I saw Laura Bush on TV the other day. I did a second take. She was hilarious! Speaking at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner on April 30, she had the audience in stitches. This was the part that most people will remember:
I am married to the president of the United States, and here’s our typical evening: Nine o’clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I’m watching Desperate Housewives with Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife. I mean, if those women on that show think they’re desperate, they oughta be with George.
I thought the whole thing was a hoot! I saw the President squirming and thought that he had it coming.
Then I discovered that Laura Bush had never ever seen an episode of Desperate Housewives. And that her lines were written for her by conservative gag-writer Landon Parvin. I learnt that she had rehearsed the speech a number of times. And that it was probably her husband’s idea to do the “spontaneous” roast to begin with.
Forgive me. I am a naive country boy from Penang. But I felt quite cynical about the whole affair. It had been made to look spontaneous. The hilarious one-liners rolled off Laura Bush’s tongue as if they were her own. But it had all been scripted. And rehearsed.
Ok. Maybe this was no big deal. Maybe I was hypoglycemic. Maybe my BS filter was accidentally set too high. After all, “scripted spontaneity” happens all the time, especially in American public life. Everybody knows the rules. Nobody was being conned. So what’s the problem?
Well, it’s just that it seems so far away from the world envisaged by Paul when he writes:
“For the appeal we make does not spring from error or impure motives, nor are we trying to trick you. On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. You know we never used flattery, nor did we put on a mask to cover up greed. God is our witness. We were not looking for praise from any human being, not from you or anyone else, even though as apostles of Christ we could have asserted our prerogatives. Instead, we were like young children among you.” (1 Thessalonians 2: 3-7 TNIV)
Paul is referring to preaching the gospel. But underlying his approach to communication is the given that face and voice and heart and truth are all interlinked. He understands that such an approach may be considered naive. But he makes no apology for being among them like “young children.”
I am not trying to give Mrs. Bush a hard time. I respect that she went to bat to help her husband’s falling ratings. It did make the President look more human and therefore more approachable. Mrs. Bush participated in a game with rules that were hardly secret. And she did well.
I guess it’s the game itself that concerns me. In his book, LIFE: THE MOVIE, Neal Gabler writes:
The new consumption-oriented culture “demanded and honoured what (Susman) called personality, which was a function of what one projected to others. It followed that the Puritan culture emphasized values like hard work, integrity and courage. The new culture of personality emphasized charm, fascination, and likability.”
I am concerned not just for society at large. I am concerned first and foremost for the church. Have we also bought into this modern given of style over substance? Step back a little and look at how we do church today. What signals we are giving the watching world?
I look also into my own soul. To what degree have I bought into this value system? When I preach the same sermon for the third time, is my spontaneity spontaneous? I don’t know the answer.
All I know is that a focus on style and image over more substantive concerns, will sap our energy from working on the things that rally matter. The issues of the day need real people in real relationships. People committed to work on the hard realities of life, and not just on how life looks on the 6 o’clock evening news.
Make no mistake. I am sure it takes a lot of hard work and creativity to function well in the personality culture. But I suspect it takes even more work, and much more time, to grow in personal maturity and to build honest relationships.
There is a place for speechwriters. But what we need are the disciplers, mentors and spiritual friends who know the real us behind the public masks. Such people love us for who we are. And encourage us to be all we can be.
I don’t think this will ever happen. But maybe one day I will have a chance to sit down for tea with President and Mrs. Bush. We will share our stories. Our fears. Our hopes. We will note our differences. And we will seek to encourage each other to better follow Christ.
Like I said, I don’t think this will ever happen. And so I continue to see only the Bushes that the media portrays. And wonder.
Your brother, Soo-Inn Tan Write