Like many in my generation, I’ve been playing Adele’s mega-smash album 25 on repeat during the last few months. Upon multiple listenings, however, a strange realization has struck me: the album is so pristinely produced–so utterly devoid of mistakes–that it feels almost inhuman. This isn’t the fault of the singer: similar music performed in a more intimate setting, while not without its minor recording imperfections, is much more moving–and, I submit, more beautiful. Instead, the recording-studio practice of morphing tracks–stitching together the best snippets of several takes and seamlessly blending them into a pristine radio edit–is most likely responsible for this curious sense of emotional sterility. Along similar lines, the post-New Year’s season is often a time of introspection and self-improvement vows, a quest for human-engineered perfection that may take any number of forms. Yet this quest, too, is ultimately sterile: there will always be another mile to run, another muscle to build, another pound to lose.
I submit that in many cases, those things that are most beautiful and precious are not those that create an artificial impression of perfection, but rather those that evoke the humble beauty and irreplaceability of the authentic. And accompanying such authenticity–to the undeniable chagrin of many millennials–is the uncomfortable truth that human beings exist in a state of imperfection and imperfectability.
All too often, the contemporary quest for saccharine and un-disturbing things creeps into the spiritual realm of life. I stopped in at a bookstore recently and came across a display hawking Pastor Joel Osteen’s latest religious bromide–The Power of “I Am.” You’d be forgiven for assuming this has something to do with prayer and supplication, but in fact, Osteen’s book co-opts biblical language into the service of banal self-help tropes: “I am strong,” “I am successful,” and so on. The result: a neutered, toothless mutation of Christianity that brings to mind Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s concept of “cheap grace.” Within such a mutation, there is no room for sin or atonement or restoration: only that which is easily and painlessly consumable is left behind. Sanctification via self-esteem is the name of the game.
Yet the affective power and glory of God’s own “I AM” declaration rests not only in the fact that God is great, but in the fact that man is small and incomplete before Him. This great rift between the ultimacy of God and the fragility of man is bridged by Christ taking on the form and nature of imperfect humankind–an Incarnation that many of us celebrated last month. When humans decide to view themselves as a perfectible, self-saving subspecies of deity, the wonder and mystery of such an Incarnation is sacrificed.
That which is most beautiful in art recognizes this, even unconsciously, reflecting our current condition of imperfectability while simultaneously striving to capture the beauty of the Infinite. Similarly, the Epiphany season features imperfect men bringing imperfect gifts to a God who loved our imperfect world. It foreshadows a redemption not attained through human striving, but through a perfect grace from outside ourselves.
And in that, more than in any conceivable New Years’ resolution, there is hope.
Image courtesy of Karrl Huhtanen.