Inward Styling

My car is dirty. I haven’t been to the car wash in months. I usually take in the “freebies” that come every time it rains. My car is dirty—on the outside. On the inside, my car is virtually spotless. I’m pretty neurotic about people leaving trash in it, and I clean the dust and the interior regularly. I vacuum the inside of the car more than twice as often as I wash the outside. Rarely will you find a candy wrapper, empty cup, toothpick wrapper, or napkin in my car. Often you will find me heading straight to the trash can after exiting my car.

OK, I’ll admit I’m a little weird—that goes without saying. There’s not really any big point I’m trying to make in telling this except to say that more people tend focus on keeping the outside of their cars clean than the inside. That’s fine with me—I don’t see the inside of most people’s cars and I’d rather not see “WASH ME,” or “KILROY WAS HERE” engraved into the dirt that’s caked upon the car in front of me. Better that driver drown in a sea of coffee cups or AOL CDs or whatever else he has in his car than to be seen driving a dirty car.

And so I reach the thesis of this blog entry in a deprecated, round-about way—in the third paragraph! For this entry has nothing to do with automobile cleanliness, really. What I want to address is style, and how style is quickly becoming the criteria for which things are judged.

Books like Virginia Postrel’s , The Substance of Style (a book I really need to read), addresses the importance of style in our culture. TV shows like “Extreme Makeover,” which depict persons styling their bodies are rampant across the airwaves. Roberto Rivera addresses specifically the show, “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.” He observes:

…what I find most noteworthy about “Queer Eye” [is] the way that the show embodies the triumph of “style” in American life. While the expression “style over substance” has been part of our cultural lexicon for decades, this is something else. It’s more like “style is substance.” It’s the belief that all there is to a person ― and to some extent, to human institutions as well ― are surfaces. To use a culinary analogy, it doesn’t matter how the food tastes as long as the presentation is excellent.

To be fair, gay men didn’t invent this notion. (Although, there’s probably a book waiting to be written about how such a cultural shift was a necessary pre-condition for the emergence of the “gay moment.”) Domesticity without the domus, a rightly-ordered household, is Martha Stewart’s stock-in-trade. The average American wedding costs $20,000 yet people understand less about the institution of marriage than ever before. Or, look at the magazine rack at the check-out counter. Most of the magazines are about “style”: who’s got it, how to get it and how to avoid a stylistic misstep. Go home, turn on the television, and there’s more of the same. If your concern is your inner life, they’ve got bupkes. If you’re decorating a room, accessorizing, or worried about making a good first impression, there’s no shortage of “help.”

Why? There are several reasons but the one that immediately comes to mind is that we’ve concluded that the interior of a person, institution, custom or ritual is basically unknowable or, in any case, immune to criticism and judgment. In other words, it’s so subjective that it’s impossible to talk about it. So, all there is to talk about are appearances, what we call “style.” In this context, people who can tell you the best way to shave (“slowly and with the grain”) or accessorize (“holding a new belt over a pot of boiling water can give it a nice matte finish”) are superheroes of sorts, protecting the innocent clueless from making the ultimate fashion faux pas. And, ironically, whereas being judgmental about a person’s interior dispositions is verboten, being so about their “style” is almost mandatory.

Rivera here makes an excellent point, and it’s nothing new. People rarely talk about inward things in the public square. Even worse, people tend to not even reflect upon the inner life themselves.

Herein lies great danger, because, as Jesus said:

What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person. [see Mark 7:14-23, ESV]

We take great pains as a society and as individuals to fix and maintain the surface of things, but only an inward transformation can produce lasting results. Whether we try to wrap ourselves in the latest styles or style ourselves as being without style, we must all not overlook our own inward fashioning. This can be an ugly process, and we will inevitably find things that will undo us. There is hope, however, in our undoing. In Christ, our Maker has undone us and re-fashioned us. The interiors of our cars may not all be clean, but rest assured that our hearts, however vile, can be made so.