10 May 2012

caricatures and character

'You know, there are things that are much worse than dying. If you've ever spent an evening with an insurance salesman, you know what I mean.'

Woody Allen uses a running gag throughout several of his movies regarding how unbearable it is to spend time with anyone who sells insurance.

My favourite is when Virgil Starkwell, the bumbling crook who's 'ingenious' schemes for crimes always end up in disaster (and land him back in prison) in 'Take the Money and Run', is sentenced to serve at a remote work camp, breaking down boulders with sledgehammers and pickaxes in stifling heat. He botches an attempt to escape, and is punished to spend a week in their version of 'solitary confinement', which is a pitch dark sweat box below the ground. And to make matters worse, he has to spend the entire time with an insurance salesman.

I don't believe that these jokes derive from some inner hatred within Allen of the insurance industry in general, nor of those who make a living by selling insurance. My sense is that he just chose a job where a person, in order to succeed, can't fully and truly be themselves. They need to create a kind of aura about themselves that communicates real enthusiasm about the finer details of the differences between term and permanent, basic liability or comprehensive insurance. i mean, is there anyone on the planet who TRULY gets excited and passionate about insurance?

(Apologies to any of you who actually DO. And condolences THAT you actually DO.)

Instead of being perceived as a person with a unique sense of character, the person in situations like this tends to be seen more as a generic caricature.

And quite honestly, i cannot think of any profession for which this description applies more precisely and is more widely proliferated throughout western culture than that of a pastor.

The caricatures of pastors can be more liberally-minded or conservative in approach. But they all seem to fit into a general image: out-of-touch, head-in-the-clouds, 'nicer'-than-thou lovers of potlucks and pinocle, rummage sales and Reformation Sundays, gleefully engaging in a form of friendship called 'fellowship' that only takes places in 'halls' designed for it that feature tepid coffee and stale donuts, surface conversations happening in social cliques and segregated clusters...personality-less parsons, opinion-less oblates who serve as a sacred screen upon which faithful adherents of 'churchianity' can project all their expectations and entitlements, their prejudices and presuppositions, their issues and insecurities.

A sacred 'salesman' who has the 'best product in the world (and beyond the world)' and needs only to 'sell' it to the masses in the least offensive, most appealing way.

A cassocked cypher.

Some have said that there are direct parallels between these images of insurance salespeople and pastors.

One sells 'home' insurance, to keep you 'covered' in the event of a natural disaster causing drastic demolition and domiciliary devastation.

The other sells 'fire' insurance, to keep you 'saved' in the event of a supernatural disaster causing total annihilation and eternal damnation.

But in this perspective, BOTH are 'selling' something.

And so, BOTH have to take on more of the nature of a caricature than a person with character.

Of course, part of the irony in all of this is that part of the caricature that a pastor (and a salesperson for that matter) seems to be required to embody is that of being a person with character. It strengthens the image and builds confidence in the 'customer' to know that the person selling the product to them has a strong sense of integrity and honesty, and therefore, would not be misleading them or misrepresenting what they are selling to them.

And embodying character is something that ultimately emerges from the deepest part of the self. It is not something that a person can easily 'put on'. It takes the presence of the real thing for it to reveal itself in a person's life in an authentic and convincing way.

Hence, there are plenty of people of great character who are required by their vocational calling in life to take on the role of a caricature in order to do their job more effectively, and even to keep their job. Sometimes at the risk of hiding and denying their deeper, truer, more real inner character in the necessary effort of maintaining the required image of the caricature.

And we are continually astonished and amazed when the character of these people finally emerges from underneath the pressure of maintaining the caricature in ways that offend and 'scandalize' our expectations and entitlements, our prejudices and presuppositions, our issues and insecurities.

And i wonder why.

I mean, think of the barber who is so scared of cutting peoples' hair that he becomes a caricature in order to at least try to fool people that he's doing his job (by using a recording of hair being cut), but then reveals that his deeper desire is to be...a LUMBERJACK! And he breaks into song at the thought of living out his dream! What's so shocking and scandalous about that?

Well, it ISN'T all that shocking or scandalous...until he starts revealing his even truer and deeper character as the song continues...and by the time the caricature has fully dissolved in the redemptive (and in this case, purposely ridiculous) reality of his character as a CROSS-DRESSING lumberjack, all his colleagues (and background singers) have ditched him, and even his 'best girly' bolts from his side with her illusions shattered in tears.

(Yes, for all their incredible madness, Monty Python always had an ingenious method of sending up cultural norms in ways that address both the surface and underlying issues.)

And then it hits me why it is always so shocking and scandalous for us to experience these revelations of hidden reality emerging in our midst.

It's because we prefer the spurious, sparse safety and sham security of the caricature to the unpredictable, uncontrollable uniqueness, the scandalous strength and controversial challenge of character.

It's why we expect certain people fulfilling a more public role to communicate the 'truths' we already know in ways that only confirm our sensibilities and reinforce the caricature, revealing only enough of their true character to give us confidence that they are trustworthy spokespeople for what we have always believed in the ways the we have believed.

It's why, when any of those people allow more of their true character to be revealed, whether it be in the sharing of their own opinions or beliefs on certain issues as a way of engaging others in conversation (and therefore, hopefully, in relationship), or in offering their strongest gifts to others in ways that fit more naturally in meeting the needs of those struggling and suffering, and less the conventions of those expecting the maintenance of the status quo, this usually results in those people having to endure the slings and arrows of unmet expectations and confounded entitlements.

It's why, more often than not in our culture, charismatic caricatures are canonized.

And those with compelling character are crucified.

We all have 'roles' to 'play' in life...child, parent, spouse, friend, employer, employee, student, teacher. And there's nothing inherently 'good' or 'bad', 'authentic' or 'inauthentic' about those roles. They are simply parts of our selves and our lives that we fill and fulfill, to varying degrees.

At times, living out of these roles requires a certain amount of 'playing' a caricature.

But down underneath, there is always some sense, however faint, of a truer, more real and natural self, a compelling character empowered by a subtle and supernatural Spirit that emerges more and more as the journey evolves.

The questions...for me...and perhaps for all of us...are these:

What will we venerate and value the most...
That which soothes or scandalizes us?
That which coddles or challenges us?

WIll we continue to canonize the charismatic caricatures and crucify those with compelling character?

Will we allow the parts of ourselves that are required to act in caricature kinds of ways overwhelm and overpower that truer, more real sense of self and Spirit beneath the surface, that living presence of character that is longing to empower us for deeper, more meaningful engagement with others, our world, our selves and our lives?

i sense that when we allow character to be the driving force in our culture and our lives, and allow caricature to have its place as a smaller part of a much broader and deeper mosaic of existence, a power is unleashed for us to be more freely who we are created to be.

And when glimpses of that character-driven reality flash out over the frazzled, frenetic landscape of our world, it actually seems to matter less whether you're an insurance salesperson or a pastor, a cross-dressing lumberjack or a bumbling wanna-be bank robber...whether you speak out in favour of same-sex marriage or advocate for amendments to forbid it.

Because when you and me are free to be,
even when we disagree,
new light below shines from above,
there's less to fear and more to love.


  1. Hi Friend! Some great truths wrapped up in this blog, for sure. I can certainly feel your pain as well as your passion in your writing. Keep writing!

    1. thanks, melissa...all our love to you, friend :)