Although I fancy myself a language teacher, it seems that I am often the last to learn of changes in my own English language. A little over a year ago my teenager daughter bewildered me with her shouts about a friend, "Man, that girl has an attitude!" Naively, I said something like, "Of course she does. Everyone has an attitude of some kind. Why get so excited about someone having an attitude?" In the following fifteen minutes I learned that "attitude" had acquired a greater specificity than I had realized and now meant brazenness, boldness, and cockiness all combined with a defiant strain of anger and streaked with a refusal to trust anyone.
Even more striking than the fact that a formerly neutral word such as attitude had acquired what appeared to me to be such a negative meaning was the revelation that this new "attitude" was actually admired by many teenagers and at least somewhat envied by almost all.
In retrospect, I should not have been too surprised. The antagonistic nuances of "attitude" are part of a much larger picture, a major shift in American society to its present condition as an "in your face" culture.
The theatrical positioning of "professional wrestling" used to be a uniquely clownish fringe of the American sports scene. Now the landscape of major sporting events is filled with belligerence, taunting, and flagrant fouls. The National Basketball Association has failed to deal with the deliberate fouls of the Dennis Rodmans and Major League baseball seems unable to stop ego-driven batters from charging the pitcher after an inside fastball. Bench clearing brawls have become daily fare.
Such flagrant bellicosity receives token repudiation in the form of $10,000 fines to players making millions, but the advertising for the game plays up the hostility as a selling point. It is heard in the raspy fight announcer-like voice building up the personal animosity of National Football League opponents for the coming weekend. It is seen in a local Orlando radio station's sports program, "In Your Face Live." It is virtually felt in Nintendo's advertising line, "Give the world a wedgie."
In News Coverage
Even more troubling than the merchandising of violence by ad agencies is its presence in news coverage. Reporters probing for the big headline ask leading questions and then highlight the most inflammatory parts of an interview. Not only athletes but other celebrities, politicians, and even the unsuspecting "man on the street" are goaded into the most hostile quotations. Slander and character assassination are commonplace. The New Yorker and the tabloids, NBC News and Hard Copy have become all too similar in their coverage of news such as the O.J. Simpson trial.
Entertainment has showcased "in your face" roles for a long time. There does, however, seem to be a proliferation of the Roseanne Barr types for whom humor means laughing at someone else's expense. (Dick Van Dyke where have you gone?) And in the name of realism "the dark side" of our heroes is fully featured.
Political debate is a thing of the past. Candidates from all points on the political spectrum specialize in ridicule, disinformation, and attempts to keep the issues from really being discussed. Never does one hear, "My opponent and I agree on the character of the problem and the first three steps to solving it, but differ on where to go from there." That would portray one's opponent as having too much wisdom. Instead we hear, "My opponent does not understand the basic issues involved in this matter."
Possibly nowhere is this "attitude" more obvious than in the hybrid of news and entertainment found in programs such as "The Rush Limbaugh Show." Limbaugh, a masterful entertainer, laughs, slashes, ridicules his way through an issue in a manner that destroys all possibility of genuine dialogue. It is a style which alienates most of those who were not in agreement with the host before the show began. On the other hand it has developed a fervent band of followers (more loyal even than those of Seinfeld, but not yet so devoted as Trekkies).
Despising the Image and the Glory
Certainly there are many different aspects (psychological, social, economic, political, and religious) of the development of this societal "in your face" attitude. At the risk, however, of being overly simplistic it must be maintained that the most basic element in this sad state of affairs is theological. It is a loss of respect for the human being made in the image of God, and ultimately for God himself.
