Saturday, January 20, 2007

Image or Imago Dei?

Just slightly less chaotic than the running of the bulls in Pamplona is the positioning and jostling of the early wannabes for President. The familiar, the infamous and the fabulous are politely elbowing each other for the perception of front runner. In Pamplona, some of humanity runs in front of the bulls for the thrill of the race and avoiding being trampled while most of us watch the amazing display of bravery or insanity – take your pick – unable to look away.

Most of us are just trying to get through the race of life without being trampled aware that a herd of bulls will flatten is if we stumble. The early wannabes are strong bulls charging ahead, knowing that if they stumble, their fellow bulls will without hesitation make a carpet out of their hide on the way to victory. Right now the race is not to the swift, the strong or those of substance but rather to those whose image doesn’t take a severe tumble.

I read a lot— maybe too much—but I honestly don't know much of substance about some the names that have been recently tossed into the media frenzy. Most of us, if we are honest, take a quick glance at the published image of the wannabe and decide in less than 2 seconds if the man or woman is "presidential." What does it actually mean to be presidential in image? Ask the next adult you bump into to define in a few sentences what it means to be presidential and listen hard to what they say. Nixon learned the hard way, in his TV debate against that striking young war hero from the northeast, that you can win the debate in words and logic, but lose the image race. The populace of our Pamplona cheer the spectacle of the running bulls. But who knows what the bulls are actually made of?

A recent discourse in a significant Midwest rag was largely a long lament by the professional bull handlers about how two of their top bulls have "image problems" that are effecting their eligibility. Sadly missing was what should be the main concern: Do the bulls have substance—or are they just, bull? Substance seems to have long ago floated away like the memory of the last Cubs World Series win.

I noticed that “Nancy Reagan red” has been suddenly co-opted by a certain Senator from New York whom I have never, ever seen wear red before. Pastels were prominent for years, but apparently are now not presidential.

A huge concern for the handlers of one bull was the recent widely disseminated photo of him in a swimsuit. And no, it was not because Donna Rice was bobbing in the waves nearby. In fact, there was no one else in the picture; it was just him in fairly modest trunks. A local TV "news" program took the swimsuit photo out on the street where the incredible wisdom of the common man interpreted the photo. The respondents chosen to be aired were nearly all slightly older women who commented mainly on his body fat, or lack thereof, discerning whether he was "hot" or not. My young son asked me, "Dad, what does that have to do with being President?"

At this point, I have no idea which presidential bull I will endorse in November 2008. And, based on past experience, I am fairly confident the mainstream media will give me very little with which to discern the actual substance of the bull. I am going to try an experiment to test my thinking. Starting in May 2007, I am going to start counting the number and size of photos of the candidates who are in the running as they appear in People magazine. My suspicion is that whoever gets the greatest number of square inches of photo-ops in People will win. I am confident that the thoughtful, deep prose of People will be the deciding factor. I surely hope I am wrong but I have more confidence in my thesis than in the Cubs winning the world series.

Lincoln wouldn't stand a chance today, nor would many of the other ugly mugs that have graced the Oval Office. Though according to some, he did grow a beard to mask his gangly face at the suggestion of a young girl. He was after all, a rather ugly man by the standards of any age. Today, beards or facial hair of any kind are verboten.

Maybe "image" has been more important for longer than we realize. Yet with Lincoln, we as a nation thankfully got substance over style. His Gettysburg Cemetery dedication address was short and rather suddenly written. He was invited by the organizers as almost an afterthought. The main speaker (can you name him?) at the dedication of the Gettysburg cemetery was considered the greatest orator of his day. He spoke for more than two hours, and it was considered to be one of the great speeches in style and oratory brilliance by the reporters who covered the event. Lincoln's address was fewer than 300 words and less than two minutes in spoken length. I know which speech I memorized as a young man. History now loves Lincoln for his substance, but in his day, he was vilified.

Lincoln believed, as do I, that man is not mere "image" but the imago dei, the image of God. The dignity, worth and great value of every person is not their outward image but their very substance. It is what sets us apart from all other life forms and endows us with our inalienable rights according to our country’s forefathers and the far more ancient wisdom of God. As we increasingly value image over the imago dei, we slide further into the chaos and brutality of the running of the bulls. The weak get trampled and only the strong—who look good—will survive.

My time is now more than half over. The finish line is closer than the start, and I want to finish my race well. I want to run and finish the race as a man of substance not a man of style. Yes, I love my perfectly fitting Italian black leather jacket because it does look great and feels even better. But I am more concerned with the quality of my heart than the decreasing plumage on my bumpy orb.

Yet I don't run for myself. I run for Him who ran the race before me. I run for those I love and I run for my community. Being a man of substance, not style, is my race. The race is not about finishing first but running well and seeing the imago dei grow in my life. Swim trunks and Nancy Reagan red is just a lot of bull.