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