Stiff Necks and Bruised Reeds
Jesus and the deconstruction of authenticity.

Sometime last year, a short passage of Scripture lodged in my brain. It's been rubbing and needling there ever since and challenging the way I think about ministry.

The passage is from Isaiah 42. Describing Jesus, the Suffering Servant, the prophet says: "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." These beautiful snapshots of compassion and tenderness bring to mind the ministry Henri Nouwen describes in The Wounded Healer (Image, 1979). They present a vision of Christian service that suits my personality. That's why I find it so troubling how discordant this sentiment is with the following words of Jesus: "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?"

To put the matter bluntly, this offends my understanding of authenticity. When I think of someone being "real," I usually have in mind that said person behaves the same way around everyone. He's confident "being himself." That's what makes the TV doctor House so endearing. He's a jerk, sure; but he's a jerk everywhere and always. He's so authentic. And, because authenticity is such a central cultural value for people my age, it's easy for me to adopt the mantra, Be yourself. If you're nothing else, be real. But Jesus - he interacted with some people in one way and others in another. That's the textbook (if junior-high) definition of "inauthentic."

I take issue with Jesus' apparent schizophrenia for another reason. I'm a writer and a (some-time) minister trying to make a name for myself in a marketplace - even if it's a Christian marketplace - that rewards people who have a distinct voice, angle, or shtick. It's important for me - and for you, if you want to succeed publicly - to solidify that voice, angle, or shtick and reinforce it consistently so that everyone recognizes my "brand." For some, the shtick is being deeply convicted, confrontational, and brash. For others, it's being open minded, relevant, and chill. Whole product lines and cottage industries are built on these brands, so that the personalities behind them dare not change.

As important as these values - authenticity and consistent branding - are to us, they did not concern Jesus all that much. He did not conduct his ministry according what suited his tastes or personality. He wasn't worried about being "himself." Instead, he did whatever the Father expected him to do (John 6:38). And he didn't present a consistent brand. For the stiff-necked and self-righteous, he narrowed the requirements for participation in the kingdom. For the bruised reed, he opened them. Such inconsistency hurt his fan base. Some people thought he was self-righteous ("Isn't this the carpenter's son?"); others thought he was licentious ("This man welcomes sinners and eats with them"). He didn't seem to care what they thought.

September 12, 2008

Displaying 1–10 of 11 comments

Robert Stacy

September 18, 2008  7:59pm

So it really is about grace and the true condition of the heart, Not of works or exterior disciplines. That CHRIST could look upon what appeared to be the same situation and handle it differently may be perplexing to the world and those who are looking for an excuse to use their liberty for an occasion to sin; however this is the same grace, love, mercy, compassion that we expect in the time of our own personal crisis or deviation into the flesh.

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Steve Grove

September 17, 2008  12:28pm

Treating everyone the same way seems somehow un-authentic to me, rather than the other way around. If I don't take into account where a person is at, I have not really connected with them nor recognized their individuality. Being authentic means being true to what I believe, not treating everyone the same. I am authentic when with one focus I love God with all my heart and soul and my neighbour as myself (which is some self-examining for sheer!).

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Mike Crowl

September 15, 2008  8:26pm

It's important for me—and for you, if you want to succeed publicly—to solidify that voice, angle, or shtick and reinforce it consistently so that everyone recognizes my "brand." I think you mistake brand for authenticity. No writer should spend his time worrying about his 'brand.' Let the advertising world do that; they seem happy to reduce everything to a single focus. A writer who always writes the same sort of thing, or the same sort of story, will certainly have a lot of followers, because many people like to read the same thing over and over; for other readers, variety from an author is a great incentive to read their work. You only find your voice (or your 'brand' if you really want to use that word) by writing. It's something other people recognise, not something you should be worrying about yourself.

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Tim

September 15, 2008  7:36pm

One big reason why this kind of ministry is so hard to find today is because neither Jesus or any of His disciples had any view that ministry required gathering a lot of people into a special building and making sure enough money was collected to pay a group of experts. Who would admit that this institutionalized scenario puts a tragic spin on God's design for building His kingdom? It is a recipe that requires a large dose of "people pleasing". It's all seen as so normal and so inspired by God it almost seems ornery for believers to question it. Consider the pure power of truth with no need for money from the hearers to make it happen. What a radical thought, in view of the recent centuries of tradition.

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irrex

September 12, 2008  7:39pm

Be all things to all people in the hope of reaching some. Paul tells us to be inconsistent from a worldly perspective, but present a consistent Godly message. The physical (or material or carnal) world is just that, the physical, and most of it has little baring on the eternal. The why, the reason, the purpose, the motive, that is what is of value. Paul railed against circumcising Gentile Christians, yet circumcised Timothy (the half Jew). What happened to stay in the state you find yourself? Actually, inconsistency will often make the observer curious. Why do you treat them differently? As a father of four, I couldn't possibly raise them well if I treated each one the same way as another. Their ages and temperaments prevent this from being even remotely successful. Inconsistency in the physical world also helps one understand different people better. How would a person like that perceive this?

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John

September 12, 2008  6:52pm

With regard to the Socrates quote above, Psalm 139: 23-24 is awfully close (and perhaps better as it is God who does the examining): Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

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sheerahkahn

September 12, 2008  10:48am

"An unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates I've often wondered if there is a comparable passage in the bible...if not, there should be. Brandon, It is always a good thing to stop, think, and question yourself, your motives, and your expectations. It is always a good thing to question what you percieve, how others percieve, and whether you need to change your perception, or accept the subject as is. I'm often struggling with this, but most of the time I'm able to pull it off, "better to ask questions before executing my gut reaction to my very subjective perception."

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JLo

September 12, 2008  9:44am

Thank you for this article. This reminds me of some of the things Parker Palmer talks about in his book, Let Your Life Speak.

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Matt

September 12, 2008  8:26am

Right on. Authenticity and transparency and consistency are all very good things. But authentically and transparently and consistently following Jesus is the thing. And it will mean being misunderstood, rejected, or worse. Which bugs me. We're talking a lot now about the "brand" we want to establish in our new church. Thanks for this wake up call. A distinctive brand or style or personality is great–in people and the church. But following Jesus cannot be reduced to a simple, one-dimensional brand.

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mike rucker

September 12, 2008  8:18am

as with any person who is fully human, Jesus had the full range of emotions, thoughts, and abilities to handle (or not handle) interpersonal relationships that we all have. when our biblical hermenuetic forces us to say, no it says here he's THIS way, and he must be THIS way ALL the time, our biblical interpretation is at fault, not Jesus. i always go back to john chapter one, where it says that Jesus was full of grace and truth. that's the goal - that balance - 'let him who is without sin cast the first stone' paired with 'go and sin no more' - to which we should aspire. i have admitted here many times that i err on the side of 'grace'; the mohlers and pipers and pyros in my view err on the side of 'truth'. the reason everyone molds Jesus into their own image is because everyone can mold Jesus into who they want Him to be - and it's based on which scripture passages are allowed to be the dominant voice. this black-and-white, either-or view of Jesus seems to be the calling card of American evangelicals. the polarization in our faith mirrors - or perhaps drives - the polarization in worldviews, classes, and perceived responsibilities that plagues us in the civic and global arena.

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