In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
The gospel we nod to today is something like: believe in yourself. Be authentic. Be you. You’re beautiful. Fulfill your dream.
Everywhere I go here in Rome – at restaurants, bars, stores – Love My Life is playing. At lunch this week I found myself tapping my feet and humming its catchy melody. It seemed like the usual hit song: “you are wonderful, you are beautiful…” I proceeded to the next bite of my sandwich until I realized: wait a minute. This song is not about the songwriter’s wonderful, beautiful Beloved. It is about exaltation of the Self.
Here’s the chorus:
I love my life
I am powerful
I am beautiful
I am free
I love my life
I am wonderful
I am magical
I am me
I love my life
What a transition. I am used to singing on Sundays something like “You are wonderful, you are beautiful…” – the “you” being God. The songs that usually play in the radio sing something like “You are wonderful, you are beautiful” to the romantic Other. But Robbie Williams’ Love My Life marks a major transition: to an epoch where nothing is more exalted than Myself. “I am magical, I am me, I love my life.” Or take Christina’s Aguilera’s Beautiful from a few years ago:
I am beautiful no matter what they say.
Words can’t bring me down.
I am beautiful in every single way.
I repeat: what a transition. The transcendent Object we exalt in our songs is increasingly not God, or Her, but Me. The gospel we nod to today is something like: believe in yourself. Be authentic. Be you. You’re beautiful. Fulfill your dream.
This shift has major implications. For whatever we exalt to transcendence, whatever we center our lives around, whatever comes to define our decisions, emotions and actions, becomes our functional god. We live to serve it. We live to satisfy its demands. And if such god is not the true God who lays down his life for us, it will crush us.
The novelist David Foster Wallace put it this way:
In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship… The compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
It is a pragmatic argument, but it works. No thing can be made God without distorting us in the process. It will melt under the transcendent spotlight, and we will be chained to it. Even the exaltation of the Beloved to our most supreme love – what Ernest Becker called The Romantic Solution - will put an unbearable weight upon a human relationship and lead to disappointment.
And if I am the exalted one? Oh boy, run for cover. There will be self-affirmation, then self-doubt, then sense of superiority toward others, then guilt, then depression, then finger-pointing …
… then the need to exalt frail Me once again.
René Breuel is a pastor in Rome. He is editor of Wondering Fair.