Scripture clearly teaches that humanity (male and female) was created in the image of God. That image must be seen from two perspectives. Broadly speaking, it refers to our most basic human nature. It is that which distinguished Adam (and distinguishes us) from all other animal life. It is the reason Adam found no communion with the beasts of the field, the reason Eve was formed. Speaking more narrowly, Eph 4:24 and Col 3:16 identify the image of God in terms of righteousness and holiness. These texts, however, make it clear that human beings made in the image of God are not the same today as Adam in the day of creation. The apostle Paul calls for us to be renewed in the image of the creator. It is the testimony of scripture that Adam's fall in sin has had devastating consequences for the image of God. In the narrower sense of the moral excellencies such as righteousness and holiness the image of God has been lost. And in the broader sense of moral capacities such as covenant capabilities the image has been most grievously distorted.
Nevertheless, every human being is still the image of God. That is the point of Genesis 9:6; "Whoever sheds man's blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man." So also James 3:9, "With it [our tongue] we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God."
A critically important point is that the reference to the image of God in both of these texts is not a foray into abstract and pointless theologizing. In both instances the image of God is held out as the basis of conduct that is pleasing to God. Civil law such as capital punishment and the conduct of the daily lives of God's people in matters such as the use of the tongue are the outworking of the fundamental character of people who have been created in God's image.
This line of thought is clarified in the strikingly powerful New Testament texts which speak of Jesus as the true image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15; Heb 1:3) and the renewal of the image in those who are united to Christ (Rom 8:29, Eph 2:15; 4:23-24). Jesus is the true image. His glory is original, not derivative. The image of God in which human beings have been created and recreated is just what the words imply-an image. It is derivative, not original. The reason the image of God is a basis for civil law and Christian conduct (and we might add, evangelism) is not the autonomous glory of the human species but rather the mediated glory of God. To assault the image of God is to assault the glory of God. (The words "glory", "image", and "son" have a high degree of overlap in their use in the Bible.) That's the basis of James' strong warning to "watch out how you use your tongue when talking about people. Do not show contempt for the glory of God." We might say, "Do not share in a culture of arrogance and ridicule. Don't have that attitude."
The Fruit of an In Your Face Culture
The simplest way to describe the results of an in your face culture is "Alienation." There are many symptoms of this alienation but the basic character of them all is separation. It manifests itself in the displacement of dialogue with positioning. News conferences, sound, and lawsuits displace rational interaction. The goal is not real progress, but total conquest in which opponents are humiliated.
A part of this quest for complete conquest is often an inability to distinguish between major and minor issues. Every agenda item is so inextricably bound to ultimate goals that no concessions can be made at any point (either strategically or because one's opponent actually was correct on that minor point). Instead, every statement of the opposition is given its worst possible meaning and every motive is read as cynically as can be imagined.
Curiously, not only does the "in your face" style destroy substantive conversation, it also (in a society such as contemporary America) fails to convince others. Obviously people with an "attitude" fail to change those whom they abusively attack (with rare exceptions). That is a given. Less clearly seen is the fact that the great majority of people in a culture which (rightly or wrongly) fosters the ideal of pluralism will reject strident attacks on any part of that culture. Is this rejection of the in your face attackers a mark of society's inconsistency? That is, isn't it inconsistent for a society which prides itself on its pluralism to accept the in your face attackers on the ground that they do not appreciate pluralism? Of course it is. Does that inconsistency of society give the hope that if one stays in their face, people will see their inconsistency and welcome the opportunity to engage in dialogue? No. Much more likely, the polarization will increase and the battle lines will become rigidly enforced by societal stereotyping. "In your face" does not (in society, in the church, or in the family) build bridges. It builds walls.
Why the Prevalence?
If an "in your face" posture actually thwarts the rational discussion of issues, why is it so prevalent? Again, there are many factors that play a role, and in any particular case there is a unique blend of those factors. In some instances the motivating force is greed. Controversy, hatred, and the outlandish sell. Talk shows hosts from Geraldo to Ricki Lake capitalize on unleashing the most base emotions for public consumption. The facade of concern for people cannot cover the willingness to publicize the dehumanization of those made in the image of God for the sake of advertising dollars. There is an element (a sinfully fallen element) in all of us which revels in Rush's ridiculing expose' of White House folly. There are those who are ready to manipulate and exploit that sinful side of us.
