“Embracing the Depths of Life”
A review of
Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society
by Timothy Willard and Jason Locy.
Review by Sarah Winfrey.
If you listen to the voices of our culture, there’s nothing better than feeling good about yourself, and it doesn’t much matter what you have to do to get there. Whether you buy something (or many somethings), make yourself into a celebrity (even if just a small-time one), or take medication, it’s all worthwhile if you feel good about yourself and your life. As Christians, we’ve even welcomed these ideas into our churches and our homes. After all, doesn’t Jesus want us to be happy, healthy, and to thrive during our time on earth?
The problem with putting so much emphasis on happiness, though, is that we come to value certain aspects of life more than others. If it looks good and it makes us feel good, we begin to automatically welcome it. Unfortunately, this means that we welcome, without question, many things that we might otherwise eschew. It also means that we change how we look and how we come off to others, eventually embracing a picture of reality that’s far from true.
Timothy Willard and Jason Locy identify these problems in their introduction, then proceed to expand upon them. They’re honest about why we embrace this false reality – what they call putting a veneer on ourselves. We want, they say, to appear better than we are, and to hide our true selves from the world out of pride and fear. We worship celebrity, because the media allows us to see the details of famous people’s lives, and makes them look more exciting and more conducive to happiness than our own. Entertainment is our goal, and we’ve turned people’s lives into the ultimate form of that.
Our culture feeds this need to see and be seen. Technology gives us the chance to “network” with people all over the world, whether we know them or not. Facebook, blogging, and Twitter will let us make ourselves famous, if we leverage our online presence the right way. We’re so tied to these networks that we check them on our phone seven when we’re in the middle of interacting with other, flesh-and-blood people.
In addition to embracing the face that technology lets us put on, we’ve become top-notch consumers. Buying goods allows us to appear to be more or better than we really are. It helps us manipulate how people react to us. We fall prey to exaggerated advertising claims because we want to be associated with what is going to be cool tomorrow, not with what used to be cool yesterday. We use our purchases to prop up our emotional well-being, and so lose the ability to center ourselves.
The problem with all of this is, simply, that it isn’t true. Instead of the veneer, Christians should strive to find the reality beyond all of that.
God is the only answer and, truly, the only alternative to our veneered lives. While it may sound trite, Willard and Locy assert that being in relationship with God will give us the internal stability to find our center, be authentic about our struggles, and open ourselves to true relationship with other people. In order to do these things, we much learn to see God and to come before him without expectations, allowing him to be who he is and not trying to make him into who we want him to be, and this means learning self-abandonment. Instead of covering ourselves, we need to stop caring about how we appear and get lost in God.
Relationship is central to who God is, and he made it central to humanity, too. He made us to accept his fierce love, even to the point of saving us when we wandered from him. He even went so far as to make us his children, with all of the rights and responsibilities inherent in that. When we’re truly participating in this relationship, we cannot try to hide or cover ourselves with anything that isn’t true.
It’s in this relationship that we can truly learn to love.
As redeemed humans, we rest in the confidence of the eternal love of God . . . Our
relationship with God defines us, and when we begin to see ourselves as God sees us,
we are no longer bound by man’s reality but instead are bound by God’s truth. Our
relatedness to God allows us to see past the mist of despair and into the forever. There
we see a love that wraps us closer than any veneer could . . . (184)
We learn to love by learning to accept this amazing love, and then using it as a model for the rest of our lives. And when we’re loving others, we will serve them, whenever we can. Service, when done from the heart, leads us away from ourselves and the images we build. Instead, it helps us find a place of deep devotion. Even when things aren’t going right or service is hard, we find peace because we’re loved and are loving others.
Love also ushers us into a place where the world and our normal days in it are filled with meaning. When we’re in relationship with God, we bring him into everything we do, instead of compartmentalizing him and leaving ourselves mostly autonomous. This means we allow his transcendent touch free reign, and we find the meaning we’ve been searching for all along.
It’s a fight to live an unveneered life and to try to get others caught up in our culture to follow that example. However, the change can only start with individuals . . . individuals radically dedicated to meeting God in loving relationship and following where he leads from there. In convincing readers of this, Veneer is wonderously successful.
Veneer fails, though, if readers only read it. It is a book to be lived, offering principles and insights to be taken in, digested, and incorporated into a life. And this is where the book becomes difficult. It’s easy enough to read along, nodding all the way, as the problems that Willard and Locy see are ones that many thoughtful Christians have already seen or will easily see when their eyes are opened.
As seems standard with the Christian life, it’s applying these true words that is much, much harder. This, if anywhere, is where the book fails. Without (at the very least) discussion questions for each chapter, it’s going to be difficult for many readers to see all of the subtle places where they are accepting a veneered life instead of a real one.
The keys to incorporating the words in this book into a life are deliberate, focused thought, and time. For these reasons, this is a book best taken in small chunks, or read and reread. Its meat is both obvious and subtle, because of the way it turns up in our lives. Some things are clear right away (I spend too much time on Facebook). Others are much more subtle (Did I buy that new sweater because I loved it and needed it, or because I needed to feel better about myself?). To take full advantage of the growth opportunities the book offers, readers will want to find both types of insights, and so will need to put in some extra time to fully embrace and live out what Veneer offers.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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