In that last episode of Downton Abbey, Tom Branson finds himself in a very uncomfortable circumstance, one which most Christians should be able to identify with.
In previous seasons, Tom had moved quickly from family chauffeur to in-law (having married one of the Grantham daughters, Sybil) to widower. Though anti-aristocratic to the core (with a history of radical agitation), he agreed to live with the Granthams to help raise his newborn daughter. He tries valiantly to fit in the upper-crust setting but finds himself failing miserably in the second episode of season four. While the Granthams entertain a number of their wealthy and connected friends, Tom blunders socially time and again. He pleads with Countess Violet about the logic of one courtesy, to which she says, "If I were to search for logic, I would not look for it among the English upper class." So Tom increasingly feels the fool, as if he's merely play acting the aristocrat: "I'm a fish out of water," he blurts one evening, "and I never felt it more than today."
Tom is a modern man; he feels compelled that there should be congruence between who he is privately and how he presents himself publically. He is, in short, very much like you and me. We live in an age that yearns for authenticity, in our leaders, in ourselves. To be authentic is, according to the dictionary, to be "real and genuine," and "true and accurate." It has become an essential moral virtue. To say someone is not authentic is to suggest they are, at some level, lying, bearing false witness about their true self.
But perhaps the attempt to be authentic might be more sinful, and to be inauthentic may be the virtue that Scripture calls us to. Unless we get this authenticity monkey off our backs, we, like Tom, will wrestle with ourselves to our graves—though at least in the grave we will have no choice but to be authentic, our private self perfectly matching our public self.
Two Cheers for Miss Manners
At the level of manners, most of us cheer inauthenticity. The waitress spills soup in your lap. You are furious—the soup will surely stain the outfit you've bought for the occasion. But the occasion is special, and you don't want to make a scene. Besides, charity requires you to be understanding. While the waitress babbles on about her sorrow over the spill, you say, with a forced smile, "It's nothing. Don't worry about it." Yet you seethe the entire meal.
Inauthenticity is the mark of a well-mannered person. Feigning interest in your host's fireplace portrait of grandpapa, expressing regret at another misfortune even if you are distracted by your own problems to feel any regret, drinking milk from a glass (vs. the carton, which you prefer) when in the presence of others. We much prefer to be around inauthentic, well-mannered people than those who say whatever they think and have the table manners of a five-year-old boy. Two cheers for Miss Manners.
But when it comes to larger arenas and fuller presentations of ourselves, we expect everyone to be authentic. This is no more so than in worship, where we expect our pastor to be uber-authentic. The signs of pastoral authenticity today are not hard to list: blue jeans and open shirt (vs. ministerial robes), preaching with a plexiglass lectern, or none at all (vs. a pulpit), giving off an "I'm just one of you" air while sharing funny anecdotes, one's foibles, and the misadventures of kids who say the darnedest things.
Mostly we expect ourselves to be authentic, and we blush at anything that hints we're not. This is especially true in the area of holiness. Most of us would feel embarrassed if another introduced us in this way: "Meet Mark; he's a saint, one of holiest people I know." If our friend was not in jest, most of us would blush and fluster about how we're no such thing! For one thing, to be holy would mean to be a step above others on the spirituality scale. We American Christians are egalitarians after all, and this just wouldn't do.
But I suspect we also object because it would, well, be so inauthentic. We know we are sinners, maybe even the chief of sinners. We have no business calling ourselves holy.
The Attire of Saints
This however, is precisely what God calls us. One example of many: Paul, in addressing perhaps the most sinful church in Europe at the time (Corinth), says, "To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia" (2 Cor. 1:1)—this the church divided by bitter factions and sexual immorality, among a plethora of other sins.
Yes, this is a theological description of who we are in Christ: Since we are united to Christ, and since Christ is holy, naturally we are essentially holy. But we are called to make that essence an embodied reality by living holy lives. Thus Paul's greeting in this first letter to the Corinthians: "To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints" (1 Cor. 1:2). Or as Peter put it succinctly: "As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, 'You shall be holy, for I am holy' " (1 Pet. 1:15-16).
The biblical assumption is that we are called to act like we really are in Christ. We're not holy in actions now, but we need to make an effort to act holy. So far so good. What most of us don't recognize is this: to act like we're holy when we're not yet holy is to be inauthentic. It is to act better than we really are. Or more simply: It is to put on an act. Like Tom Branson donning dinner attire at Downton Abbey.
And yet that's precisely what the New Testament calls us to do. It uses the metaphor of putting on clothing to make the point (italics added):
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. (Col. 3:9-10)
Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col. 3:14)
You were taught to put away your former way of life, your old self, corrupt and deluded by its lusts, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." (Eph. 4:22-24)
Let's be honest. Most days, when we clothe ourselves with the new self, we feel like Tom Branson. We know we're playing the hypocrite. We smile our way through the work day, acting interested in the comments of our co-workers when really we just want to be left alone to hit a deadline. We look like the paragon of patience with our one-year-old, while seething inside in frustration. We write out a check for our monthly donation to the church, and we're anything but a cheerful giver: we can think of a hundred ways we need that money to balance the home budget.
We're phonies. We're play acting. We're putting on airs. We're inauthentic.
Exactly. And this is precisely what we're supposed to do. Pretend and act like we are more holy than we really are.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't be honest when confronted by the disparity between who we are naturally and who we're trying to be. If a friend confronts us, "I can see you're really irritated with me. Give up the patience act! Tell me what you think," we can respond, "True enough. But I want to be as patient as I'm acting." If our spouse feels that an apology is not fully sincere—"I don't think you really mean it; I think you're just saying you're sorry but you don't really mean it," we can respond, "You're right. But I do want to feel fully sorry, and I'm hoping that someday I will feel it fully."
We often repent because our outward holy actions are not matched by an inward holy state. That gap is indeed a sign of our brokenness for which we need forgiveness. And to be sure, we're hoping against hope that increasingly our actions and emotions will match.
In the meantime, we shouldn't get all tied up in knots about it. It's part and parcel of daily Christian living, especially in the beginning. Every day we awake and decide to play act for the day; we agree to assume a role, and not a role we're naturally fitted for. It's not something for which we'd be typecast. In fact, it's a role completely out of our depth, one which we'll fail to play well. And yet we still say, "What the heck—I'm going to give it a shot."
We're not going to fool anyone, of course, least of all to those to whom we are closest. They might even find us a bit irritating and accuse us of trying to be "holier than thou."
To which we can respond, "Nope, just trying to be holier than me."
Mark Galli is editor of Christianity Today. Soulwork is a period column, and you can find other offerings here. Mark also publishes the weekly Galli Report, with musings and links that inform and delight--subscribe here.