I recently heard about a film called “I’m Still Here” starring Joquain Phoenix. It’s billed as a documentary charting a year in the actors life, as he decided to retire from acting at 35 years old and focus on a career in rap music – and it charts his descent from relative success to apparent depression.
One famous scene shows his appearance on the Letterman show in the US, where he appears in shades, unkempt with his hair all messed up and dirty, acting very strangely. This appearance was subsequently mocked by Ben Stiller at the Oscars later that year. Having watched it, it’s quiet tragic, showing the decline of this actor and his very public and self-inflicted fall from grace.
Here’s the trailer for it:
The only thing about this film is that although it involves real people, in real situations and real events that happened, it’s all a lie.
The truth behind it is, in fact, that Phoenix was essentially playing a role for a year – he pretended publicly and for the cameras that he was doing one thing, but in fact he and his brother-in-law, director Casey Affleck, were in fact making a “mock-umentary”, almost as a commentary on celebrity culture. He hadn’t really retired or taken up music, or let himself go as the film suggests.
Phoenix subsequently appeared on the Letterman show again and stated publicly that the idea came from him watching US reality shows which he believed were scripted but involved real people using their real names, but playing a role, and how obvious that was to him and that he could probably do a better job.
The full interview is below, but if you just watch from about 1 minute 30 in for just a couple of minutes, you can see him explain this (watch the full interview later, its worth a watch):
He does do an excellent job. Just watching the film, it’s quite a tragic thing to watch, even though it’s not real at all. You can see how easily the media were suckered into believing his story and, tragically, how people were so quick to get on his back.
If you didn’t know the back story though, would you believe it?
You see, what’s interesting to me is not necessarily the film itself, but the whole premise behind it and how convincing it was for many. There are a lot of implications and conclusions we can draw from it, but there’s one in particular that I want to think about today, one that has prompted lots of questions in my mind and made me think about my faith in a much deeper and more scary way, and it was this question.
How real is my Jesus?
You see our idea of Jesus, is just our idea of Jesus. Our idea of God is just that, our idea of God.
Our idea of Jesus isn’t Jesus, and our idea of God isn’t God.
The Jesus I comprehend or imagine even in my wildest imagination and know about in my most knowledgeable moments isn’t Jesus Himself, it’s my perception of Jesus. Jesus is bigger than my my imagination or knowledge, and He’s bigger than yours – and it’s the same with God. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as that perception and knowledge is of the real Jesus, a Jesus who fits in with the character outlined in scripture, and with the teachings of scripture, which is where we see Him most revealed. It’s not a bad thing as long as I’m honest about both who I am and who Jesus really is and what He really wants from me. In some ways these things that point us to Jesus and tell us about Him can be good things.
But, like anything, it’s open to abuse. I think that often, especially in the culture we live in, we can take the best bits about Jesus and God, and we turn them simply into an idea that helps us sleep at night. A comfort blanket if you will.
We take true things about Jesus and make them into something safe and comfortable which we can get our head around and which might challenge us from time to time but generally keeps us in the same place and makes us feel good about ourselves. Most of us when we were children had bedtime stories read to us, and those of us who are parents probably read their children bedtime stories and say goodnight to them. Why do we do that? Because it makes them feel safe, it makes them comfortable going to sleep, they know they are okay. I don’t believe this impulse necessarily changes as we get older, it just becomes more developed and better hidden – and we use idols – like money, dream fulfillment, success, love, sex – and even God – as ideas that can help us feel better about ourselves, affirm things we already believe (Why do we always read newspapers and authors we agree with rather than ones we disagree with?) and make us feel better so we can sleep more comfortably in our beds.
The Jesus we use for this doesn’t take us across tightropes (more on that in a later blog post) or across unstable ladders in difficult parts of our lives or times we struggle, He is something that makes us feel good about who we already are and only allows us to change as much as we already want to change.
As I watched “I’m Still Here” and thought about this comfort-blanket Jesus the truth began to get ever more clear to me. That this comfort blanket Jesus might be the real Jesus, or He certainly may look like Him, act like Him and have His qualities and character. But like Joquain Phoenix during the year he made this film, it’s only part of who He is. It’s not the whole story. You see off camera and in private, Joquain Phoenix wasn’t the person everyone thought he was at all, it was all a ruse, a persona, for public consumption. With the very closest to him and those involved in the film, he was the self he always had been before and has been since more publicly, he hadn’t changed at all.
