Rachel Dolezal comes from a fundamentalist Christian home. There are many things that I want to say about her background and the ideology of her family that I believe contributed to the miserable outcome that is Rachel right now. Though her lying and pretending are inexcusable it does not exonerate her family for any harm they may have done to her. That discrediting her seems very convenient to protecting an alleged sex abuser in their home seems, sadly, very likely.
I pity Ms. Dolezal. I feel sorry for her.
But why did she have to pretend to be someone that she wasn’t? Why does she feel so compelled to embellish her story, to color over the bland white with tales, exaggerations, and outright lies? It reminds me of a fundamentalist Christian pastor that was exposed four years ago for claiming to have been a Navy Seal. Jim Moats graduated from Bob Jones University in 1974, pastored a rural KJV-only church and, per the church website, associates with the far-right elements of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism. The story is very sad, but it is telling.
Former Navy Seal Don Shipley suggests that part of the problem is just being clergy. You could almost hear the disdain in his voice:
“We deal with these guys all the time, especially the clergy. It’s amazing how many of the clergy are involved in those lies to build that flock up,” Shipley said. (source)
Why do we crave a good story about ourselves?
- Americans love a rags-to-riches story. It’s part of our cultural DNA to highlight the impossible odds that athletes, businesswomen, and celebrities have overcome to get where they are.
- American evangelicals in general (particularly conservative/fundamentalist evangelicals) put such a premium on “personal testimony” that they are much more likely to respond uncritically to someone’s claim of “God’s working” and embellish their own story of “God’s working” in their life.
- Stories of heroism and victimization are even more appealing when combined with Christian testimony. I remember hearing fantastic Vietnam stories from fundamentalist leaders when I was a kid and when I began to read military history assiduously as a young man I started developing a suspicion about the credibility of some of the stories that I had heard. I felt I had been tricked into adulating a spiritual leader on the basis of stories that, because of my voracious reading in military history, were becoming increasingly unbelievable to me. I also heard amazing missionary stories that could never be fact-checked of deliverance from wild animals, walking on fire, and intense persecution. Victims — genuine victims — would exaggerate what had happened to them because it was only when it got gory and gruesome did the story arouse compassion in the hearts of hearers.
- Fundamentalists, particularly, are prone to yarn-spinning leaders because of a distorted understanding of the Gospel.
The reason we embellish our stories is because we cannot embrace the reality of our nothingness. But it is our nothingness that makes God’s grace so amazing. The pastor who was publicly embarrassed four years ago was caught in a story that he let develop and then ultimately promoted because it met a deep personal need in his life. He needed to feel like he was somebody. Rachel Dolezal is an interesting case study, but why is it that Christian pastors and missionaries and leaders feel so inclined to tell amazing stories about themselves? What kind of gospel do we proclaim when our leaders — our leaders! — are so afraid to admit error, be real, and be nothing? Are we not missing out on a better understanding of the Gospel that would free us from such empty pursuits of security and self-acceptance? Why is image so, so important? Why do we cherish self-promoting anecdotes and why must we invest so much in displaying evidence of our specialness? Why do clergy especially desperately inflate their pasts?
We are nation of people given over to superlatives. If we do not have the best of something, we have the very worst. If we cannot canonize, we demonize. God forbid that we should be regular folk, just average. And as parents we dread the possibility that our kids are just, well, kind of normal.
Here’s something to mull on: My wife does not think I’m the best looking dude in America. And I don’t think she’s the prettiest woman in America. We both know that if we were better looking we’d be working for Fox News. But we really love each other and delight in each other’s looks. Exclusively. Jennie and I rejoice together about how the gospel has slowly delivered us from the tyranny of the “-est.”
In a culture that doesn’t understand grace and love, superlatives are essential to survival. Superlatives are necessary to get attention. Even if they’re not true. Sometimes it’s cute and funny. When I was a little boy I remember my Dad singing out in the car as we were traveling somewhere, “Who has the prettiest mommy in the whole-wide-world?” And we kids would all chime in, “We do!” But, I distinctly remember feeling a bit conflicted as an overly-analytical boy because I thought that one of my friend’s mom was actually prettier! I loved my mom more, but facts are facts.
Then I went to a small bible college and watched our lousy basketball team get slaughtered on the court while my classmates chanted, “We’re #1!” Again, it was a little bit of a conflict for me because I clearly wanted our team to win, but by the evidence in front of me they were at the very most #2, not #1!
Why the craving for the superlative? And why do the public servants of Jesus seem to cling to them, especially in the fundamentalist world?
It is because they are not fully understanding the gospel of grace.
College chapel after college chapel we got treated to stories about the best, the worst, the godliest, the holiest, etc. (One notable exception was when the graduation speaker preached a message entitled, “Nothing.”) Perhaps I was and am too analytical, but I started listening carefully and earnestly when I was a young man, and little by little it began to dawn on me that when a preacher told his story he was the baddest boy on the block, the meanest thug in the Navy, hung around the worst crowd, had the godliest mama, the saintliest grandpa, went to the best college in the land, etc.
Superlative after superlative.
And so, as a young minister, I started doing the same thing.
I started my preaching career in the heart of a legalistic fundamentalism that adulated the “man of God.” I only had a few stories because I was so young, but I told them with vigor. And I embellished them. A good story gave me the right to stand in front of all the other people with boring lives, untouched by the power of God. A good story was proof that God’s blessing was on my life. A good story separated me from the pack and gave me a sense of worth. A good story garnered hearers and helped me get my message out. Plus, I was a missionary that often basked in the admiration of supporters.
Somehow — slowly — grace arrested me. Somehow I couldn’t get away from the nagging reality that I was always less than what people thought of me. And certainly less than my own stories implied. None were lies, but many were more plain and mundane than my story-telling suggested. I felt enslaved to having something interesting to say! In addition to my own sinful grasp at significance came the unasked for suppositions about the quality of personhood that people in Christian circles heap on “the man of God.” And my struggles in my marriage, my temptations to lust, my boredom with the Bible, my intellectual weaknesses, and my failures in ministry all daily reminded me that I was not what my image was.
Worse, I wasn’t that bad either! Just kind of regular. I was neither the most rebellious or the godliest. Not the smartest or the dumbest. My life was amazingly superlative-free and I found this very difficult to accept. How could I be a servant of God with no dazzle?
So I tried to credential myself somehow. Honestly. I drove myself to work harder and read more and push more so that I could at least have an authentic “-est” in my resumé. But gradually I came to realize that I have no “-est” to really be proud of. I can’t even boast of being the plainest or the boring-est.
But grace suffices.
One day in glory billions of nothings will surround the Throne and celebrate the Lamb. In that moment we will finally see with perfect clarity that the election of nothings has transformed us into exalted beings. And we’ll be ashamed that we ever sought to inflate our resumes.
The real former-Navy Seal is right to disdain a clergy that steals valor for credibility, especially when we purport to be preachers of grace. Rachel Dolezal grasped at so many things, inflated so many stories, to be significant. Now, in the glare of judgmental society she may start to pine for the anonymity of insignificance. I hope so. But it is scary, this place of insignificance. It is only when we have our nothingness filled by Jesus, our God, that we are truly liberated from the need to tell a good story about ourselves.
I am Rachel Dolezal. But Jesus has saved me. And now I’m just bland, white, average me.
We can find peace in our averageness and say, “I am what I am by the grace of God.”
“I am what I am by the grace of God”?
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