I recently got an invitation via email for a new social network for businesspeople, GoBuyside.com. While I know far too little about the finance world to receive an invitation, let alone reflect on it, I think buy side means the people who buy securities for investment, which seems like the more prestigious/lucrative: you can make a windfall if you do it right. The network’s title is clear, expressing a movement toward higher positions, bigger money, more potential for advancement.

Why in the world would you name a business networking site that? Well, it’s an identity marker in a way that LinkedIn is not: would I rather be simply linked-in, or go[ing] buyside? Obviously the latter.

The trouble is that labels aren’t that reliable anymore: far from an elite network of investors, GoBuyside.com has inadvertently reached out to the non-profit Christian blogging sector. Traditionally, words and labels and identity-markers are ‘signifiers’, like the word ‘tree’; while what they represent is the ‘signified’, like the thing with roots, a trunk, and branches itself. The word ‘tree’ is a reliable sign, because almost any English-speaker will know what I mean when I say it.

implementing-a-stakeholder-model

GoBuyside would’ve been a reliable sign, if only they’d excluded the Christian bloggers. It’s a sign which is misleading, a lie: it is a sign which communicates a reality which is not there, in this case, a certain exclusivity or elitism.

The pursuit of strong, outward signs to show what we consider our better qualities has long been frowned upon, and rightfully so. The truly masculine person, for instance, doesn’t go around aping a Neanderthal; the true farmer will often complain about her profession, while the amateur WOOFer or hipster lectures you for hours about the value of a simpler way of life. Similarly, a defining mark of nobility was traditionally a lack of ostentation; pursuit of status-symbols was considered crass. Someone who genuinely and fully has a quality has no need to parade it before others, to convince them or oneself. Ironically, something like GoBuyside.com would traditionally appeal not to an energetic young class of financial elite, but more insecure and overtly aspirational sorts.

These things are worth talking about only insofar as they give context to one of Christianity’s most basic imperatives: that of secrecy, of eschewing outward signs. Jesus said,

‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. [Mt 6]

Note the movement from outward to inward. Do not try to convince others you are pious, including through alms-giving. Moreover, do not even let one hand know what the other is doing: inasmuch as your alms-giving is a sign of your virtue or closeness to God, ignore it! Don’t read the signs; don’t even let one hand know what the other is doing. And finally, do not try to convince yourself (or God, for that matter), that your inner spiritual life is strong, through lofty and heartfelt prayers. Ignore it! Such would be like a millionaire continually taking inventory of his accounts, or a straight-A student flipping back through old tests and report cards.

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Surprisingly, most straight-A students probably wouldn’t sit around telling themselves they’re smart and industrious; they’ve already proven that. Nor would they (hopefully) join MENSA and get a badge to wear around.

Yet this is precisely what we see happening in the Christian world on an almost-daily basis. Cut to the most-sung worship songs in the US according to CCLI’s rankings, and you get:

The sun comes up, it’s a new day dawning
It’s time to sing Your song again
Whatever may pass, and whatever lies before me
Let me be singing when the evening comes…

You’re rich in love, and You’re slow to anger
Your name is great, and Your heart is kind
For all Your goodness I will keep on singing
Ten thousand reasons for my heart to find…

And on that day when my strength is failing
The end draws near and my time has come
Still my soul will sing Your praise unending
Ten thousand years and then forevermore…

Far from being ignorant of the right hand’s actions, the left is fixating on them, stroking the singer’s, um, ego with all its might. (For a more church overall example, look at the Wikipedia page of a Christian musician sometime! Triple the length of their secular counterparts, often, and occasionally laden with apocryphal anecdotes of famous secular musicians talking about how talented their instrumentation is.)

Why do we feel the need to legitimize ourselves? Why do we praise God by describing feelings – which are often aspirational rather than real – in ourselves? If “whatever may pass” really does, I won’t still be singing in the evening. I won’t be singing in the evening if I get distracted by a Wikipedia article or self-pitying from a fender-bender, much less if “whatever” happens. Points for “let” here, as in a prayer, but still – as a onetime singer of these tunes, it feels less like a request for fortitude than an invocation of it: “let there be light”. For a moment, we convince ourselves we can, we will, be doing this. A long way from the second part of Mt 6, when Jesus’s ideal prayer is a more modest and outward-facing “give us this day our daily bread… forgive us… deliver us from evil.”

