Saturday, February 09, 2008

Gifts from God and American Idol

I've taken issue in this blog with the notion that God is too busy to trouble himself with small things. This notion shows up in the darndest places: Last Wednesday on American Idol, Simon Cowell mocked a young girl who said that her voice was a gift from God. "He just decided to give it to you one day? 'Nothing more to do, I'll just give Tiffany a voice.'" I think this is a good object lesson in the game of What Christians Say Vs. What People Hear.

A girl who sings in the church choir says, "God gave me my voice."

Taking her words purely at face value, a Christian can't argue with this. God is the source of every talent and ability. He is the source from which we draw our very being. I love the story of Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush (Exod 3-4). The dialog between the God-Who-Is-There and the reluctant prophet escalates as Moses keeps looking for a way to get out of his mission. When he protests that he is "not very good with words," God thunders back:

Who makes a person’s mouth? Who decides whether people speak or do not speak, hear or do not hear, see or do not see? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will be with you as you speak, and I will instruct you in what to say.

But when most nonchurchgoing people hear the claim "God gave me my voice," they understand it to mean "My voice is superhuman. It's so transcendently beautiful that it could only be granted by God himself, unlike other voices that are merely human."

It's funny how the same five-word sentence can mean completely opposite things, isn't it? In the speaker's mouth, it's a self-deprecating statement, a statement of dependence on God. In the audience's ears, it's a self-exalting statement, a claim for exclusive superiority.

(I should say here that I'm giving Tiffany the benefit of the doubt here. She could have meant exactly what the judges thought she meant. But based on her calm and humble reaction to being rejected by the judges, I think she meant something more along the lines of what I'm stating here.)

The moral of the story is that Christians should be careful how they express gratitude to God in front of unbelievers. First, if they're using gratitude as a cover to exalt themselves, it won't work. It may work in a church context to cloak self-praise in praise of God, but unbelievers will see it for what it is. Second, if they really are acknowledging their dependence on God, they should make it clear that they're not claiming any special attention from him. It's not that we're so great that God took notice of us and decided to bless us.

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