How to live deeply in a surface society

Timothy Willard and Jason Locy

In the back of most Home Depots, past the lawn mowers and light bulbs and refrigerators, you’ll find the wood flooring section. The wood here feels different than real wood though, it’s what’s known as engineered or manufactured wood. It has a veneer, a thin covering that hides the real material underneath. Manufacturers do this to make the wood look expensive without the consumer having to pay for the real thing.

But the flooring at Home Depot isn’t the only thing that uses a veneer to give itself value. Like engineered flooring, people apply a veneer. Embarrassed by the scars of our humanity, we try to hide our brokenness. We use a veneer to cover over ourselves hoping others will perceive us as having greater worth - as being more beautiful and perfect than we feel inside.

How do we know what sort of veneer to put on? How do we know what the world wants of us? We look to society. We evaluate what it celebrates so we know what we need to do, who we need to be, in order to fit in. We figure out how to veneer.

In the celebrity world, we are tempted by a lifestyle that puts the self above all others. We believe the tabloid lies that tell us visibility equals importance. And these feelings of importance resonate with us as we look for the approval of others.

Through consumption, we search for meaning. We let ad agencies and marketers define us. We think that if we buy certain things then the world will accept us. On the outside we look perfect, but on the inside the search continues.

The progress of the technological world allows us to escape the real. Our computer screens and avatars simulate the life we want but not necessarily the life we have. The true us becomes hidden in exchange for our brighter online projection.

Our cultural language focuses on the self. How can I get ahead? How much money can I make? How great can I appear to others? But for the Christian, this language is antithetical to our faith. Aren’t we called to something more? Something deeper than the veneer this world offers?

In contrast to the language of culture, another language exists. This language points us to our true existence - towards honesty and meaning and deep relationships. It sees the “hollow man” pursuit of the world and pushes past it, toward a renewal of the inner self. It is the language of God.

When we hear the language of God in relationships, in love and in an abiding life, our shallow life of worldly desires is replaced with a full life, focused on others. We find that our relationships develop into something deeper than casual conversations and surface-level understandings of each other. Instead of worrying about impressing our friends and loved ones, we are strengthened to be honest and to develop our relationships in a deep way.

We see alove built upon something that the world doesn’t have time or room for: sacrifice. The language of culture rejects the idea of putting yourself last, whereas the language of God celebrates others and works toward making them better.

The veneer produced by the language of culture keeps us, ultimately, from the deep relational language of God. At our core, we hunger for deep relationships. Theologian Alistair McFadyen says that Christ calls us into the dialogue of relationships and that as we participate in these dialogues we change and even rise above the self-serving nature of the world's fractured structures. This then is the prize for all humanity - to find our true selves resting in Christ and then reflected in our relationships with others.

God created us to be relational, not isolated and hidden beneath our veneers. Only when we find the courage to abandon the language of culture do we discover a truer existence. One not glistening with the sheen of fake perfection, but one defined by God’s language - a language that shows us for who we are: beautifully imperfect.

Tim Willard is finishing a Master of Arts in Christian Thought from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Jason Locy is founder and Creative Director of FiveStone, a multidisciplinary design studio. For more on the topic of veneer and how culture affects our humanity, read their book, "Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society."

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