Monday, April 28, 2014

Does Dress Matter?

Just before Easter, CNN's Belief Blog featured a piece entitled Stop dressing so tacky for church. The premise is that people need to dress up better for Sunday because Sunday church should be set apart.

There's something to be said for setting an intentional time of worship aside and making it different from the rest of the week. But I'm not convinced how we dress is necessarily a part of that, especially not in the way argued in the article.

First of all, we have to remember that there is nothing inherently meaningful about any style of dress. It's all about meaning we ascribe to it culturally, for better or for worse. So wearing a suit and tie does not necessarily translate to be something important and sacred to everyone. The analogy the author uses that I think is initially compelling is that we all would dress up nicely if we were to meet the President of the United States. That's likely true (although there are plenty of exceptions in history based on appropriate context). But is that because there is something meaningful about the dress or because there is simply an expectation that we dress a certain way in the White House (there is, in fact, a dress code in many areas).

I, for one, usually find nicer dress like this rather superficial and annoying. Maybe I've just had too many experiences with borderline narcissists who dress up to show off. For me, often times fancy dress is far more distracting than casual attire. Casual clothing often shows much more personality and uniqueness to an individual. I feel like my personality is sucked out of me every time I dress up. It is not a form of self-expression in my case (I know there are some examples of this, but they're usually the cases at the front of this paragraph). Should we display self-expression during times of worship? There's another theological debate. Some would argue yes, some would argue no... But if putting on nice clothes makes some of us feel like we're putting on a front and not being our authentic selves, is that how we should enter worship?

Additionally, the article argued that our dress should be nice so it sets the time apart from the rest of the week. I now have to wear a tie to work daily and semi-regularly wear a suit coat. So if I do the same on Sundays, how is it any different from the rest of the week? In actuality, casual dress sets the time aside much more so than nice clothes. I actually sometimes look forward to which of my t-shirts I can wear that I don't get to wear during the week. Yesterday when I was deciding what to wear to church, I was sad because I felt the need to dress up a little nicer that day (for a few reasons), making my dress feel much more boring and conforming.

Several years ago, I was part of a church where it was almost taboo to wear a suit to the evening service (the opposite was true in the morning). On Easter, I intentionally wore a suit because it was meaningful to me. (This was also a time I never had to dress up.)

So this is what I would propose: Dress in a way that's meaningful to you. Just like so many other behaviors, stop worrying about what other people do or how they dress. If we can get ourselves, individually, into a worshipful posture, that will do far more for both ourselves and our community than putting all of our energy into what other people do.

Monday, April 14, 2014

What Causes Happiness?

On Saturday, my wife and I got to see a performance of Les Miserables in Riverside (which was excellent, by the way). On the way home, someone had graffitied a freeway underpass with "Happiness follows right living." I found it rather ironic that we saw that right after Les Miz. As Laci said, "That's Javert."

"Right living" (if groups of people can even come to a clear consensus on that) can lead to fewer problems in life. From that perspective, it matches up with some research indicating earning up to $75-80,000 per year increases happiness. The explanation is that basic needs are met, which lowers anxiety and therefore can increase happiness. So it makes sense that happiness could be increased by causing fewer problems for ourselves.

Let's take Les Miz again as an example. Valjean made some mistakes. They definitely impacted his happiness. But it wasn't right living that improved his happiness. It was being given compassionate grace when he didn't deserve it, didn't ask for it, and didn't even do something to accept it. And I would argue the ultimate right living that led to happiness was giving love and grace.

Contrast that with Javert, the quintessential Pharisee. He, like Paul, lived according to the law as best as any human could. He was blameless. But was he happy? Not at all.

In fact, the climax of the Valjean/Javert storyline is focused around this topic of right living. Javert has lived rightly in his definition--according to the law. But he has virtually nothing to show for it. In contrast, Valjean has not lived rightly. But he has thrived. He has made a meaningful life for himself. This is what completely confounds Javert--he believes once a criminal, always a criminal.

Many people, especially with Christianity, believe that if we do everything right, things will work out great. There is some truth to it, but I've seen (and experienced) my fair share of this formula not working. Right living does not necessarily lead to happiness.

The other consideration is the relationship of happiness and meaning. We discussed this in Sunday school last week, and there's some good research articles on the topic. Ultimately, I would argue meaning is more important than happiness and can lead to happiness, but happiness won't lead to meaning. I'm not convinced rule following or right living will lead to meaning, either. That doesn't mean we break rules--they are there for a reason.

I would propose that we need to recognize the law and rules for what they are: Something practical to help social cohesion and dynamics. But right living is not about law. Rather, I would argue that Christians should define right living in terms of love. To quote the end of Les Miz: "To love another person is to see the face of God." That sometimes means breaking some rules. And love is central to meaning-making (both philosophically and from research).

I would rather break a rule in favor of love and compassion and thus make meaning at the expense of some happiness and comfort than maintain the law and live like Javert.

Monday, April 7, 2014

What Counts: Who You Are or What You Do?

The Dark Knight trilogy is one of my favorite film trilogies. I've always loved Batman, and Christopher Nolan's take was exquisite, as many said. I was particularly struck by the moral, ethical, and spiritual elements, even when they were subtle.

The entire trilogy, especially the second film, is a great exploration of the experience of a dark night of the soul. While I doubt the screenwriters were thinking of this connection, the name connection makes the message all the more powerful.

A while ago, I was given the opportunity to get an e-copy of a compilation of the trilogy scripts along with storyboards (stuff I love to see). It's a great collector's piece for fans of the trilogy who like this sort of behind the scenes material.

No matter how much I read or watch about the trilogy, one element of the first film has always unsettled me. An on-going dialogue between Bruce Wayne and his love interest, Rachel Dawes, in Batman Begins was, "It's not who you are underneath; it's what you do that defines you."

In the context of Wayne's lavish, careless lifestyle (or so it appears), this sort of statement makes sense. But I'm troubled by how much the characters in the film never question the statement. And frankly, it's a very theological one. It's much along the lines of the relative importance of faith and works. It also intersects with psychology, as some therapies focus on personality and character traits while other emphasize behavior.

I've always been inclined to lean more on the side of identity being important. It is one's identity (encompassing personality, character, etc.) that drives actions. In the Dark Knight trilogy, Wayne was able to become an amazing Batman because of who he was inside, not just because he did certain actions. This is my primary criticism against a lot of strict behavioral models of psychology. Just because actions are taken doesn't mean internal change occurs. I guess the question is how important internal change really is. And if it's real and can occur. I believe it can, and Matthew 23:26-28 really resonates here for me.

How often do we see people do generous things, but only as long as others know what they do? I think those actions can still be valuable, but I believe there is a different quality to that sort of action and the truly heart-felt behaviors. It's almost a difference between the anonymity of Batman's Bruce Wayne in comparison to the narcissism of Iron Man's Tony Stark (although the latter did do a lot of action for the right reasons).

It's hard to untangle identity from behavior on a surface, almost quantitative level. But qualitatively, there's big difference in behavior based on identity. And who you are underneath really does count.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).