The existence of the ideal is evidence of its possibility.
Ever been inspired by a movie because of the values it portrayed? The story was challenging and beautiful, moving and uplifting. Then you come back to “reality” and realize that the players are just actors, the movie is based on a novel, and you realize that it is just a story. This self-inflicted “balance” between idealism and reality is aided by our own exposure to shattered dreams, burst bubbles, and unmet expectations. It’s what Rod Tidwell (from the movie Jerry Maguire) meant when, referring to single moms considering a new relationship, he said:
“They’ve been to the circus, you know what I’m saying? They’ve been to the puppet show and they’ve seen the strings.”
We face this type of exposure to reality all the time. In fact, it begins to seem that everything and everyone has a seamy underside;1 a corrupt core predisposed to dishonesty and fraud. We learn to protect ourselves from getting hurt again. We adjust our expectations of people when we hear that a pastor or a politician has committed adultery, a friend has been busted in an internet scam, or we observe every-day, garden variety hypocrisy in people we know. By the time we “grow up,” we have been conditioned to temper idealism with “reality.” We assume that anything that appears genuinely good or honorable must have “strings” somewhere. We begin to consider as true Dr. Greg House’s axiom: “Everybody lies!”2 But, I am not ready to be done with idealism.
Leave it to Beaver
The premise of the book, The Way We Never Were,3 is that nostalgic reminiscences of, say, the 1950s are unrealistic. There were no Leave it to Beaver households. It was all Hollywood hype. I wasn’t alive in the 50s so I don’t know what it was really like, but I want to argue the following point: If I can imagine a story with values in which all the characters operate with integrity and depth and idealism, isn’t that proof to some degree that such a thing is possible? The fact that you can be moved by the dramatization of such values is the evidence that you can be inspired to imitate such idealism. And isn’t it true that nestled within our protests against the atrocities of character seen in everyday life is actually the call to live the ideal?
Now, cut to Scripture as our example of idealistic living. The Bible is full of high ideals that God clearly expects us to pursue. I have met people who feel that even the call to live according to Scripture is unreasonable! To think this way is to completely miss the power of God’s grace and God’s Word. It is possible to do right. It is possible to think clean thoughts. It is possible to envision people who interact with integrity and honor. It is possible to be a person who interacts with others with integrity and honor.
Such living demands that we focus not on the evil inclinations that bombard us but on the example of Jesus “who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2b).” That is, instead of focusing on the seamy underside of things and giving place to our own propensity to imagine evil, we instead pursue the right path. But how? This is the point of grace. We have been given the power to live differently; on a higher plane!
Paul said, “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord (Romans 7:24b-25a)!” We have been rescued from a worldly reality and called to higher things!
1 The word seamy is literally referring to the exposure of the rough seems of a garment turned inside out. So, in the context of idealism, it is a picture of being presented with something that appears perfect but upon inspection is proven to be imperfect.
2 Greg House is a fictional character on the television series House, M.D. which aired on Fox for eight seasons.
3 Stephanie Coontz, (Basic Books: 1992). A prequel to this book is The Way We Really Are upon which the front cover depicts a single parent families, a mixed race parented family, and a same-sex parented family.