On Being Well-Dressed: A New Year's Dialogue

Korey D. Maas
Wednesday, May 30th 2007
May/Jun 2003

April came through the coffeehouse door, bleary-eyed from an obviously late night. She muttered an order, rummaged through her purse for coins, and collapsed on the couch.

“So,” she asked bluntly, “you make any New Year’s resolutions?”

Tony scratched his stubbled chin—he, too, had apparently had a late night—and, not even looking up from his reading, mumbled absentmindedly, “Nah, I never really bother.”

“Ah, right, I forgot.” She continued in good humor, but with more than a hint of sarcasm, “Christians are already perfect.”

He finally brought his eyes up from the book in his lap, and with just a hint of a smile, he took the bait. “No,” he said, “not perfect, just forgiven. Haven’t you been keeping up with the clever bumper stickers?”

“Hah!” she laughed, the caffeine already seeming to take effect. “You told me Lutherans don’t believe in bumper-sticker theology.”

Touche.” Tony was glad to cede the point. “But seriously,” he continued, “as trite and as cliche as it may be, that particular sticker is correct, at least as far as it goes.”

“Yeah,” she asked skeptically, “and just how far do bumper stickers go?”

“Not far; not far at all.”

The dialogue lulled, but as Tony set down his book and picked up his coffee, a monologue continued in his mind: “Is that popular phrase merely trite? Sure, it’s true; but what do those words really mean: perfection, forgiveness?” Not wanting the opportunity to be lost, he began a new line of thought.

“You know, April,” he said, leaning forward, “on second thought, maybe it’s not necessarily wrong to say that Christians are perfect. I mean, if …”

She interrupted quickly and energetically, nearly spilling her tea. “Wait, wait, wait! I’m not even a Christian—I don’t buy everything you say about sin, not even most of the stuff you say about sin—but I’m still not naive enough to think that somebody might be perfect. As a matter of fact, isn’t that precisely why I hear you always bad-mouthing this Wesley character? If you’re perfect then who needs the forgiveness you’re always talking about?”

“Wesley?” he thought; “she really does remember these conversations.” With that in mind, he leaned back and began to weigh his words carefully. “Well,” he said slowly, “if we wanted to put it in bumper sticker language, we might say that Christians are perfect because they’re forgiven. Obviously we’re not perfect in everything we do, but we are perfect insofar as God sees us.”

“That’s some God you’ve got,” the playful sarcasm returned, “one who misses something any ten year old can see.”

Tony leaned forward again, elbows on his knees. “Actually, it’s just the opposite. He looks at something we can’t see. He’s got a perspective we don’t have. Sure, we can look at Christians and see all the things they do wrong. But when God sees us he sees what Jesus has done right. For example, when the apostle Paul talks about baptism, he talks about being ‘clothed with Christ’ (Gal. 3:27). It’s as though God pays more attention to the clothing than to the person wearing the clothing.”

“Frankly,” she confessed—a bit too frankly, he thought— “that doesn’t make any sense.”

Pausing, reaching for an analogy, he asked, “Okay, have you seen My Fair Lady?

“Oh no,” she groaned, setting down her cup and grabbing her head; “not this again. You know I can’t stand Audrey Hepburn movies!”

“What?” he asked incredulously. “No, I didn’t know that. All Hepburn films, even Breakfast at Tiffany’s? What about Roman Holiday? Classics!”

“Classics, schmassics,” she huffed, dismissing the idea. “You like them because she’s thin and beautiful. I dislike them for the same reason. If there’s anything classic about them it’s the classic example of an impossible Hollywood standard of beauty, one that girls inevitably think they have to meet.”

Something flickered in Tony’s mind. Not wanting to lose the train of thought, however, he made a note to return to it. “Well, maybe,” he said instead; “but you have seen it?”

“When I was an impressionable young girl,” she confessed, her voice getting higher. It was a not-so-subtle indication of the irreparable harm she believed it may have caused her.

He couldn’t help laughing as he tipped his coffee cup toward her. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“I am, actually; but continue.”

