Monday, December 8, 2008

Repent!

Several years ago, a friend suffered a heart attack. On hearing the news, the eyes of one my close acquaintance's eyes lit up wickedly. "Hmm," she said, and not a little officiously, "looks like some lifestyle changes for him!"

I have always found lifestyle a particularly troubling concept. Style is something I choose. It's been about surface image since its inception to cover the body's nakedness. Style has almost always been an instrument of social control, a way of labeling social classes. In ancient Rome, one could always recognize a prostitute by her saffron dress. In the Middle Ages, sumptuary laws distinguished merchants from margraves. Today, uniforms and clergy vestments are reminders of how "clothes maketh the man." Even if my life is spinning out of control, I can always manage my lifestyle. Or so they say. But I did not choose to be born.

The word becomes even more troubling when applied to other cultures. When you talk of Alaska Natives living a subsistence "lifestyle," the suggestion is that one day they'll grow up and get over it and chose the more "rational" and "successful" path of consumerism. There's little space in "lifestyle" for wisdom passed over generations, for the deep bonds we hold for the land, the animals, the truth spoken to our ancestors in the distant time.

Spiritually, "lifestyle" also suggests that repentance is just a matter of changing some unhealthy details and managing my unruliness. Lifestyle repentance may be difficult and expensive, but it is, in the end, no more than a kitchen remodel of the self.

Maybe that works for some people. It has never worked for me. There is something in my nature that even if you dress me in the best expensive clothes, I'll still walk into the living room with my neckline askew. Indeed, the one time I actually had expensive clothes, the seams were so delicate that they came unraveled almost at once and I had to sit in the living room holding my skirt discreetly closed.

So I think there's a great deal more to human nature and human stubbornness than the word "lifestyle" implies. John the Baptist is up to something far more serious than that.

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