perfection

Shamed and Self-Righteous… The Search for Perfection

I looked at the clock above the television. 9:25pm. I was watching American Idol’s Fund Raising special, and decided I needed to get some air. When I’d heard about what North America’s most popular show had planned for this week, I was excited. But the irony of the show didn’t escape me, either. Still, it was a great idea. Some people would complain about the commercialization of the whole thing or say that celebrities were just trying to get some free publicity from the show and were insincere and that American Idol was merely capping more sponsors or whatever. But I wasn’t sure the kid in Africa who couldn’t get a cup of water or medication for his malaria cared too much about that. Besides, there would always be people who knocked down good ideas. You know, the ones who protested things just to protest things. For them, ‘principle’ was always more important than actually helping people. I figured enough people watching the show would have the common sense to see the positives of the whole thing.

It was a cool night, and I listened to the birds chirping in the bush a few feet from my balcony, surprised at the emotion bubbling to the surface. The images of the poor, or of those who’d lost their homes in Katrina, these things were never easy to watch, if only because they seemed so far from my own realm of existence. As a kid, my family wasn't rich, not by North American standards, but I never worried about what I would eat or where I would sleep or what I would do if I got sick. I never lacked for anything. Most of us of in North America are like that. And even if we’re poor by North American standards, if you look at the rest of the world, we’re still rich.

The irony of watching this American Idol was that in so many ways it was a microcosm of our society, and the church. I went back inside and watched the end of the show, silently applauding it when it finished.

American Idol spreads the notion that success is largely an individual matter, and the gold at the end of the rainbow is fame and fortune. In the quest for finding the perfect ‘talent’ -- which includes, singing, looks, personality, charisma, but not character -- people are judged every week, not only by the 'Big Three', but by thirty million Americans eager to give their opinion. The show may be popular, I’m just not sure it’s healthy…

Sometimes, I think that the church is like a weekly American Idol contest. We look for perfection, too. And we’re quick to judge it. We even use Scripture to back us up. (Jesus said ‘be perfect, even as my heavenly Father is perfect’… Apparently, Jesus always spoke in declarative sentences, even though that command is impossible.) And this quest for perfection, for righteousness and purity and holiness often leaves a person feeling two things. Shame, when you realize that you can never be perfect. Or self-righteous, when you believe that you're as close to perfect as you can be. (like the Pharisees, whom Jesus hated, you have perfected certain surficial behavioral codes). Neither is healthy.

I remember when I first became a Christian, how zealous I was to ‘get it right.’ But after a while, I learned that I couldn’t get it right all the time, no matter how much I tried to discipline myself. I wavered from self-righteousness to shame and back to self-righteousness. Mostly I felt unworthy of God’s love. All these other Christians seemed to be able to ‘handle things’ so much better than I did. I was trying to be perfect. And when I failed, I didn’t just fail, I left the church. If I hadn’t been moved by a few people who pushed me towards grace based teaching, I may never have returned.

Grace based teaching does not emphasize this quest for perfection. It emphasizes servanthood based on love. It reminds us that our best is enough. That working ‘real hard’ will not change how much God loves you. It allows you to grow and fail and try and work and dare and dream and risk and wander… it is the gentle breeze on a hot summer day, the one that blows and cools you enough to help you continue on.

Jesus once said that the world would know us by our love. But when you ask people outside the church, you rarely hear that sentiment. They know us for our judgment and for our hypocrisy. Hypocrisy because we keep telling people we’re supposed to be perfect. But the funny thing about hypocrisy is that can only occur when we lie about who we are and where we struggle. If we’re a bunch of flawed sinners, trying to do the best we can to love God and love each other, well, makes it tough for someone to call you a hypocrite, doesn't it?

The sad thing is that outside a grace based theology of who God is, we stop moving towards our dreams. We stop taking risks. We let fear come in because we're so afraid of making a mistake. Eventually we become more comfortable sitting on our couch or sitting in our pew and criticizing others who are at least trying to make their dreams happen. People who are trying to pursue what God has put on their heart. I sense so much fear in the church today, and I wonder if maybe we're too busy worrying about trying to be perfect. So worried, in fact, that we don't want to follow our dreams, we don't want to take risks. Maybe that's why we become so critical of each other.

In that sense, the contestants on American Idol deserve credit for trying to make their dreams happen. I believe success is about community, and that fame and fortune are empty rewards, but at least they're trying. Exposing themselves to the judgment and criticism of so many. If life is like American Idol, maybe we need to look at whether we want to be a contestant, or a judge.

May God grant you the passion and heart to take risks and pursue your dreams, to know that participation, not perfection, is what God is really after.