When Titus attacked Jerusalem in 66-70 A.D., before ordering its destruction, Titus entered the Most Holy Place to see for himself what was really hidden behind that veil. He found, to his dismay, nothing, besides the Mercy Seat. There was “nothing there”.
Titus is like many modern Christians, intoxicated with the idea of ‘sincerity’, ‘authenticity’, and ‘realness’. These Christians similarly wish to strip away what they call “masks”, remove what they consider inauthentic, or even phony, so that we can get at the real reality. You’ll hear them speak about the ‘curse of religiosity’, about people ‘hiding behind traditions’.
What are these masks, in their opinion? Usually, it is any kind of (older) custom, ritual, tradition or form. If something doesn’t seem to be transparent to the mind, colloquial in expression, informal or casual in approach, it seems opaque to their impatient desire for immediate comprehension. They reason that if something is slowing you down when it comes to perception, it must be a deliberate attempt to obscure, befuddle, or even lord it over you. The keep-it-real man is almost always a populist, suspicious of what is not easily perceivable. And if there is an easier, more casual, more informal way of saying the same thing, they conclude that every instance of formalism is some kind of posturing, some desire to be aloof and make it more difficult than it has to be.
It could be a dress code for the pulpit. It could be singing songs with exalted language. It could be preaching in a dignified manner, or even from behind an elevated pulpit. It could be architecture that represents classical Christian ideas. It could be following a set order of service. It could be hymns with dense lyrics, or unfamiliar melodies. It could be a more formal prayer to God.
But for the authenticity hound, this is smoke and mirrors. For him, formal language, formal orders of service, formal approaches to God, chivalry, manners and customs are moves towards unreality. He suspects that the Christians and the leaders doing these things refuse to ‘be themselves’. After all, he has spoken to them outside of Sunday services, and they are ‘normal’, then. So, what can all this be, except an act of some kind? How could the same man adopt two different modes of speech for different occasions? Isn’t that the mark of an actor?
The reason the authenticity hound concludes these things is that he has been inculturated by the counter-culture. He believes the more immediate and unrehearsed the self-expression, the more honest it must be. Rehearsed, planned, or formal expression involves forethought, and is therefore guilty-on-sight of calculating posturing. To him, spontaneous expression prevents insincerity from intruding because it just expels out the mouth whatever is on the mind – there is no time to rehearse. This is supposedly the mark of the honest – those willing to be ‘vulnerable’, transparent’, ‘out there’.
Of course, this would make the poetry of David an exercise in faked piety, because poetry is almost never spontaneous. It would make the Lord’s Prayer an exercise in masks, because it is known and rehearsed. It would make the Bible itself less-than-authentic, for every book was carefully written following a literary form.
What the sincerity-junkie cannot see is that there are reasons for formality other than posturing, hypocrisy or evasion. A suit and tie at a funeral, a wedding-dress and vows at a wedding, opening a door for a lady, using titles for people in authority, table manners, an eloquent love-letter, or a poem are not exercises in deception. They are the ways we “dress-up” physical reality to signify greater realities. A form may not be hiding reality, it may in fact be clothing it with beauty and significance. That is, formality is often a way of improving something ordinary, adorning it with beauty, so that we now see something more than just the physical thing. We see what it represents, what it envisions. We see man made in God’s image, not merely physical man of the dust.
Though his writing is dense, I heartily recommend reading this extended quote by Richard Weaver. Writing in the 40s, Weaver perfectly defines and explains the motives of the Realness Police:
“We turn our attention to a kind of barbarism appearing in our midst and carrying unmistakable power to disintegrate. This threat is best described as the desire of immediacy, for its aim is to dissolve the formal aspects of everything and to get at the supposititious reality behind them. It is characteristic of the barbarian, whether he appears in a precultural stage or emerges from below into the waning day of a civilization, to insist upon seeing a thing “as it is.” The desire testifies that he has nothing in himself with which to spiritualize it; the relation is one of thing to thing without the intercession of imagination. Impatient of the veiling with which the man of higher type gives the world imaginative meaning, the barbarian and the Philistine, who is the barbarian living amid culture, demands the access of immediacy. Where the former wishes representation, the latter insists upon starkness of materiality, suspecting rightly that forms will mean restraint…
The member of a culture, on the other hand, purposely avoids the relationship of immediacy; he wants the object somehow depicted and fictionized, or, as Schopenhauer expressed it, he wants not the thing but the idea of the thing. He is embarrassed when this is taken out of its context of proper sentiments and presented bare, for he feels that this is a reintrusion of that world which his whole conscious effort has sought to banish. Forms and conventions are the ladder of ascent. And hence the speechlessness of the man of culture when he beholds the barbarian tearing aside some veil which is half adornment, half concealment. He understands what is being done, but he cannot convey the understanding because he cannot convey the idea of sacrilege. His cries of aheste profani are not heard by those who in the exhilaration of breaking some restraint feel that they are extending the boundaries of power or of knowledge.
Every group regarding itself as emancipated is convinced that its predecessors were fearful of reality. It looks upon euphemisms and all the veils of decency with which things were previously draped as obstructions which it, with superior wisdom and praiseworthy courage, will now strip away. Imagination and indirection it identifies with obscurantism; the mediate is an enemy to freedom…Barbarism and Philistinism cannot see that knowledge of material reality is a knowledge of death. The desire to get ever closer to the source of physical sensation-this is the downward pull which puts an end to ideational life.” – Ideas Have Consequences