This article was originally written for Mockingbird.
She caught our eye in 2007 on a short-lived network comedy. Then, she broke through with an independent drama in 2010 that earned her national acclaim and attention. She flew into the stratosphere and became the mega-star we know and love with a summer blockbuster in 2012, the success of which she’s likely still riding the coattails. If you didn’t already catch it, I’m referring to Jennifer Lawrence. “J-Law,” as she’s lovingly known on the “Interwebz,” made a name for herself on The Bill Engvall Show during its brief run on TBS. And though one might’ve been able to see her raw potential, it wasn’t until 2010’s Winter’s Bone that we got to see her true acting prowess. J-Law’s performance in that film led to her first nomination for Best Actress at the Academy Awards, becoming the second youngest person to be nominated for such an award.
J-Law subsequently turned that momentum into numerous starring roles in other higher-profile films, such as Mystique in the X-Men prequel/reboot, Tiffany Maxwell in Silver Linings Playbook, and, of course, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. J-Law’s sudden rise to fame has been seemingly saccharine sweet to this point. (Minus that “hiccup” with the leaked photos.) Through it all, though, she’s been adamant about maintaining her “normalcy.” Annoyingly so, in fact. Actually, she’s become so fixated on ensuring people look at her and treat her “normally” that it’s become a cultural punch-line at this point.
I think that’s what happens when you go out of your way to make people see how “average” you are. Case in point, here’s J-Law’s most recent public appearance, on Late Night talking to Seth Meyers during the promotion of her latest role in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Just watch how long it takes for her to make it know to the audience that’s she’s “a normal girl.”
I can’t sit up straight anymore . . . I don’t care if I look bad.
I’ve recently found J-Law’s self-referential mission to preserve her “normal life” maddening and, well, obnoxious (to be quite honest). Mostly because it feels more and more untrue and insincere. But also because of the general rule of the irony of normalcy. The irony of normalcy is that the more you talk about how normal you are, the less normal you become. Ordinary people don’t go around making sure everyone knows how ordinary they are. They just live, quietly, ordinarily. I’m learning that myself. In my own quest for contentment amid the monotony of Christianity, I have to remind myself that what I’m enduring isn’t new or unique. Scores of disciples have endured the same struggles, the same yearnings for relevance, and the same disheartening realization of one’s own insignificance.
The fact of the matter is when you’re always talking about how normal you are, it no longer becomes normal, it becomes an act. Normalcy becomes a part you play, another role for which you might be nominated, depending on your level of adherence to all the nuances of being “normal.” Perhaps I’m overreacting. I won’t deny that may be the case. Yet, I can’t help but think that as much as it irks me that J-Law portrays herself this way, that I do the same thing. I can’t shake the idea that for as much as she pretends to be “normal,” I’m engaged on my own pretending endeavor — and on an even more dangerous scale.
You see, the rules that apply to the irony of normalcy also apply to the righteousness of faith. Mankind’s innate reasoning tells them to point to their works, their résumé, their scorekeeping books when determining their the level of righteousness and goodness. The measure of your holiness is the amount of works you’ve accomplished and how many people have taken notice. Such is why we’ve taken large amounts of time and effort in carefully crafting our reputations and résumés. The more people think well of us and see our “good” activity, the more transactions get deposited into our spiritual bank account. Indeed, you might say that every human, to one degree or another, is a self-referential, self-interested spiritual merchant, concerned only with numbers, and credits, and loans, and liens. Believer and unbeliever alike function in this life more like religious bookkeepers than anything else. Robert Capon would concur.
The human race is positively addicted to keeping records and remembering scores. What we call our “life” is, for the most part, simply the juggling of accounts in our heads.1
But the irony of the righteousness of faith — the righteousness that’s donated, deposited to your account through no act of your own, but solely on the basis of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection — is that it necessarily involves self-forgetfulness. The paradox of good works is that the more you point them out, the less they actually shine. Talking about holiness and pointing out my righteousness doesn’t make it more real or more true. Actually, it does the exact opposite. As long as I’m self-referencing the amount of good I’m doing, my good is no longer good. It’s become a commodity by which I change spiritual tax brackets.
Endeavors at self-righteousness that are founded in self-referencing good works only meet dead ends. They go nowhere. They accomplish nothing. And leave you wallowing in an empty, pretend righteousness. That’s precisely because “happiness can never come in until the bookkeeping stops.”2 We think that piling up credits to our name will ensure our happiness in the future. But really, it just puts us in bondage. All our toil in bringing recognition to the good we’re doing puts us under a new law that necessitates you keep up that act. And eventually, the rigidity of this law takes its toll on the adherent, leaving one to resignation or abandonment of religion all together. The joy of the Lord isn’t found in high-stakes spiritual banking. It’s found in the One who credits your bankruptcy with infinite resources of grace. (Col 2:13–15)
You see, until our arms are laid down, until we become as little children, we’re nowhere near the gospel of God. As Christ’s disciples, we are “to be extreme in their pursuit of lastness, lostness, and littleness.”3 Even in our pursuit of holiness we are to make little of it. In every facet of our lives, he must increase and we must decrease. “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” (Jn 3:30) Indeed, “there are no saints on earth who are not more sensible of their sin than of their holiness.”4 The gospel’s entire construct of salvation and growth in righteousness necessarily involves a relinquishment of all perceived personal goodness and progress in sanctification. Unlike J-Law continued “normal” performance, I have to daily preach to myself that righteousness the law demands is already mine by faith, by the work of Another — a work which I had no part in. “Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By one of works? No, on the contrary, by a law of faith. For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rom 3:27–28)
Robert Capon, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996), 126.
William James, Grace for Grace: Letters of Rev. William James, edited by S. W. H. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1875), 184.