This happens with all of us. We all have a very public persona we put on for people – and though that is part of who we are, it’s not the complete self. There is always more going on behind the front, beyond the surface – and it’s usually the things we want to keep hidden or run away from. About ourselves, about life, about others.
But we do this for Jesus too.
We can at times almost create a persona for Jesus that we can deal with an suits us, almost a “Facebook Jesus” Now everyone knows Facebook profiles don’t tell the whole story, they are part of our public persona, they are part of our idealised selves that we can often think we are, and when we mistake our perception of Jesus for Jesus Himself, then although we’ll be getting some of the goodness of God and what He wants for us, we won’t be getting it in full – and there will be consequences. We won’t grow in the same way, we won’t be able to have that initmacy we have with those we are closest to, it will put up a self-imposed block between us and God.
I want more.
I want a real Jesus. I don’t want just a perception of Jesus, an idealised concept of Jesus. I want the real thing.
Because anything else is just a comfort blanket that keeps me safe at night, its not true, it’s not life changing.
If I’m honest I’m sick of pretending to be a Christian, I want to be a true follower of Jesus. Sometimes that’s difficult, sometimes it’s painful – but its completely worthwhile, it makes me more complete and fulfilled, it’s God’s best for me – and yes, there is a joy there which only comes through the process of growing in faith. And although it involves a death, it ends with a resurrection, new life. It ends with a celebration, a feast.
The more honest I am about myself the more I dislike myself. Now this doesn’t mean I don’t value myself or like myself – or that I have no value, it is simply what it says. I look at myself honestly, and there are many things about myself I simply don’t like, and the more honest I am with myself, the more I appreciate the concept I’m a sinner, and that although I try hard to live a Christ-like life, and occasionally get it right, and give a good impression I’m living a fully Christ-like life, the truth is that I’m not all the time, and when we re-set our standards to the standards Jesus asks us to set and we’re brutally honest with ourselves about who we are, the more we see how much we need God to save us – certainly that’s been my experience.
When you move away from comfort-blanket and Facebook Jesus to something more akin to the real thing, then the challenges are much bigger and life a lot more uncomfortable, and when coupled with true honesty about yourself you can begin to feel a desperate need for God and desire for Him that’s not been there before.
The more honest I am about who I am and who God is, and try and move away from the comfort-blanket God, the more difficult I realise the life that Jesus has for me actually is – and how much I need Him to do it. You see when you stop seeing Jesus as a comfort blanket and start exploring the reality of who He really is, Jesus takes you out of your comfort zone, He asks more difficult things of you.
He doesn’t want you to impress Him with your knowledge about Him, but wants you to acknowledge that you know nothing in comparison to God, and that all we have experienced is merely a glimmer, a taste, of who God really is, to accept that He is bigger than our wildest imaginations and more complex than the deepest knowledge, that He is a mystery we cannot fathom yet can have the deepest initmacy with if we truly desire it.
But ironically, it’s when I realise how dislikable I really am that I understand the most the grace of God – because God has said in His word – about me and you – that we were predestined before creation to be His adopted children and that Jesus blood is enough for us all. When we realise who we really are and then find out that in spite of all this God’s value on us in inifinte, His love for us unconditional and His faithfulness eternal, that we can we can worship God with the most sincerity.
It is in the place of ultimate surrender, where we are most honest about ourselves, about God and about the relationship between us, then God is most present and Jesus becomes His most real.
That is where the cross becomes the most powerful.
Jesus on the cross bridges the gap between us, He restores the brokeness in us, He takes all the things that block our path onto Himself and asks us to join Him, so that through the dying we can be resurrected to new life. And that process goes on and on throughout our lives, as we are each day transformed a little bit more into how we were designed to be.
So we can go on living in relationship with a comfort blanket disguised as faith, or we can fully enter into relationship with the living God. And it will be painful, uncomfortable & challenging – but it will at the same time be the most honest, authentic and truly life changing thing we can ever do.