“Keeping it real.” “Being authentic.”
I hear these phrases from time to time and I find them problematic. First, they seem to fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:37: “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” (RSV) If you have to preface certain statements with a qualifier to let me know they are ‘real,’ ‘authentic,’ or ‘honest,’ am I to infer that the rest of what you say is suspect in this regard? Maybe it’s only a matter of sloppy language and succumbing to the current slang of American English. While not commendable, it is excusable.
The deeper problem with these phrases is that they seem to be used as excuses; excuses to not speak in love or excuses for our failings. Both are troubling. It seems that in some quarters, it is acceptable to spew words intended to hurt and then play, “I’m just keeping it real,” as some sort of linguistic get-out-of-jail-free card, but I’ve never seen it work. No one’s expression has ever changed from hurt to happy with the addition of that tagline.
Being “authentic” to excuse our failings occurs often in the pulpit and similar situations. Apparently someone is “authentic” if they are willing to display their dirty laundry in public, if they are willing to openly declare their shortfalls. Note I did not say confess. Confession is a legitimate religious action than can happen before a gathered body, but I sense little repentance in most instances of “authenticity.”
Do I want you to be honest in the pulpit? Of course. I also want you to show discretion and remember why you are there. I do not want to hear about how you consistently fail to meet the standards that you represent by taking holy writ in hand and standing before the people. I can tell by looking at you that you are human and I can draw my own conclusions that you are not completely sanctified yet.
If you feel the need to constantly remind us that you can’t meet the standards you are proposing, it tells me two things. First, you feel a need to apologize for calling us to a standard. I understand that pressure; ethical standards are not popular. Second, you haven’t had much success in following the standard. With that in mind, you should probably sit down with the rest of us and learn from someone who has been able to find a bit more consistency in their religious observance.
We don’t read fitness books by obese people. We don’t read business books by people on welfare. Why should I listen to religious teaching from someone who doesn’t appear to be able to maintain a very disciplined observance of their religion? You either need to up your game or re-examine your “call.”
I don’t say this as one who claims to have it all together. None of us do; that’s no secret. I say it as someone who realizes we can’t lead people farther than we’ve gone. I say it as someone who takes it as a challenge to accept rather than a responsibility to shirk.
We need to unapologetically seek to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect. We need to confess our failures, though not usually to the entire congregation. The only time that really makes sense is if you’ve fallen so hard you feel compelled to resign. The pulpit is not created for our own talk therapy, but to proclaim the word of God. That is its authentic use.
We should not proffer a lie we have not attained. We should uphold a standard we are striving toward. People will discover quickly enough our “authenticity.” If we have to keep telling people we are “real,” either we are not being honest to begin with or we are afraid. Afraid of being perceived as a fake or afraid of being kept at a distance because we might present a challenge to others. The former is a symptom of pride; the later of insecurity. Neither wear well on someone in leadership.
Be real. Be real about sweating and striving to attain what we are called to. Challenge us. Run out ahead of us. Only then can we follow you. If you insist on using “authenticity” as an excuse for your sloth and lack of zeal, don’t be surprised when we abandon you by the side of the path.