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Less Than Perfect

One of the “joys” of driving around town with my kids has been my forced reacquaintance with top-40 radio. For some reason, my children don’t seem to appreciate listening to CBC Radio One, and it usually takes approximately thirty seconds of time in the car before we’re bouncing along down the highway to the latest offering from whatever band or artist is currently enjoying/milking their moment in the sun. It’s been remarkable to hear the many different ways in which the same four chords and the same two or three themes can be employed to produce an astonishing amount of truly abysmal music.

Today’s radio gem came courtesy of an individual named “Pink” whose song “Perfect” contains the following lines:

Pretty pretty please!
Don’t you ever ever feel
Like you’re less than, less than perfect
Pretty pretty please

I’ll give you a moment to recover from this masterful lyrical brilliance.

As I listened to this song drone tediously on (wishing that the radio host would pretty pretty please turn it off), it occurred to me that, for all of its deficiencies—and there are many, no doubt—Ms. Pink has actually captured our cultural ethos fairly accurately. We are all perfect simply because we are. We don’t need to listen to anyone else tell us anything, or to perhaps alert us to our shortcomings or suggest better ways of looking at things or behaving. Such challenges would be nothing less than an affront to our individual uniqueness (i.e., our perfection or general “awesomeness“). And there is no higher sin in our culture than to call into question an individual and their right to self-determination/self-expression/self-esteem, self-whatever. The individual is sovereign and not to be challenged.

This mindset can even rear its head in the church. To question a fellow believer on such matters as their patterns of consumption, sexual ethics, political preferences, parenting styles, etc, is to tread on fearful ground indeed. We don’t use the language of “perfection,” of course—we’re mostly theologically astute enough to know that this doesn’t sound right—but we use words like “who are you to judge,” “take the plank out of your own eye first,” and “let the one who is without sin throw the first stone” and “tolerance” and… the list goes on. At times, the result can be exactly the same in both cases: individual choice is treated as the highest ideal to which we could or should aspire. It is sacred and not to be touched.

Of course, a moment of even minimally serious consideration ought to lead us to the rather obvious conclusion that we are not, in fact perfect and that there must, in fact, be a higher ideal than our personal preferences to aspire to. But it’s hard work to talk about what a well-lived human life looks like (or ought to look like). It’s not fun to be on the receiving end of criticism. It can be painful to attempt to correct what we’re pretty sure is bad or counterproductive or harmful behaviour in others. The opportunities for misunderstanding and conflict are virtually endless. All of us have either personally experienced or are well-acquainted with situations and relationships that have ended very badly, however noble the intentions may have been.

But as hard as it is to talk about our imperfections and to work together on improving them, the alternative—simply uncritically affirming or, in the case of the church, baptizing everyone and anything simply because it’s easy and less painful—is the less loving response in the long run. It’s not loving to pretend we are better than we are or that there is no standard to which we ought to aspire as human beings. To say or imply that we are all “perfect” simply by virtue of our occupying space on the planet is to degrade the word and to trivialize the arduous and rewarding processes of character development, ethical discernment, and spiritual maturity which have engaged and improved people throughout history.

I doubt Pink had any of this in mind when she wrote her song. I suspect that it was probably just meant to help people feel better about themselves or to boost their self-esteem, or to convince them they had intrinsic value, etc. Maybe people with higher self-esteem buy more top-40 music. I don’t know. It certainly isn’t bad to help people to see that they have value. It’s just important that we don’t stop there.

We are less than perfect, after all. At least for now. And one of the best ways to value ourselves and those around us is to together work towards what we will one day be.

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