Hypocrisy on Stilts

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The problem of Pharisaism is not solved by dropping the phylactery that is “wider than yours” and picking up the Bible that is “more underlined than yours.” You cannot solve spiritual problems of the heart simply by rearranging the furniture. We are born casting sidelong glances, and the solution to this is repentance, not really cool sunglasses that hide what our eyes are doing, or a Walkman to keep us from hearing what the prophets are saying. These are difficult days to be a satirist, and so I hesitate with the reductios for fear that somebody would think the following is a good idea. But here goes anyway. What would we think if someone started manufacturing pre-underlined Bibles, or prayer jeans with just the knees ripped out? We could sell them as “prayer warrior” jeans. This is the essence of Pharisaism, and it is not difficult to identify.

Every culture esteems certain things, and then we always have to deal with the posers and hosers who try to get the glory for having those things when they do not even come close. This is true in all places and all times, and applies to everything that can be esteemed. Sweater vets, suit coats, flowing robes, whatever. When Jesus attacked the Pharisees, He was attacking them for being phony. And our culture is filled with phoneys (phonies? dunno), posing as authentic rebel souls. I do not accuse them of being doctrinal Pharisees — I accuse them of being phonies (still dunno), just like the Pharisees. And the Pharisees could not defend themselves by demanding to see a verse from the Torah that condemns phylacteries wider than seven centimeters, or a verse that specifically condemns flowing robes, or blowing trumpets on street corners. Nor could they ward off the critique by demanding “just how long does a prayer in the synagogue have to be to qualify as a sin under ‘lengthy.'”

Now the point of my critique is not that such dumb stuff is limited to modern pop culture. In the Muslim world, you can get make-up to put on your forehead so that it will look like you have been doing the five times a day thing toward Mecca. This is a standing human problem. But in certain times and eras, the problem is accentuated, as it is in ours. This is because first century Pharisaism was self-consciously elitist, and the whole idea was to be a disciplined corps. If you limit the number of people in the club, you (by definition) limit the number of possible hypocrites in the club. But in our era, we are dealing with mass-marketed authenticity, off the rack authenticity, everyman regardless authenticity, lonely soul authenticity, blow-dried authenticity, three dollar bill authenticity, and, as they say on television, much, much, more.

Let me point out the obvious once more. Imagine trying to explain pre-degraded, ripped and splattered clothing to Virgil, Jonathan Edwards, Boethius, George Washington, or the venerable Bede. You are not having to explain this to a greatly amused critic, like me, but to someone who has never heard of such a thing, and is honestly and naively curious. Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to explain to them why you buy clothing that pre-distressed for you, and you are willing to pay more for the privilege. We have factories that will wreck your clothes for you, and lots of people say “oooo, gotta have it.” So they can get to retail outlets, this kind of clothing is driven around the United States in trucks. I am open to other possibilities (honestly), but thus far the only answers seem to be that such a customer is either a hypocrite or a dope.

Let me acknowledge (again) that every culture and subculture has its hypocrites and dopes. But the modern subculture of mass-marketed lonely poet authenticity has elevated the thing to an art form. And nobody notices! Nobody sees!

The problem with the traditional Christian critique of this stuff is that it plays to the pride. “You’re a rebellious slob.” And the slob, carelessly (and very carefully) brushes his hair out of his eyes and says (or thinks), “Yeah, well, Lord Byron was misunderstood too.” The traditional critique plays along with the central delusion here. We need to stop accusing these people of marching to a different drummer when, to all appearances, they are as regimented as a drum and bugle corps. The problem is not that these people are rebellious slobs, but rather that this is a culture-wide sub-culture of conformist inauthenticity. Hypocrisy on stilts.

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