The Pompous Jerk in the Shallow End
I recently overheard a discussion between two guys that got me thinking. They were talking about how they see shallow Christianity marketed everywhere they look. But more than the prevalence of less than challenging pop-spirituality, they were specifically put off by the way some of their closest friends seem to mindlessly not only accept but passionately defend these “products.”
Then one guy commented on something that I must admit I can empathize with all too well. He said recently that one of his friends shared with him something said by a popular Christian speaker that had really encouraged her. She told him how this little phrase really caused her to think and made her want to be more intentional about this particular aspect of her Christian life.
The guy said he was happy for his friend and even told her how great it was that she’d heard something which made her want to be a more faithful Christian. But she wanted his opinion on the statement she was excited about. “I’m glad it was helpful to you,” he said. But she still wanted his opinion on the statement. He told her it didn’t matter what his opinion was, she was encouraged by this statement, which was obviously why the speaker had said it – cool. But she pressed on and he told her why he didn’t think it was a very accurate statement theologically. And as I listened to this guy talking I was in total agreement. The implicit theology wasn’t very good…it was actually quite bad.
Of course his friend was angry that he disagreed and let him know, in no uncertain terms from what I could gather, that she thought he was overly critical and a bit arrogant. Which may or may not be true, who knows.
But the whole deal got me thinking about spiritual depth. Many of us have heard, and probably used, the phrase that something is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” I love the opening lines of Richard Foster’s classic, Celebration of Discipline:
Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem. The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.
I began to think about the way I finally learned to swim. It was the cliché approach of being thrown into the deep end of the pool and told, “sink or swim.”
I, of course, like telling that story.
I like it because, obviously I didn’t sink or else I wouldn’t be here – so obviously I’ve mastered the depths. I can tell that story and say, “I am quite impressive in my ability to overcome tremendous difficulties, aren’t I?” without the disdainful need to actually come out and say it.
But I don’t often tell the parts of the story leading up to that event. That my parents had paid for swimming lessons for several summers to no avail. That I’d spent hours splashing about like a complete idiot with no real progress. That all conventional wisdom said I’d already learned how to swim…I just wasn’t smart enough to realize it.
Yep, I’m a master of all things deep all right.
I know a guy who really wants to understand a certain Old Testament prophetic book. He spends so much time reading this book over and over. It seems that every time I see him he says, “Well, I now understand [some section of the book].” He sounds quite proud of his accomplishment. Meanwhile, back in my master-of-the-depths mind I’m thinking, “Yeah… I bet you don’t.”
His reading is incredibly shallow. He and I have had conversations about understanding the style of writing (I try not to sound pompous by talking about genre and literary criticism) – appreciating the nature of Hebrew apocalyptic writings especially (but I can’t help it, I guess I’m a bit pompous). We’ve talked about reading the book, to best of our ability through the eyes and ears of those who would have originally received this oracle. We’ve talked about what different things could mean and what they probably didn’t mean. We’ve actually had quite a few conversations. And every one begins with a need to rehash the same fundamental principles that he’s forgotten since the last time we talked.
And then it hits me. I’m a jerk.
I am a big, fat, pompous jerk.
Here’s a guy who very sincerely wants to understand this book. He pours over it. He reads and rereads things that he doesn’t understand and then comes to talk to me even though I hardly ever agree with what he’s decided it means. He continues to ask this pompous arrogant jerk to help him understand the Word of God. And so I ask, who is the deep person in this relationship? Now admittedly, I try to keep my pompous arrogant jerkness on the inside, and sometimes I even succeed – but that isn’t really the point is it?
People who dedicate their lives to the study of something – of anything really – are faced with the burden of thinking about that something more than most people. It is their (translated = my) responsibility to treat others with grace and compassion regarding their own study of the same material. And here’s the important realization that I continually come back to: it is okay for people to be a different levels of depth.
There is a shallow end of the pool for a reason, and there’s a reason also why the shallow water gets deeper gradually rather than all at once. And just because I’m in over my head, doesn’t even necessarily mean I’m in the deep end…I am kinda short. The point is, I need to realize that there are many areas in my own spiritual development that probably cause others to laugh at my need for arm-floaties…who am I to be anything but patient with others?
I agree with Richard Foster, superficiality is the curse of our age. I agree that we are in desperate need of deep people. But perhaps we are running equally short on gracious people. And without both of these traits, neither will be as effective as our society desperately needs them both to be.