“Okay,” he began, “My Fair Lady. The whole point was to take Eliza Doolittle, this flower girl, this ‘gutter snipe,’ as she was called—dirty clothes, foul smell, grating accent—and somehow to pass her off in high society. Obviously she couldn’t have just walked into that fancy ball and announced, ‘I’m as good as any of you; you have to accept me!’ So Professor Higgins taught her proper manners and pronunciation, had her bathed, and put her in a new dress. The same people who previously wouldn’t have glanced twice at her are suddenly whispering about how charming she is. And yet,” he concluded, “she’s still a flower girl with a drunk for a father.”

April sunk into a slouch on the sofa and, unimpressed with the brief review, asked pointedly, “And?”

“And the point of the whole charade is, I think, summed up when one of the characters says, ‘the difference between a lady and a flower girl isn’t how they behave, but how they are treated.’ I doubt very much that the writer intended any biblical allusion, but there is an incredible similarity between that idea and the way Scripture talks about a person coming before God. For example, Jesus tells a parable of a wedding banquet (Matt. 22:1-14). In order to get through the door, the guests have to be wearing certain clothes. If they wear the clothes, they’re in; if they don’t, they’re not. The thing is, in the parable, Jesus specifically says that even ‘sinners’ were allowed to attend. The same is true of Eliza Doolittle. If she’d come to the ball looking the way she normally did, she wouldn’t have been allowed in. The only thing that gets her through the door is the way she’s dressed. It’s no different with us. In and of ourselves we’re completely unworthy to stand before God; but because we’re ‘wearing Christ,’ so to speak, he does accept us.”

Giving herself time to think this over, April simply said, “Of course, you know that no one would make a movie like that today.”

“Why is that?” he asked.

“Well, all right,” she replied, sitting upright again. “I suppose there is something appealing about the story. And I know it’s not the point, but, still, the idea that a lady who flits around in a ball gown is somehow better than a flower girl? It just seems, I don’t know, classist.”

“Sure,” Tony admitted, “but when we’re talking about God, of course he is better than us. He’s holy; he’s perfect. He is who he is; and because we are who we are—unholy and imperfect—we simply can’t approach him as we are. In fact, something like this is described even in the Old Testament. Moses had to take his shoes off before he approached the burning bush (Exod. 3:5); the Israelite priests had to wear special clothing before they entered the holiest part of the temple (Lev. 16:2-4). God himself was present in both. All of this points forward to the New Testament idea that Jesus covers us with forgiveness, that we’re baptized into Jesus; we’re clothed with him and therefore fit to stand in God’s presence.”

April stared into her cup and let that sink in for a moment. When she looked up, she returned to a previous point. “You still have to admit that it sounds an awful lot like God is being tricked. I mean, people are still sinful, correct? And yet God can’t see that because Jesus hides it? It all sounds more than a bit dishonest. God was duped and that means people can call themselves perfect?”

“I suppose you’re right,” he confessed, thinking this over. “What I should have said actually goes one step further. It’s not simply that Christ hides sin. He removes it. In fact, he removes it and places it on himself. There’s a very interesting Old Testament passage in which God comes to a prophet who’s dressed in rags. He tells him, ‘Take off your filthy clothes and I will dress you in rich garments.’ After that he goes on to explain that the removal of the dirty clothing represents the removal of sin (Zech. 3:3-5). And I only remember this because of a story written by Walter Wangerin. He writes about a ragman, a man who goes around town exchanging old rags for new ones. At one point he takes a coat from an old, hunched-over man, and gives the man a new coat. When they exchange coats, the elderly man walks upright again while the ragman becomes hunched over. He keeps doing that sort of thing until the entire town is healed and the ragman himself dies. The story, of course, is better than the summary. But Wangerin is attempting to illustrate what happened on the cross. Christ took the world’s sin, put it on himself, and clothed us with his own perfection. It’s what the reformers sometimes call the ‘glorious exchange.’ More to the point, it’s what the Bible simply calls the gospel, the good news of forgiveness.”

“Well, I’ll give you this; if it’s true, then it is good news. But,” she winked, “I still can’t help thinking it would be better news if told without all the Audrey Hepburn analogies. You know I’m right about her being a poor role model.”

This reminder caught Tony’s attention. “Actually, you’re right, and I’m glad you brought it up again.”

“Oh no,” she laughed, “what did I just get myself into?”

