Sunday, April 15, 2012

People or Caricatures?

Quick, watch an episode of The Office. What did you see? Did you see a normal office building, populated by individuals just like you and me? No, you didn't. You saw an office building full of caricatures: "A picture, description, or imitation of a person or thing in which certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a comic or grotesque effect," according to Google dictionary. Dwight's characteristic is weirdness, Jim's is awesomeness, Kevin's is oh so many things. They are too exceptional to be real: They are comic and, at times, grotesque exaggerations of what a weird person is, or what a funny person is. They are not real, and we are very rarely tempted to think of them as such.

Now listen to a Bible lesson about Peter, or Gideon, or that crippled guy in John 5, or--very often--Jesus himself. Was the sermon about a real person, or just a caricature, created to prove a point? In my experience, Peter is often either a bumbling idiot (if the lesson is about Gethsemane or the Transfiguration) or a prideful fool (walking on water, proclaiming his loyalty to Christ). Recently I heard Gideon described as "throwing a pity party," focused on nothing but feeling sorry for himself. That crippled dude in John 5 is the butt of everyone's joke. And Jesus can be caricaturized (apparently this is not a word: It should be.) in any number of ways.

Here's the thing: While this can be useful in proving a point, it can backfire very easily: By reducing a complete person to a caricature, you weaken the Bible's relationship to reality: The stories are no longer stories that happened to real people, in the real world. Peter is no longer a person to relate to, with fears and hopes and dreams, and a love for Jesus but a weakness of will: He is a buffoon to be laughed at, or a fool to be pitied. Gideon is no longer a human being much like ourselves, in a situation we often find ourselves in, as the least of his household, surrounded by idols: He is a self-absorbed twit who inexplicably fails to see what is about to happen. These stories of real people and real events, preserved by divine providence for our benefit, are now something much more akin to an episode of The Office, where not-quite-real things happen to not-quite-real people.

I myself fall into this same mistake sometimes. It's much easier to speak of a caricature, especially if your desire is to amuse (as mine often is). But it is not good. We literally cannot afford to turn the people of the Bible into caricatures: It is difficult to relate to caricatures, and even more difficult to learn from them. The Bible is the story of God working through, talking to, and saving people: And if we do not see that, then neither will we see its relevance for us.

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