I admit with embarrassment that I found myself, on a recent evening of very low energy, staring at the concluding segment of a television show called “Extreme Makeover.” The three women featured—note that they were all women—had been shown earlier looking the way most of us look in the morning. Then, after being sliced, tucked, lifted, lasered, bandaged, bleached, dressed, coiffed and heavily made up, they return to the cheers of friends and family. One of the women was from our town. The changes were dramatic. I caught my husband looking at me speculatively.
My husband has remarked on the “character” my face has acquired over the years of our marriage, and I am grateful for his endearing use of the euphemism. The mirror shows lines and wrinkles that remain there after I stop smiling or frowning or grimacing. I am at an age where nature no longer carries me. I need disguises. Like many women my age, I color my gray hair and I use blush, concealer and lipstick to present a younger self—daily, tiny makeovers.
I wondered meanly what the extremely made-over women would look like after they removed their make-up and slept on their hairdos and pulled on some sweats. What about the day after the extreme makeover? And the day after that? These women who glowed with happiness at their new looks, who radiated confidence about what lay ahead, surely remained, underneath their polished skins, the same children of God they had always been.
I watched this show mere hours after teaching a junior high school religious education class. Oddly enough, we had been discussing a reading from 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you? ...God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:16-17).
I love the contrast of the literal and the figurative temples: the church building across the parking lot and ourselves in the classroom, gathered together on a Thursday. The lesson plan touched on a related issue. We as a group of believers are God’s dwelling place, but each one of us physically is also a sacred space. The faces of the students, ages 12 and 13, had veiled looks of boredom. Their thought bubbles read, “What’s she going on about now?” If you are God’s temple, I told them, and you abuse or mistreat your own body, you sin against God, whose temple you inhabit. Their eyes glazed over at the talk of sin and God: another lecture coming their way. Just say no. I don’t pretend that these young adolescents are not confronted with serious choices every day about drugs, alcohol and sex. They just don’t want to hear about it from me.
Until one boy spoke up. “Dude,” he said (not my name, but a term of affection). “It’s about breaking your edge.”
I wanted to hug him. I’m so glad the Holy Spirit speaks their lingo. I let the inspired boy take over.
The boy had the class’s full attention, because he is rather high up on the cool ladder. He has “straight edge” written on his notebook and up his arm, which means not only that he listens to loud, hard-core, alienated-youth music, but that he cannot abide hypocrisy, especially the adult type, and that he abstains from all mind-altering substances and premarital sex. He also encourages others to join in these commitments. If you break your edge, you give in to one of these temptations of the flesh. You desecrate the temple. He traced his straight edge right back to 1 Corinthians.
Who says the Bible is not still a vibrant force in the postmodern world?
The students soaked up his words, nodding judiciously, chewing their pizza. They, together, were the temple. Their bodies, strong and young and on the verge of everything, were temples. Cool.
So how do we help these kids not to break their edge in a culture of extreme makeovers? In our society, we chop up and rearrange our bodies—on television—to make them more attractive and marketable. We inflate our breasts and tuck our tummies and stretch our wrinkles. We overeat, we starve ourselves, we pump ourselves up with steroids. We consume vast quantities of diet fads and are caught up in exercise equipment crazes. We are drug addicts and alcoholics. We manipulate and abuse our bodies with little thought for the God who dwells within. We mess with the temple. Worst of all, we retreat from the greater community, which is the temple referred to by St. Paul, by focusing on ephemeral bits of ourselves.
We have broken our edge.
And we are these kids’ parents.
These kids adorn the temple differently, as is the prerogative of each generation. They pierce and tattoo and shave and spike. They advertise: covers to judge. They live in an extreme world, caught sometimes between the silly and the lethal. Some of them are careful. Some of them are thoughtless. With a world of information at their typing fingertips, they are still unsatisfied. Some of them feel neglected by adults who are driven by their own demons to pursue some promised fountain of youth. Some of them feel chafed by the too-tight reins that lash them to adults who answer no questions and tolerate no dissent. Some of them are precariously balanced between the two. They are all hungry for truth and communication, for sacred connection, for what is holy, for what lasts.
They are God’s temple, and they need to be built up.
The task falls to us. We too form part of that temple, imperfect, aging, yet fortunately designed by a carpenter—one who offers us, in our need, an extreme makeover of the soul.