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I am a mask

March 03, 2011

There is a story (perhaps apocryphal) about one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century who, at the very height of his fame, was invited to participate in a high society masked orgy. These events were attended by many well known individuals and so everyone who participated was keen to keep their true identity a secret. As such the only thing that people wore was an operatic mask that would cover their face, ensuring anonymity. The great theologian accepted the invitation and arrived at the house on the given night. When he entered the vast room where the orgy was to take place he was confronted by the sight of dozens of guests who were naked except for the facial covering that hid their identity.

When the host saw this theologian enter the room he was aghast, for he was wearing nothing, not even a face covering. The host ran up to him and pulled him to one side saying, “This is a masked event so that people can hide their identity, what are you doing without a mask?”

To which he replied calmly, “why my dear friend, what you see is my mask”

To find out the point that this theologian was making have a listen to this interview I gave at Mars Hill with Rob Bell last year.

“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

15 Responses to I am a mask

  1. Be honest: Was the theologian Paul Tillich? Because if it was, the story is probably true.
    Great story, by the way, and interview.

  2. Josh says:

    Sounds like someone may have read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” or (better yet) “The Minister’s Black Veil”!

  3. “Running the collective unconscious is the inner self, which uses the archetypes sort of like the ego uses the persona. The archetypes are the many masks of the inner self. But unlike the persona, which is learned, the archetypes are part of natural wiring.”
    -Paul Tillich

  4. “All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.”
    -Friedrich Nietzsche(son of a preacher man, yes he was, he was, oooo yes he was.)

  5. Rebecca says:

    The interview went quite swiftly yet my ears perked up at Rob Bell’s speaking the term, “Good Christian.” Now, my mind took that term and ran with it and I compared it to what I believed it to be and what I experienced and/or participated in from an Christian American standpoint-in regards to the “masks” topic.
    At the risk of sounding completely unaffected by the culture, I do, for the most part stand by such convictions that Mr. Rollins suggested like the Starbucks example, etc. I completely comprehend and recognize that what one believes is reflected in the “totality of one’s being,” I know this because I’ve witnessed some who, because they participate in a homeless outreach once a year, have attributed that to them suddenly considering oneself a homeless advocate. And again, I’ve fallen into the “consumerist Christian” mentality that since I’ve sported a T-shirt with a verse at the cost of $40 that I’m living out my faith. But over time I have been inspired by the likes of Shane Claiborne and Mother Teresa who have lived among the “least of these.” And I refresh the words of Mr. Rollins, in another speech of his, that we aren’t “Violent in our Christianity” enough.
    So there was a time when I threw away my choir songbooks, stopped attending church to re-evaluate who I was in this Christian identity with a distorted definition of “Good Christian.”
    The problem is that now, today, I really struggle to not fret over opinions of “Good Christians” about having Scientoligists as friends, consuming wine or beer, or listening to grunge rock and watching and acting in non-christian films and plays. So for me its not so much that I start out wearing a mask often, as I wrestle with the temptation to put it back on in order to fit in.
    (Sorry for the rambling or the poor grammar or logic.)

  6. KB says:

    When is the new tour/book ‘Theolo(r)gy’ coming?

    You got the section on penal substitution down yet?

  7. Jeremy says:

    I’d be curious to get your feedback on this post. I think it jives theologically with some of the moves you’ve been trying to make in your own academic work:


  8. Whats N. A. Name says:

    Y’know what I noticed? I doubt that this is what you’re looking for, but I noticed it.

    I noticed that he contexted you. He set you up as a logical outcome of growing up where everyone takes their faith too damned seriously. A sort of overcompensation. Almost a caricature.

    It didn’t seem intentional, and certainly not malevolent. But it just came out that way.

    In a sense, he stripped you of something. I’m sure you know all the technical terms for that. You seemed much more self-conscious than usual. Maybe you always are and it was just easier to see here. I don’t know. But it felt as though something shifted. The normal fun you poke at the circus-like aspects of public speaking seemed redundant. You didn’t have to work to make it obvious that you’re just a guy. That was already done for you. There you were. Just a bloke like us.

    When it was over, I felt embarrassed a bit. I think I felt caught at feeling robbed of an evening’s entertainment. He took away my Beloved Philosophical/Theological Object and put just some guy in his place.

    You were stripped. But I was the one who was exposed.

  9. Rebecca says:

    hmmm…yes, nice observation. Such idiosyncrasies (for lack of a better word, although I think they are quite normal but not often revealed) are the things that are, in my opinion, the most endearing when you become aware of them in a person. Speech defects, shyness, nervous tendencies, public display of flatulence (okay, maybe not so much that), etc., for example, can almost set a soul at ease with the thought that, “hey, I can relate and even be at an even keel with this person just as a human being.” There is less concern over, “this person is too attractive, or that person is too rich, I have no college education or I come from a different culture” and therein lies a starting point to take another in.

    again, it’s endearing.

