When “Real” isn’t Good Enough

It was, for me, the best part of the Presidential inauguration two short weeks ago. The speech was decent, the poetry atrocious, but the music . . . oh, the music . . .

As a violinist myself, I have for most of my life looked up to Itzak Perlmann as the unmatched master of my craft. Yo Yo Ma enjoys similar status atop the world of the cellist. I’m not as familiar with Anthony McGill or Gabriella Montero, who joined them on clarinet and piano, respectively, for a rendition of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts.”

I remember discussing the piece afterward with my wife – a professional violin teacher and freelance performer. We wondered if they were using special carbon fiber instruments that are better able to hold a pitch – or if not, how they managed to play in such bitter cold.

Well, as the world now knows, they didn’t. Or rather, they did, but that wasn’t what the rest of the world heard. We heard a prerecorded version created a week before, comfortably indoors.

To say that I was disappointed would be an understatement. I’ve performed in the bitter cold myself, when the wind was whipping around and trying to take the music off the stand in front of me, and when my fingers were so cold that they didn’t want to work properly. Their music, while gorgeous, wasn’t difficult at all to play – particularly for musicians who are undisputedly the best in the world at what they do.

But they faked it anyway.

Then yesterday, I watched the Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Arizona Cardinals – two teams I care very little about. Though it was a pretty exciting game, I was more interested in watching the commercials and sharing the time with my wife’s family. The one highlight, for me, was Jennifer Hudson’s national anthem. Her stirring rendition was made all the more moving given the fact that it was her first time back singing in the national spotlight since the tragedy she suffered back in October with the brutal triple-murder of her mother, brother and nephew.

Except that it wasn’t. Like Perlman, Ma and their colleagues, she had recorded the anthem in advance. It was beautiful, to be sure, but the fact that it wasn’t HER . . . or rather, that it was her voice at another place and time . . . stole something from the moment.

These instances were both accompanied by breathless exclamations of: “My goodness . . . we couldn’t have had them perform live! Can you imagine? . . . something might have gone wrong!”

“Why is this such a big deal?” you might ask. “It was their instruments! It was her voice!” And you’re right. It’s not like this is Milli Vanilli, whose 1990 Grammy Award for best new artist was revoked when it was discovered that their talent was for lip-synching, rather than actual singing.

It’s not the same thing, but it’s part of the same problem.

The Wikipedia entry for Milli Vanilli says:

[Milli Vanilli producer Frank] Farian chose to feature vocals by Charles Shaw, John Davis, Brad Howell, and twin sisters Jodie and Linda Rocco; however, he felt that those singers lacked a marketable image. Thus, Farian recruited [Fab] Morvan and [Rob] Pilatus, two younger and more photogenic model/dancers he found in a Berlin dance club, to front the act.

Farian’s mindset, and that of the folks who produced the inauguration and the national anthem, seems to be symptomatic of a larger ailment that plagues our culture in this era of technological and philosophical advancement.

I’m as geeky as the next guy when it comes to the technological conveniences of 21st century America. I have an iPhone, a Facebook account and (obviously) a blog. I use all three of them with gusto.

But the problem arises when we allow these technologies to serve as a substitute for reality . . . a surrogate for what IS.

This mentality has permeated every area of our world. Our entertainment industry has been overrun by those who insist on having one more plastic surgery . . . on losing five more pounds . . . on looking like concentration camp victims in real life, simply because “the camera adds ten pounds.”

Reality isn’t good enough.

In the world of medicine, the reality of how our bodies feel and behave is subjugated to “the labs” . . . the all-important diagnostic tests that may or may not be accurate, may or may not be reliable, may or may not yield any valuable information about what ails us.

Then these often questionable test results are used to justify pumping us full of made-up substances designed to treat made-up problems that are more often than not mere symptoms of the very real problems that plague us. These underlying problems are largely due to the choices we make in our lifestyles and our diets . . . but a pharmaceutical company can’t make money by pressuring doctors to prescribe organic vegetables or grass-fed meat. Sit-ups don’t come in pill form.

So they give us cholesterol and blood pressure meds instead.

Reality isn’t good enough.

