He sat across from me, staring down at the table between us, anxious and uncomfortable. “I’m so sorry” was all I could manage, and even that came out forced and uncertain. In the previous ten minutes, the young man had condensed his entire high school experience down to one story, one mark: a deformity which stretched across his left cheek and over half an ear, burnt red and inescapable for both of us. There was some teasing and name calling, but mostly there was a letter he sent to a girl, a confession of love, which was spurned because of this disfigurement, and the aftermath was his withdrawal from the world. For a time, he entertained suicidal thoughts and other forms of self-harm. But then a miracle happened.
“You don’t need to be sorry,” he said, continuing the story. Stumbling through the channels one Sunday morning, the young man stopped to watch a sermon preached by a famous mega-church pastor. The preacher’s message was simple: God loves you today, right now, just as you are. You are beautiful and good to Him and He has amazing plans to bless your life today. He said all these things, but he didn’t need to; the preacher’s image spoke the message just as clearly. A tall man with a winsome and bright smile, athletic build, a sharp suit, swept-back brown hair, and clean-shaven white cheeks. The telecast regularly cut to his wife sitting in the front row, a stunning blond woman in her mid-thirties, and then the camera would pan out to capture the massive audience there to hear the preacher in person.
Above all, the young man felt loved and accepted by this handsome pastor. His words of hope and affirmation were enough to get the boy out of bed each morning to face a hostile and superficial world. He was faithful to watch the televangelist every Sunday morning. This was his church now. It was a body that accepted his body, which was all he ever wanted.
How could I tell him that the televangelist was a conman selling a snake-oil gospel which preyed on the fears and insecurities of the weak and needy, a man many evangelical leaders consider to be a heretic? The preacher’s gospel was the “good news” of his own good life: career success, a beautiful wife and kids, and an attractive body. What the young man saw in the televangelist was the hope that his deformity might disappear.
The tragedy of this was that the local church bodies failed to love this young man bodily. The Body of Christ in his community did not tangibly communicate God’s existence-affirming love to him, and so he turned to a disembodied church and the hope of an ideal body, an ideal life. Only, this “ideal” is impoverished; this ideal is the real deformity. It images the adoption and embrace we have in Christ as some shallow, middle class, white male fantasy of the American Dream. The God who formed us in the womb loves us much deeper than that. And the hope we have in Him resurrects our bodies. May His body here on earth share the Good News of the Resurrection of Christ’s body and ours, the beauty of which reveals all our human models for the Good Life to be the petty, shallow, shadowy things that they are.
Some details of this account have been altered out of respect for those involved.
This article was adapted from the editor’s letter in the most recent issue of Christ and Pop Culture Magazine, “Seeing Our Bodies.”