One suspects this spiritual ostentation comes from a place of insecurity, a need to prove to ourselves that we’re really living “the Christian life” the same way a man who makes a windfall may buy a Maserati to reassure himself that he’s finally made it, that he’s living the life. If you push the worship incantations about our fortitude onto the Maserati analogy, you end up with a mix equal parts Stuart Smalley and John Fitzgerald Page.

Even descriptive (as opposed to prescriptive) messages in sermons – God does X, and it creates Y in us – often have an aspirational sound to them: as Gerhard Forde wrote, “we begin to preach our descriptions as though they were actually maps and motivational influences to the power of new life.” In conclusion, two problems here emerge.

The first is a thoroughly subjectivized Christianity; while Luther and Calvin thought that one cannot measure one’s virtue or state of holiness, many/most Protestants in America now do. We have lost sight, since the empirical revolution, of any objective reality which we cannot immediately perceive. Thus the fact that we are sinners, yet justified, sounds abstract and otherworldly, but trying to worship or pray or think ourselves into certain positive or Christian emotional states seemingly does allow us to perceive our state of new being, and perception helps us feel in control.

The second is that our highly fluid society (a net good) has had the side-effect of a semiotic problem: pursuit of certain identity or status markers is more pronounced than ever before. We pursue the sign in the hope that it can pull the reality it signifies along with it – a semiotic sin, or sin in our distortion of signs and meaning. This occurs in part because feel we must prove ourselves and our worth, and some amount of this feeling almost certainly carries over into Christianity.

Jesus was aware of this semiotic problem as it stands (and has always stood) with regard to holiness or virtue. He calls the Pharisees “whitewashed tombs”: a gorgeous exterior which, by fooling others into respecting them, allows the Pharisees “to have the seat of honour in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the market-places.” Picture it: a house with a beautiful facade, suggesting life and power and respect, and you enter, and there are only shrouds and bones; a stultified and lifeless grandeur.

This diagnosis applies first to the most respectable and most seemingly religious people. How are we fooling ourselves, and how are we fooling others? My bookshelf full of unread esoteric theology conceals a dilettante who shied away from academia; my carefully disheveled style conceals someone utterly preoccupied with what others think. And those aspirational signs exist not only to fool others, but to reassure my insecurities, too.

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How are you fooling others? God renews the inside, which we cannot see: “The heart is devious above all else;/ it is perverse—/ who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9), but our lives are also “hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). A little less eagerness to peer into our own souls, God grant it, would be a beneficial thing. Or, for the virtuous, to spend a little less time on Christ’s (sparse) criticism of drunkards and sex addicts and money-grubbers and a little more time on his (thundering) criticisms of the religious, Christ’s message to the well-behaved. 

Just as there is an emptiness in the pursuit of pleasure and riches, an emptiness too steals up on those in pursuit of virtue, who often conclude that Christianity has, after all, little to offer them and leave the church. As they whitewash the exteriors of their tombs, they cannot help but catch unsettling glimpses, out of the corners of their eyes, of the ominous vacuity within.

“Even though our outer nature,” said Paul, “is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day… we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” To look at what cannot be seen is a strange description of Christian life, but what else is there to look for when you’re forbidden from even knowing what your right hand does? What is there to see in Jesus? When the people ask him for more direct communication, Jesus replies, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11). The sign of one near-dead in a whale for three days, then spewed up on shore, exhausted and bedraggled, by God. The true shape of Christian life turns out to be something much more complex, nuanced, opaque, and above all, un-self-conscious than the purveyors of Christian moral development and self-assurance would have us imagine. Which is Good News for those of us who, no matter how hard we try, cannot help but notice we’re spiritual frauds and be pulled back into the mire of sin and despair of self.

(Further links: economics-y and even more long-winded piece here; short/theology-y take here; Max Weber on this ‘semiotic problem’ and capitalism here.)