Speaking of food, how about that breakfast you had this morning? I’m betting that for most people across the country, it went something like this:

  • Two eggs, bought from your local supermarket and produced by pen-raised hens who have lived on genetically-modified corn their entire lives, rather than the grass, grubs and other things their stomachs are actually capable of digesting.
  • Two strips of bacon, preserved and colored by nitrates and nitrites, which form nitrosamines (a carcinogen) once they get into your body.
  • A bowl of cereal comprised of what was - at one point, perhaps - fairly healthy wheat or oats, but has been processed and manipulated so much that all the good stuff has been cooked, pressed, ground, fried or leeched out of it. Then, of course, in order to make the stuff palatable, they have to add high fructose corn syrup, or at least (if you’re lucky) sugar, which has of course been similarly processed.
  • A glass of “fruit beverage” that roughly resembles grape juice, well-laced with high fructose corn syrup, of course, because our American palates have been conditioned to think that the fructose in actual fruit isn’t sweet enough.
  • If you’re the really conscientious type, you may have had an apple, which probably found its way to your table from an orchard that was covered in toxic chemicals to keep the bugs off. Because unlike those of us who actually EAT such things, insects are smart enough to realize that poisons are very specifically and efficiently designed to make things dead.
  • Perhaps you topped all this off with a pancake or two . . . which probably came from a box, doused in syrup that alleges to be “maple,” but is actually mostly high fructose corn syrup. You may have even added a dollop of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (TM).”

Because reality isn’t good enough.

Before you think that I’ve suddenly decided to go out and join my local chapter of the Sierra Club, those folks could use a healthy dose of reality too. They are, after all, the ones who have perpetuated the myth of man-made climate change (by a variety of different names) for decades now, based on climate models that even John Theon, a former NASA executive who was responsible for all weather and climate research in the agency, says are completely unreliable.

Reality, after all, isn’t good enough.

This is true even in the way we relate to each other. I think about my coworkers, for example. I spend a minimum of 40 hours a week cooped up in a small aisle of cubicles with about half a dozen other people, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really know most of them. We talk, certainly, about the weather, about our mortgage and rent payments, about our pets and our phones, our weekends and sports teams – all the safe topics. But just watch what happens when anyone brings up something REAL . . . even something only superficially real like politics. Oh my gosh! We can’t have that! People might, well, take it personally, or get offended, or by golly, we might not agree!

Every once in a while I’ll get a glimpse of who the people I work with really ARE . . . like the time a coworker and I travelled to Japan together on business, or the time four of us went to give a presentation in Fort Hood, Texas. On such occasions, people tend to open up a bit more . . . to reveal a bit more of themselves.

And I have to tell you . . . as it turns out, I really like the folks I work with! I wish I could see more of that side of them, more often.

But I can’t, because reality isn’t good enough.

This is often true, even in our very closest relationships.

Phones, email, text messaging, instant messages and Facebook are all great tools for keeping in touch with one another . . . but too often we use them to substitute for actual relating. I enjoy reading the status updates my friends post on Facebook, but that’s not the same as going to dinner with them and sitting down for a good conversation. Unfortunately, I happen to live in an area, Washington D.C., where most folks place a lot more value on “doing” than they do on “relating” . . . and as a result people are more often than not too busy to have dinner, or coffee, or hang out for an evening or a weekend.

So we settle for checking up on each other on Facebook.

Because reality isn’t good enough.

Alas, this has even become true of our most important relationship . . . our relationship with Father.

I am reminded of an article I read early last year, by Darrin Hufford over at Free Believers. Hufford’s provocative article calls the average “relationship with God” a “spiritual porn addiction.”

Talk about reality not being good enough! As a former porn addict myself, I can attest quite vividly to the allure of the fake reality that pornography offers. Hufford goes further, though. He points out that the spiritual “high” we get from those “mountaintop experiences” at religious conferences, worship services, etc. are much the same thing. I’ve been to those conferences. I’ve had those experiences. I’ve loved every minute of them . . . they are, after all, exhilarating. The term “spirtual high” is fitting . . . it’s one of the most moving and uplifting things I’ve ever experienced.

