I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self.
Vulnerability. Authenticity. Transparency.
These are popular buzz words in our culture today. Trendy ideas don’t usually show up in a vacuum; it’s probably a safe bet that the promotion of ideas such as these arose, in part, in response to a kind of generalized suspicion that seems to be working itself into every crack and crevice of our human relationships and institutions. For as much as we desire healthy connections in which we can risk the vulnerability of deeply knowing another, as well as being known ourselves, it seems an indiscriminate cynicism is sinking its roots into our most sacred places, proliferating an outgrowth of mistrust and disappointment and choking out the vital bonds necessary for healthy communities to flourish.
Who can blame any of us when, almost daily, we learn of a new scandal, another pastor gone wrong, or another rising star falling from grace? This is not relegated to Christian culture alone; our current political climate provides enough kindling to light a firestorm every few minutes. Our Hollywood culture is never short on people whom we can parade around and critique – as though there is a certain breed of human being created only for sport. We live in a world of fake news and fake eyelashes – a consumeristic culture that insists, almost explicitly, that it’s all about the packaging.
Is it any wonder we desperately crave transparency and authenticity to cleanse our palette from this junk food diet of entertainment and showmanship?
It is with our own cultural landscape in mind that I recently read the first couple chapters of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. With minimal background information as to who she is or where she comes from, we are introduced to Hester Prynne just as she is about to be showcased to the crowd of onlookers and forced to endure public shame for her indiscretions. As the reader, we know even less about her than many of the onlookers and find ourselves poised to speculate as to which role she is to play in the story. (The reader should not judge too quickly).
It was impossible not to notice Hawthorne’s intentional use of language to enunciate the theme of vision throughout this scene. Hester is first introduced as she “stood fully revealed before the crowd.” Her beauty “shone out” as she walked through the lane of “spectators.” The prison-beadle announced his delight to live in a community where “iniquity is dragged out into the sunlight.” As Hester makes her way through the crowd, she “underwent an agony” with every step she took, and it was “as if her heart had been flung into the street for them all to spurn and trample upon.”
And of course, there is the scarlet letter itself, which “drew all eyes” and had the effect of a spell.
Then comes the scaffold. I could not stop from hearing the word “platform” as I envisioned Hester ascending to a place high above the crowd, attracting the attention of all the onlookers. In an age where even our churches have become places of entertainment, the scaffold took on an eerie metaphor for our desire for public praise and our tendency to succumb to self-promotion. But rather than drawing applause and approval, Hester climbed her heights to stand in that “instrument of discipline, so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze.”
My own cheeks almost blush as I consider what it must have felt like to endure such scrutiny, as I imagine myself standing on the scaffold next to Hester Prynne.
And I wonder
Do we really want to be seen?
Do we really want transparency?
Hawthorne captures well the dark side of being fully revealed and fully known in a culture not motivated by love. We cannot control what the crowd thinks of us, nor can we stop the piercing gaze of those who seek to glare into our souls simply that they might call out the ugly they find there. A platform might draw attention; but are we fully prepared to reveal ourselves there?
Most of us don’t expect the platforms we build to turn into scaffolds of public shame. And yet, even if we garner the praise and adoration of the crowd, we’ll spend our whole lives wondering if we’re worthy of it. The shame seems almost inescapable.
To stand in front of the world with nothing to offer but your own vulnerable self takes tremendous courage. And our culture seems profoundly inhospitable to such transparency. It is our cynicism that causes us to long for authenticity, yet it is also our cynicism that causes us to question motives and heave people onto the gallows when their authentic selves turn out to be not quite as beautiful as we had hoped. We hate our culture of showmanship, yet we make it nearly impossible to do anything else.
In the face of that reality, my gut instinct is to run.
But does Hester Prynne run? In the subsequent chapters of The Scarlet Letter, Hawthorne weaves a beautiful tale that challenges our assumptions and shows us a surprising path forward for combatting cynicism in the face of an imperfect culture. We see what it means to “stand in front of the world” and face the brokenness of our humanity and the shame of our indiscretions with courage.
Authenticity is messy. Transparency can be ugly. But there is a quiet beauty hiding in the middle of the mess – if we have the eyes to see it.
Is authenticity a real value in our current culture? Why or why not?
What feelings did the scaffold scene evoke in you personally? How did Hawthorne’s use of language draw you into the scene?
Did you feel sympathetic with Hester Prynne in these chapters? Why or why not?