Another factor in the popularity of the "in your face" attitude is its simplicity. In a culture in which educational quality and the abilities of critical thinking are on the decline, simplistic solutions look better and better. It just takes less effort to reject all of someone's views than to separate the wheat from the chaff. Modern means of communication such as television with its 30 second analysis and 15 second sound bites promote shallow discussion in which emotion and appearance count for more than logic and substance. In this information age it is less and less possible to understand any significant issue comprehensively and yet we are expected (and want) to have an opinion on everything from health reform to forms of worship to home schooling. Frustration in the face of this impossible task breeds the acceptance of simple but insufficient answers.
Others are moved primarily by insecurity and fear. Feeling outmatched intellectually, disenfranchised politically, or excluded religiously, some resort to ridicule and intimidation to put opponents at a disadvantage. Religious conservatives who have come from a tradition of anti-intellectualism are particularly susceptible to this temptation. Often the situation is exacerbated by a strong conviction (possibly well deserved) of certainty and sometimes even by pride. The ironic combination of insecurity and pride is fertile ground for the growth of "in your face" hostility.
Still others begin to display the characteristics of the "attitude" because they have learned the behavior from those with whom they share significant views. This is why Rush Limbaugh may be Satan's most carefully crafted "harlot" molded to seduce conservative Christians into thoroughly non-Christian patterns of relationship. The very fact that some (many ?) of his views are consistent with Christian principles makes him that much more dangerous. Because it is so refreshing to hear someone (anyone) resist the typically one sided media presentations, Christians are unwittingly seduced to take another step into the lifestyle of the world and get "in the face" of all those with whom they disagree.
Some, however, are more thoughtful and conclude on the basis of their understanding of the Bible that this style of relating is appropriate, at least some of the time. "After all", so the reasoning goes, "Jesus and Paul were confrontational. They weren't wimps. To be meek doesn't mean to be a door mat." There is a significant element of truth in this position. The meek is strong. Jesus did confront the Jewish leadership and Paul did stand toe to toe with those who preached heterodoxy in Galatia and Colosse.
It is important to note in this connection that Jesus' boldness in rebuking the anti-God actions and attitudes of his opponents was never expressed in ridicule designed to entertain and evoke laughter from a third party audience. It was designed to call to repentance.
This is related to another important observation. Jesus did not hesitate "to draw a line in the sand" when the issues demanded it. He condemned the polluted temple worship (Matt 21:12-13) and the hypocrisy of religious leaders who led people away from God (Matt 23). Jesus, however, knew the difference between major and minor issues. He told people to give "to Caesar that which is Caesar's" (Matt 22:21) even when those taxes were exorbitant and the rule of an ungodly Caesar was an abomination. (Note also Paul's words in Rom 13 under an even more murderous and blasphemous rule.)
Jesus did not "have an attitude." He had perfect boldness and perfect meekness because he had perfect respect for human beings made in God's glorious image. It was the destruction of that glory of God which evoked his condemnation in the temple. It was the restoration of that glory of God in human beings which moved him in bold meekness to Calvary.
The Challenge: Image Transformation
It is ironic that although the New Testament makes it clear that Jesus did not "have an attitude" it is equally clear that he did have a particular kind of attitude-one which is to be the model of interpersonal relationships for all his people. "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus" (Phil 2:5 NASB). Specifically the humility of Christ is pressed upon his people with the instructions, "Do all things without grumbling or disputing" (2:14). This is the path to glory (2:11).
The challenge to the people of God is to resist the constant temptation of a culture which wants to shape us according to its own image. It is a culture which wants to give the people of God an "attitude adjustment." In fact, it is the culture which needs an attitude adjustment. No, not an adjustment. It needs an attitude transformation-an image transformation. It needs to be transformed until it is conformed to the image of the Son of God (Rom 8:29; 12:1), who was in the very form of God yet humbled himself (Phil 2:6-8). When God's children have his attitude then they will be the kind of "lights in the world" that a "crooked and perverse generation" cannot ignore (2:15).