“You are right,” he said again, getting excited; “she is a discouraging role model. But why?”

“As I said before, she’s held up as an impossible standard to imitate.” The playful mood that had surfaced just a moment before quickly disappeared. “A whole generation of girls grew up thinking they had to look like her. Some still do, and they can’t; nobody can! Anyone who seriously thinks she has to make herself that thin, that beautiful, that cheerfully energetic, is doomed to a life of self-loathing, doubt, and depression. And it happens all the time; it’s sickening!”

He reached for his coffee and allowed her a moment to calm down before cautiously suggesting, “You may not realize this, but your grasp of theology really is astounding.”

“I’m not talking about theology,” she flared again, “I’m talking about rotten cinema!”

“I know you are,” he said as calmly as possible; “but, sadly, it sounds like you’re talking about what often passes for Christianity today.”

She drained her cup and set it on the table. Then, calmly, but still looking irritated, she said, “I honestly have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Have you ever heard Jesus described as a role model? Or, to come back to where we began, have you ever seen a bumper sticker asking, ‘What Would Jesus Do?'”

“Of course I have; they were everywhere a few years ago.” The roll of her eyes and the tone in her voice indicated that she was none too pleased by that fact.

“Then let me ask you very bluntly: if you think Audrey Hepburn is an impossible role model, how do you feel about trying to imitate God incarnate?” He let that hang in the air a moment before continuing. “Now consider that Audrey never commanded you to be like her; God does demand that you be like him. That’s the essence of the law found in the Bible, God insisting that man be perfect. Unfortunately, too many people think this law is the essence of Christianity itself, God demanding that we be like Christ. In fact, it’s the gospel that’s the essence of Christianity, God assuring us that, despite our imperfection, he sees none of our faults. But when the law is the only message people hear, and when they realize it’s impossible to fulfill, they find themselves precisely as you described: doubting and despairing.”

April easily made the connection; she’d heard that sort of preaching before. With a twinge of guilt she realized that her own impression of Christianity hadn’t been far from what Tony described. She’d have to give this some more thought. But even if what he was saying were true, there still remained one big question in her mind.

“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” she began.

“Go ahead.”

“God demands perfection?”

“True,” he nodded.

“And it’s God himself who sees the Christian as perfect?”

“Right,” he nodded again.

“Well, then,” she paused; “if God is the one who both makes the demand and fulfills the demand, then why doesn’t he do so for everybody? I mean, if God is the one who is doing everything, then why do you believe that not everyone will be in heaven?”

There was no easy way to answer the question. He swirled the cold coffee left in the bottom of his cup, downed it, and wished he had the change for another. “I tell you what,” he finally began; “if you’re willing to suffer one more illustration from My Fair Lady, I’ll attempt to answer that.”

She stifled a groan and waved him on.

“Do you remember,” he asked, “what happened when Professor Higgins’s servants first tried to transform Eliza from a flower girl to a lady, when they tried to give her a bath and some new clothes?”

“No,” April said honestly.

“They had a devil of a time,” he said, not intending the pun. “She not only refused to give up her filthy clothes, but, thinking she didn’t need a bath, she tried to fight off three or four maids. As they stuffed her in the tub, she kept screaming, ‘I’m a good girl, I am!’ It’s not far from the picture of sinful man’s reaction to God’s grace.”

“In what sense?” she asked.

“In the sense that we have the promise of a better life, of life in Christ and with Christ, and God himself is attempting to fulfill that promise. And yet sometimes we either cling to our old sinful life, or we’re so blinded by thinking we’re actually pretty good people, that we reject the gift being offered. In other words, some people simply refuse to let God fulfill his promise.”

It wasn’t exactly the answer she’d hoped to hear, but in a strangely uncomfortable way it made sense. After some moments of silence, she concluded the conversation by saying, “I’ll admit this much; you’ve given me some things to think about.” Collecting her coat and her bag, April stood to leave. “I’ll do that and let you get back to your book. What are you reading, anyway?”

“It’s a play. By tomorrow morning I have to write an essay explaining why its theme remains so timeless.” Tony turned the slim volume toward her so she could read the title: Pygmalion.

“Hmm,” she murmured, “never heard of it.” And she was out the door.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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