    • Whats N. A. Name says:

      Hi, Rebecca.
      I’m not totally certain that you’re responding to me, but it seems like you might be. So, I’m gonna take a leap of hope that someone is finally responding to me and respond back. <3

      Hopefully I can find a skillful way to do this.

      One point of the story about the masked orgy was that it was providing a context that allowed the participants to claim that the mask was false and they could go back to "real life" the next day.

      It gave people permission to escape the consequences of their everyday lies. They could finally stop being so self-conscious about what people are thinking about them, finally stop primping and powdering and photo-shopping their image and "get real". It was an escape from the awareness that they were truly liars every day.

      "Facebook is not an idealized version of your conscious self. Your conscious self is an idealized version of who you really are."

      Tillich – er, The Theologian – put the truth back in their faces: that their everyday face was the lie.

      By (probably unwittingly) exposing that Peter has a "shtick" that *can be* reduced to the rantings of a traumatized Irish boy turning Faith in God inside out so that he can still hold on to it without falling back onto his culture's pathological expression of it, Rob forced me to become aware that I want Peter to be an ideal. He forced me to become aware that I *may be* participating in a beloved lie about Peter (though I doubt it), but that I am certainly participating in a beloved lie about myself.

      My lie is this: That I prefer the real.

      Do you see what I'm pointing to?

      I'm not saying anything good or bad about Peter. I'm saying something about myself: that I prefer Peter to be my ideal, regardless of the reality. That's why I said that I was the one who was exposed.

      It is precisely our "rational" pursuit of Goodness and Truth and Beauty that tricks us into believing that we aren't Bad, False or Unbecoming. We are so focused on the Object that we are unaware of what the Subject is actually demonstrating.

  10. Rebecca says:

    Hello “Whats,”
    I’m sorry I wasn’t specific and went off on a tangent–I only really meant to say, in that one beginning sentence, I appreciated your observation (about yourself, yes)-that’s all. I didn’t think or even consider you were criticizing Mr. Rollins at all. :)

    I pretty much went on to something else entirely and which was intended to emphasize the pleasure I find in some in observing some of the aforementioned attributes in people in general and ended my little rant incorrectly I suppose; What I meant to say in the end, quite simply, was that I found Mr. Rollins endearing in that interview-I’m sorry, I should really keep my words few and will do so–:)

    • Whats N. A. Name says:

      Hi, Rebecca.
      It’s all good. No need to “should” on yourself. No harm done.

      I think the adjustment you made to his attributes is sweet and good and I would make them also.

      I’m glad you noticed and appreciated the observation about my self. I think that is one of the marks of those who appreciate Peter’s work.

      There are multiple ironies here. While it is true that I focused on “myself”, it is clear that I was not confusing that with flattering my self. Sometimes the best way to do what is right by others is to attend first to the self. “Forgetting” the self can actually impede Moral development, and judgment can actually impede remembrance.

      Also, hiding my own “true” identity is precisely what enables me to be more honest about my self. The presence of someone who self-reveals to the extent that I often do is so profoundly disturbing to some people, that I have had to hide my identity in order to get the work done. This way, hopefully my kind “Host” won’t be quite so “aghast” at me.


  11. Jim McNeely says:

    I loved the story at the end of the Rob Bell interview about the woman who had lost a child and was told to go and find a house without suffering to bring a handful of mustard seeds. Everyone has a cross to bear, it is our very dignity, and it is true suffering. It must not be diminished nor taken from us. It reminded me of the priest in The Brothers Karamazov who told the bereaved woman that there would be no comfort, she was to grieve and cry and wail. Grace is not the absence of suffering, it is something greater and richer. Grace and love allow us to own our sufferings and failures, to be a terrible example to others of how God grants happiness and success. There is a strange comfort and freedom in being free to grieve and fail and doubt. There are terrible consequences when we deify personal transformation and morality. The freedom to be transparently weak and normal and sinful speaks to others far more than the pretense of moral fortitude.

    Also, I hear talk here and there about how many people are seeking bigger houses and cars and what not. I don’t think many people think this way, even the most shallow and materialistic. BMW and Mercedes don’t sell cars, they sell significance. That is what we are starved for. It is very liberating to realize that you are not invited to anyone’s parties anyway, the rich people or the smart people or the influential people or any of the other significant ones. Everyone is trying to define their significance by who they exclude if you think about it.The poor are insignificant and that is the main reason we recoil from serving them. They are aliens because we are on the road to significance and they are not. We think we are righteous because we are are not materialistic, and yet we seek just as false and shallow a significance.

    I believe God in Christ loves us, raw, like a pearl that is perfect at first glance, that we are already significant because we exist. Once we begin to act from a belief that in the eyes of God we are already significant, we find freedom and simplicity. I am in the process of selling most of what I can get away with getting rid of so I can live more clearly that way. It’s not a command, it is an invitation to a party. I want to go to that party.

    I always write too much, sorry. I loved the interview and I am sorry for all the controversy over Rob Bell. People can be so enormously callous.

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