Few people deny words the power of sticks and stones.
Some words land with blunt force. Others, like splinters, break off beneath the skin, irritating until you pay them the attention they crave. Kurt Vonnegut’s words troubled me, like splinters just below surface level, all last week. The quotation in question derives from a book I haven’t read—I heard it on a baseball podcast, of all places.
We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.
Sifting back through memories of all my pretend personas, I came across still frames of a younger me in the backyard, toy gun in hand, racing to recreate the moves of a younger Johnny Depp on 21 Jump Street. I dodged Vonnegut’s diagnosis, never resembling either the New Wave James Dean figure Depp cut in the 1980s or the barnacle-covered pirate of today.
In episode after episode of front-yard fantasy, I imagined myself with the body of a baseball star and, keeping a running commentary on my own highlight reel, the quick wit of a play-by-play man. My 5’6” frame and fear of hearing my own voice kept me from becoming what I portrayed.
As I grew up, I play-acted less and less. Most of youth and adulthood felt like posing for a picture someone might or might not be taking; the thrill of pretending for fun wore off.
In college, I spent many hours leading peers in worship at churches and in chapel services. Early in my preparation for each gathering, I would feel the spark of God’s presence and pleasure. Then the closer the service was, the more faint the sensation. I performed the motions of singing and praying from the piano bench, then looked out to see students seemingly lost in rapture. Who was pretending? I asked. Them or me?
The question never strays far. I spend many days feeling like a fraud in God’s eyes. As if, at any moment, he will pull back the cosmic curtain I cower behind and expose me for the imposter I am.
Rapture seems like a distant dream, ritual and repetition are my destiny. The lyrics of the late, great Keith Green taste more like liturgy to me than most liturgies I sit, stand, and repeat my way through:
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
So many of us, at one time or another, experience a Christianity that merely skates along the surface, never seeping into the blood or settling into the marrow. Bearing witness, perhaps even bearing the scars, of such religion, we vow never to recreate any act or repeat any creed which doesn’t begin somewhere deep within. “Fake it till you make it” might make a pithy bumper-sticker or solid application within a three-point sermon but, as a way of life, it sounds hollow.
The quest starts with righteous instincts—we do well to avoid becoming candy-coated shells containing little sweetness or substance. But in our dogged search for anything authentic, we talk ourselves out of intimate spiritual practice. Longing for honesty in the most important relationship of all, we sign self-directed pledges never to pray, sing, prophesy or preach unless it feels right and natural.
Trouble is, we mix up pretend and reality all the time in life. Like athletes in a scrum, they tangle up and roll around until it becomes nearly impossible to tell who’s who.
For the sake of integrity, we forsake beautiful things. Prolonged rough patches sink marriages because we assume “it shouldn’t feel like this much work.” We miss out on closeness with God, waiting for the spark. For fear of pretending, we cease our prayers and close our Bibles. I can’t begin to estimate how frequently I abandon God mid-prayer, worried about treading the icy waters of rote religion.
But when we sink into comfort and wait on what comes natural, we deny how far from natural life really is.
Drawing near to God when we don’t feel like it cuts against the grain of how we envision spirituality. But what seems like pretending at faith often is the practice of reclaiming reality. We feel like frauds because we were born outside the fellowship we were made for. In grace, we take the name God calls us, becoming who he already knows us to be. Slow, steady, an inch at a time and on our bellies when all we want is a mile underneath our feet.
God will not let us pretend our way into the kingdom. But he promises that, as we re-enact the kingdom in small, sometimes painful ways, the kingdom recreates itself in us.
We might not feel like the self God declares over us yet—still he beckons and bids us to come. Approaching God, even with our weak expectations and mustard-seed faith, we trace the lines of real life. It sounds backward, but everything else lives in the realm of make-believe.
Paul McCartney famously dreamed the melody to “Yesterday.” We want faith to work like that, forgetting many artists treat songwriting like a full-time job. We would never dare accuse them of going through the motions or pretending at inspiration. The song might come through hardship and hard work, but its melody loses no sweetness.
Yes, take care who you pretend to be. But know Vonnegut’s words stop striking fear once we start pretending to be ourselves. Starting up the old Jackson Browne song, then subverting it, we will say a prayer for the pretender. Then get up and do it again. Amen.