There is a form of literature called “hagiography.” Somewhat like a biography, it is the telling of the story of a person’s life that deliberately accentuates his or her sainthood, or special gift of goodness and closeness to God. That kind of writing idealizes a person. No one can tell the full story of someone in a biography, but the hagiography intentionally picks and usually exaggerates the supernatural connection and decisions and accomplishments that seem beyond those that most normal humans can do.
Several weeks ago, I wrote an article for the Denton Record Chronicle musing on the song, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Today, I believe that in addition to our love, people will also know we are Christians by our willingness to tell the truth about ourselves. In other words, we as Christians must stop being our own hagiographers.
I write this because of my disgust over a recent YouTube segment. I will not reveal the details except to say that someone I knew was being introduced by a well-known TV evangelist. The evangelist said things about this individual which cast the person in a glowing, holy light of special insight into and heroic obedience to the will of God. Implication: “you, too, can be blessed this way if you will make the same decisions.” But it was, at best, a highly sanitized stretch of the reality. At worst, it was a pack of lies. I don’t know if the speaker didn’t know the truth, or if the individual had presented this version of life in this new setting. I do know that this was hagiography at its best—or at its worst, as the case may be.
It’s hard work to live as a Christian. It takes discipline and practice and repetition and intentionality to consistently live in the holy light of God and to speak truth. We all battle the human tendency to hide and blame others and be irresponsible and to stretch the truth so we look better. The entrance into the Christian world of grace and intimacy with God brings with it the understanding that since we have been reconciled to God, then we must also reconcile with the world around us.That kind of reconciliation demands that we forgive as we have been forgiven, that we love our enemies, serve others with generosity and lay down our lives for those who don’t deserve it. Not one easy thing to do among that list, and every single person fails repeatedly in the process of learning to be a mature and integrated Christian. It is grace, not our performance, that keeps us going. It is grace that gives us the courage to pick ourselves up yet once more, dust ourselves off, know that God still loves us, and head out again to offer bold righteousness and transforming love to the world around us.
When we write our own hagiographies and set ourselves up as models of Christian living and say, “See, it’s so easy. Do what I do and you will get all these blessings,” then we have done a terrible disservice to the community around us. By our lies, we set people up to be disappointed with God.
I admit that this tirade is clearly aimed at those who preach the “prosperity gospel,” particularly the TV preachers. They parade behind unimaginable riches, gleaned from the nearly empty checkbooks of the vulnerable people they prey upon. With perfect hair and teeth glaringly white, clothed in expensively tailored clothes, having traveled in comfort in private jets, they say, “Send me more money and you, too, can live like this. Because if you are not, God is not blessing you.” And it is all a lie.
Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Well, let us get free from those who would prey upon the vulnerable. Let us get free from those who write their own hagiographies and then preach riches as blessings. Let us get free to love.