The great pretenders

Oh-oh, yes I’m the great pretender,
Pretending that I’m doing well.
My need is such I pretend too much;
I’m lonely but no one can tell.
The Great Pretender, The Platters, words and music by Buck Ram

Be on your guard against yeast—I mean the yeast of the Pharisees, which is sheer pretence. For there is nothing covered up which is not going to be exposed, nor anything private which is not going to be made public. Whatever you may say in the dark will be heard in the daylight, and whatever you whisper within four walls will be shouted from the house-tops. —Luke 12:2,3, JB Phillips (Jesus speaking)

masksJesus made those comments after having dinner with a Pharisee. He was just as impertinent face to face, all but calling his host (and the members of his religious order) hypocrites. He complained that the Pharisees, who controlled the Jewish synagogues, heaped up heavy legal, moral and religious burdens on the common people while exempting themselves. They play-acted at a piety that was literally heartless.

I doubt that he was invited back to that house again.

There may be no worse sin in the eyes of western society than hypocrisy. Once alleged, it is a charge so damaging that it must be answered. Once proved, it forever poison’s one’s credibility.

In the 2004 presidential election, both sides dropped H-bombs: John Kerry was accused of wrapping himself in the glory of his Viet Nam service while charging his fellow soldiers with unspeakable crimes; George Bush was accused of using the mantle of Commander in Chief to advantage after ducking out of the Texas National Guard.

But hypocrisy is more commonly used to bludgeon people of faith, and not always without cause. Christians sometimes give the impression that we’re better than everyone else. When we don’t walk the walk, our hypocrisy stains the entire Christian church.

I love movies. I especially love cinema—high-brow attempts to create art on the big screen.

When I was a college student, I was absolutely ga-ga over the British director Stanley Kubrick. In 1971, Kubrick released his most controversial movie, A Clockwork Orange. The movie takes place at a future time when morality has broken down and gangs of ultra-violent thugs run wild. Because if its violence and sexual themes, A Clockwork Orange was the first “legitimate” film to be released with an X rating.

In those days, only pornographic movies were rated X, so I had a dilemma. Should I give my financial support to a movie that pushed against the boundaries of decency? If my church knew that I had seen the film, would they understand my devotion to Kubrick and “art”?

I went to see the movie, and as I was leaving the theater, who should I run into in the lobby but a family from my church who knew me quite well. They were probably coming to see The Sound of Music or Mary Poppins. Naturally, the father asked me what movie I had been to see. I told him the truth, explaining that despite the X rating, it was an important film by one of our greatest living directors, yada-yada-yada. He rolled his eyes and hustled his family away to safety.

I felt like a hypocrite. Perhaps I was a hypocrite. If so, it wouldn’t be the first time, or the last.

If we could see each other as God sees us, we’d probably discover that a great many of us are hypocrites. In the original Greek, the word hypocrite refers to an actor on a stage, someone who hides behind a mask and plays a role.

All of us have failings. It is not hypocrisy to be a sinner saved by God’s grace. It is not hypocrisy to fail to live up to the high standard that Christ has set before us.

It is hypocrisy to pretend to be holy when we know better. Pride may well be the father of hypocrisy.

In the words of Walt Kelly, We have met the enemy, and he is us! (Pogo)

Jesus’ words about secrets being shouted from house-tops are worth remembering: if you sneak cookies from the cookie jar often enough, you’ll get caught. The road of discipleship is a hard road. Faking it is always easier than walking the walk. The yeast of sheer pretence can work its way into our lives with remarkable ease.

The trouble with hypocrisy is that it poisons the well of faith. When we fake the Christian walk, we cast doubt on the transforming power of Christ in us. God’s reputation is tainted by his association with us.

Which perhaps explains why Jesus had such harsh words for his Pharisee host. And why we all need to be on guard that the yeast of hypocrisy doesn’t work its way into our own lives, our own hearts, our own walk of faith.

I don’t want to be remembered as The Great Pretender.

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  1. wow. just a couple of weeks ago I used the cookie jar analgy with some friends but I said that even if I never get ‘caught,’ God knows I had my hand in it. I saw CO as well. Kubrick was a favorite of mine too. Disturbing movie. I also read the book. The language was bastardized German. (pardon the phrase, but that’s what it was) Hard to read as it was to watch. I have been thinking about reviewing a rather unknown book on my site called “Faking Church.” It talks about a lot of this that you have brought up. thanks for the post, Charlie. good to hear from you again.

  2. I was also a big Kubrick fan in college, and found “A Clockwork Orange” surprisingly moving for all its violence. Do you perceive a disjunction between, say, enjoying a movie like “Clockwork Orange” and being a devout Christian?

    If I’m remembering the film rightly, I took its message to be one about the paramount importance of free will. When the main character’s free will was removed, his lack of violent behavior had no meaning, because the choice had been stripped from him. Also, I remember being moved by the movie’s implication that even an “ultraviolent” young man like him could be transported by Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” To my mind, these themes are consonant with religious faith, even if the movie is a bit on the racy side…

  3. These are good observations and I appreciate your comments. I don’t see watching or enjoying a movie like Clockwork Orange as “un-Christian.” Kubrick’s film is art, and art is often deliberately controversial. It’s a very raw movie. Some may find it offensive. For that reason, I may not recommend it, but I place it firmly in the category of art.

    That’s my perspective now, 34 years later. As a 19-year-old who was attempting to work out what the call to faith meant in practical terms, I was quite conflicted about whether I had done the right thing by seeing this movie.

    Clockwork Orange is an interesting movie in part because it is about the dilemma of free will. When unrestrained by morality, free will inevitably leads to excess: to narcissism, contempt for authority and the victimization of the weak. This pretty well sums up Alex and his gang; it also explains Abu Ghraib.

    To maintain order, the state is tempted to impose a rigid totalitarianism that allows for little or no freedom of choice. This creates order and civility but kills the human spirit, which is what happens to Alex as he is de-programmed, and incidentally, it is what we see in fundamentalist Islamic states and China.

    The give and take between free will and obedience to moral authority is a major theme in Judaism and Christianity.

    Jesus preached a new approach to human freedom, one not based on adherence to a set of laws, but on the disciplines of love and grace. But such a wide open freedom can lead to abuses, and the Christian church often finds itself debating what constitutes “Christian behavior” in this climate of ultra-freedom. Different Christians draw the line at different points, and so the charge of hypocrisy is sometimes raised as Christians attempt to differentiate between freedom and apostasy.

  4. Good post Charlie. None of us has it all together.

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