I am going to end this series of articles here, as not to “beat a dead horse.” But I do what to look at a couple of dimensions of pretentiousness and avatars, that I have not covered.
In the area of pretentiousness, I wish we all could be more authentic. I wish that society was more gracious, so that there was no social pressure to be someone that we are not. I have some optimism toward this dream. Before I discuss the hope that I have, I do want to define this area of pretentiousness better.
Regarding the Bible Belt, I do think the TV series, Greenleaf, is extremely well-written and performed. It is about a black family in Memphis who are part of a family business, which is a mega church. There are dark family secrets living in every crevice. As a paradox, I find the series very authentic in its pretentiousness. The Greenleafs are not phonies, I think take their faith seriously, yet, they have a layer of pretentiousness behind which they have an unapologetic lust for money, sex, and power.
The Greenleafs remind me of an uncle who had a large church and tv ministry in Cincinnati. While he was never as rich as the Greenleafs, with their 55,000 square foot mansion and Learjet, but he did believe in a posterity gospel and lived well. But in his under-life, that which was out of sight of his Christian fan base, he was devious man. He tried to sell me illegal switchblade knives so I could fight better in high school. One Christmas he came to visit with his twelve kids in tow and his sister-in-law (who lived in the same house with him and her sister) was pregnant with his baby and he pretended she was his wife, and the woman who had always been his wife, was now his sister-in-law. The next visit, they had switched back and he pretended his new baby was birthed by his original wife. Bizarre I know. But that is this pretentious world.
I don’t think this uncle could have pulled this off in the Midwest. But in the Midwest, there are a plethora of unspoken secrets that are never spoke of, and become their own layer of pretentiousness. This uncle didn’t pull if off in the Bible Belt, except that we knew that righteousness was all an act anyway. I remember the family finding it entertaining, and funny. It is the same way they love professional wrestling (as entertainment), which they know is an act, but they still love it.
On the other end of the spectrum, the authentic end, a great example is Eddie Murphy’s brilliant performance in The Nutty Professor, especially the scene around the dinner table. With my mother’s lack of a filter, the grandma in the scene reminded me of Mom (Eddie played all the parts except for the kid). It is cringe-worthy, and some would say crass (assuming that most people think that farting around the dinner table is rude), but profoundly authentic. From what I’ve read, before the Victorian age ushered in this higher bar of social interactions, the behavior of the common people was as crass as the Klump family, and these were deeply religious people. But they lived in a much higher level of honesty than we do, or so it seems.
One of the challenges of our present day is social media. Social media is taylor-made platform for pretentiousness. Look at what most people post, the most positive things about their lives. Their trips, their parties, and the wonderful things happening in their lives and that’s okay. I do the same. However, I’ve witness, when someone shares, very honestly, about their failures or trials, immediately people seem to scold them. It reminds me of another movie, the old classic Airplane. There is a scene when a passenger starts to have a panic attack and the whole plane lines up to slap them (see below).
I have learned that society does not tolerate sharing about their illness on places like Facebook. I have tried to avoid doing that, maybe once every six months I say something about my cancer, just to keep people in the loop of my progress. But if you share about suffering in such a media that is geared toward success stories, you are bound to have people suggesting that you are wallowing in self-pity. Therefore, to be a good user of social media, you only post things that make you look smart, sensitive, a winner in all areas, without flaws.
I have a friend who is suffering tremendously from multiple medical problems and she shares openingly about her struggles on social media platforms. I cringe, although I feeI deeply for her. I sense that she thinks, like we all do, if she could just explain clearly enough what she is going through, finally everyone would get it. But I know, that is impossible. I gave up on that temptation a long time ago. Likewise, as much as I try, I know that I can never feel the level of pain that some of my friends are experiencing.
Before I move on to my hope, I will mention briefly about avatars. Being an avatar, in my opinion, is being such a phony, that you believe your own pretentiousness. I think the Trump family is a good example of this. You cannot get up in the morning and shit in a gold-plated toilet and not be delusional about who you are. I think that is why Donald Trump and the TELevangelists loved each other so much, because they were cut of the same thread. I suppose there are many people in the public spaces who are this way, who have become a brand and nothing else. I know nothing about the Kardashians, but it sounds like they have dehumanized themselves into a brand.
Whether people like it or not, we are living in a post-christian society, and it is quickly becoming moreso. I am a simpleton, when it comes to spiritual matters. The teachings of Jesus, whom I deeply admire and consider my personal savior, you could fit in a thimble. However, the quagmire of subcultures of Christianity are as wide of the sea. It is a good thing that we are losing this extraneous culture, in my humble opinion, especially that part that has a “pretend bar” set so high for behavior, that to participate with that culture, you have no choice to become pretentious.
I’ve had these discussions with my children, part of Generation Y. They claim, and I believe them, that their social world is far less pretentious than mine. For one big reason, is that the “Critical Habitat” is not so critical. People in their world don’t judge them by the the clothes they wear or the words they say. There appears to be far more grace than in my generations’ society. In their world, if someone made a huge mistake, losing their life savings, or getting arrested, they would not de-friend them, or even think less of them.
Here is one good example, the party invite. In my world, if someone invited you to a party and you really didn’t want to go, the pressure is to lie. This is especially true in Christian cultures. You say, “Oh, I have to work.” Or, “I would love to, but I have to do something that night.”
I remember, when I was trying to be more honest, this exact situation played out. Someone invited myself and a friend (at church) to something, a party I think, that neither of use wanted to do. I said, “Thanks for the invite, but I really don’t want to come.” My friend said, “Oh, I would love to come, but I have to work.”
After the inviter walked away, I asked, “When did you start working at night?” To which he replied, “I don’t work at night but I don’t want to go to that party.” In the end, the inviter was much angrier at me, than Joe, although I spoke the truth and he didn’t. That is why it is so hard to be authentic.
My daughter says, if she invited someone to a party and they said, “I really don’t want to come. I would rather stay home and read a book.” She would take no offense at that, but would be happy that her friend was so honest with her, rather than coming to a party they didn’t want to be at. But in my world, honestly is scandalous.
So, this is my hope. That our society is drifting back toward authenticity. We just need to give grace to people in our social spheres to be who they honestly are.