The problem is that we idealize those experiences . . . and we condemn ourselves for the “low patches” that we feel between them. We come up with an endless stream of ideas for bottling up that feeling . . . you know, that feeling . . . the one you get when you’ve just finished a group conversation with God, and you know, beyond all doubt, that he was an active participant in the conversation?

But those experiences are not the same as the day to day work of living in the world He placed us in. Even Peter felt the allure of the “mountain top experience” of Christ’s transfiguration, and wanted to do something to permanentize it . . . to institutionalize it . . .

Hufford extends the analogy into the average church service, saying:

The majority of our Christian lives were spent watching the Christian play at church, we have grown accustomed to sitting through the show and demanding to be entertained. Every spiritual facet of the “personal relationship with God” has been caked with makeup, airbrushed, pumped with steroids, injected with botox, sprayed with perfume and stuffed with implants. In the end, we’re left with a “Glam Shot” perception of “relationship” that is about as real as a fifty dollar blow-up doll. It’s perfect for the theater, but when it comes to a real, one-on-one relationship, it’s just impossible.

There’s nothing wrong with mountain top experiences . . . nothing wrong with the incredible spiritual experiences that come with dedicating an entire day, or an entire weekend, to seeking God. The problem, as Hufford points out, is when we come to expect that those mountaintops define what a healthy relationship with God is. The problem, he very vividly says, is this:

The addiction to these spiritually accentuated concepts is almost identical to an addiction to pornography – some people can’t get aroused without it.

Why? Because reality – the reality of a God who is just as present in the depressing, or disappointing, or boring moments of life – just isn’t good enough.

4 thoughts on “When “Real” isn’t Good Enough”

  1. What!? that wasn’t Jennifer Hudson live!? Or even Yo Yo Ma!? Oh goodness.

    I know what you mean though Mike. I often talk about authenticity being a journey and an intentional choice. I’d rather see what’s real even if it isn’t perfect. I for one am still trying to make consistent and continuous choices to be authentic. It’s not always easy.

    In relationships, yeah we do often opt for the two-dimensional modes of relating. Over at Catalyst Community, we often talk about the fact that all of our tech toys can easily replace real relationships. The tech isn’t the evil though. It’s our choices to let the tech replace what’s really important. Instead, we ought to be using online tools to facilitate offline connections.

    As for the spiritual high, oh yeah I get that one too. I was just reading Shane Claiborne the other day where he talks about spiritual masturbation. I’ve been to tons of conferences, christian ones, business ones, and honestly conferences and speakers and all that celebrity fan fare and mega church productions of lighting and video and all that jazz doesn’t really impress me all that much. Now don’t get me wrong, I can still find blessing in a conference, a speaker, or even a sunday morning service, it’s just that we need to look past the “show” and grasp the heart of what’s happening. My hope is that others can grasp the heart of God regardless.

    Every time there’s a conference coming up, I always hear from the die-hards all the pump and anticipation only for them to experience the post-conference blues and I-Miss-Yous and I can’t wait to see you again next year messages. Sigh + ugh.

    Anyway, I concur with your post here calling on the need for authenticity and 3-D relationships!

    Thanks!

  2. I have to read this post more thoroughly later, when Pip is not hollering at me but I have to say that I love so many things about the new look… Good to see ya back…

  3. Technology has now enabled mankind to go many degrees further in living out the natural inclination of the human heart. The natural religion of mankind, interestingly enough, is not paganism, or atheism, or some brand of cosmic humanisn. Rather, it is the timeless Phariseeism pictured so strikingly in contrast to the words and teachings of the Christ during His ministry on earth.

    Whereas in the time of Rome, unwanted infants (as well as the infirmed) were merely put out to die (and Christianity had not yet inspired creation of the modern hospital), today we have come full circle. Now we have the hospital; that wonderful beacon of modern achievement now devoted to the task of ensuring that the unwanted and imperfect never make it out of the womb.

    Yes, fascinating how our striving for perfection (ergo Gattaca) is never more than skin-deep. We perfect the outside, by injecting, botox-ing, perfuming, and aborting. But the perfection of mankind never reaches the human heart.

    In our present war against imperfection, reality was the first casualty.

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