Monday, December 9, 2013

Jesus Looks Like Me: A Story of Narcissism and Imagination

Image via Wikipedia
This essay was originally published at Imagining Jesus.

by Ben Howard

For a few months during my sophomore year in college I went to a stereotypical evangelical megachurch complete with pseudo-hipster praise band, husband and wife “teaching” pastors, and a vaguely spiritual abstract noun in place of a church name or affiliation.

If it's not obvious from my depiction, this church was never really my scene and I basically went there for a girl. The phrase “for a girl” provides the impetus for a number of my questionable life choices. In order to cope with my growing cynicism toward the worship performance, I began to imagine that Jesus was sitting beside me in the service soaking it all in. And let me tell you, imaginary Jesus thought these worship services were hysterical. We'd share amused smirks during the sermon and try to stifle giggles during the elongated altar calls/praise-band deep cuts.

It turns out that imaginary Jesus felt the same way about megachurches that I did. In fact, it turns out that the Jesus in my mind is an awful lot like me in most ways. He's sarcastic and ironic, but simultaneously sensitive and caring. He's prone to emotional outbursts, but makes a concerted effort at stoicism. Basically, Jesus looks a lot like me, but with better judgment and fewer dickish qualities.

Until I sat down to write this essay I'd never really connected those dots. I'd never placed myself alongside my conception of Jesus long enough to wonder, “Gee, those two look awful similar.” To be honest, I was a bit disappointed with myself for what appeared to be quite a bit of blatant narcissism. I mean, who else would the incarnate God be like if not me?

In a turn that can only be considered ironic in retrospect, that narcissistic conceit was going to be the center of this very post. I could see the universalization of my own self-flagellation unfolding in my mind; a vicious screed against all of us, the self-indulgent first-worlders re-envisioning Christ in our own image. How dare we! I'd probably even end with a pithy statement about how we rob the “I am” of everything but the “I.”

Image via Michael 1952
It might have been good, but it would have been wrong.

Not only would it have focused on a twisted version of the Christian faith which renders God impotent in the face of our almighty misconceptions, it denigrates and apologizes for the kind of similarity and commonality between divinity and humanity that should be celebrated.

Because I really should see myself in Jesus. It's one of the most beautiful parts of the incarnation. I can see myself in God because God is like me.

I'm sure I'm still projecting a lot of my emotions onto Jesus. I'm sure I place too much weight on his scathing indictments of the Pharisees or view him too much through the lens of his temple cleansing antics. Those are the parts where I cheer him on and the parts I turn to when I want a righteous defense for my own indignation.

But I also don't imagine a Jesus exactly like me. The Jesus I see is much more peaceful, more open to people, more willing to see the truth rather than merely the answer. And, since I can see myself there through those other stories, maybe there's a chance I can learn these traits too.

I don't think I'm alone here. I think we all do this to one extent or another. We project ourselves onto Jesus, exaggerating one trait while diminishing another. We all end up with a Jesus that looks astonishingly like us, but without the rough bits.

That's good. We should imagine that Jesus looks like us. Because if that's the case, then there's a good chance we'll start to look a bit more like him in return.

Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.  

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