The folks at Mockingbird recently drew my attention to a perceptive collection of essays (We Learn Nothing: Essays) by Tim Kreider–a semi-frequent contributor to the New York Times. Kreider–a self-styled atheist–writes about the human condition with a kind of brash precision that makes the collection hard to put down. While some readers will be put off by his occasional employment of crude language, Kreider’s cutting insights, along with his raucous wit, give him the ability to hit at least this reader square between the eyes.
One of the more hilarious/keen perspectives in the volume is Kreider’s notion of the “soul toupée.” I’ll let him introduce it:
“Years ago a friend of mine and I used to frequent a market in Baltimore where we would eat oysters and drink Very Large Beers from 32-ounce styrofoam cups. One of the regulars there had the worst toupee in the world, a comical little wig taped in place on the top of his head. Looking at this man and drinking our VLBs, we developed the concept of the Soul Toupee. Each of us has a Soul Toupee. The Soul Toupee is that thing about ourselves we are most deeply embarrassed by and like to think we have cunningly concealed from the world, but which is, in fact, pitifully obvious to everybody who knows us. Contemplating one’s own Soul Toupee is not an exercise for the fainthearted. Most of the time other people don’t even get why our Soul Toupee is any big deal or a cause of such evident deep shame to us but they can tell that it is because of our inept, transparent efforts to cover it up, which only call more attention to it and to our self-consciousness about it, and so they gently pretend not to notice it. Meanwhile we’re standing there with our little rigid spongelike square of hair pasted on our heads thinking: Heh – got ‘em all fooled!” (39)
The concept of the soul toupée is both hilarious and painful because it is simply true to human experience. I’m wearing a soul toupée, and so are you. You can see mine. And I can spot yours. We’re simply terrible at concealing those things we feel must be concealed at all costs. And the terrible thing about the soul toupée is the care, upkeep, and management it requires. We find ourselves consistently adjusting it, grooming it, making sure that it is held firmly in place, because if it slips, we will be exposed.
As Kreider says, “Contemplating ones own Soul Toupee is not for the fainthearted.” I’m afraid that that is precisely what must be done if we don’t want to go on kidding ourselves (and poorly attempting to kid others). But how? Though I’m sure Kreider would cringe at my pushing his idea to what I think is its logical conclusion, it seems to me that I can only properly contemplate my own soul toupée if I’m convinced that there is a way for me to take it off–to be exposed–without losing the acceptance that I think it affords me. In other words, if I’m utterly convinced that I need my soul toupée to traffic in this difficult world, the only way for me to be free of it is for someone else–someone with verifiable “judge” status–to tell me that I am acceptable without it. I need someone to tell me that all this cover-up work is not only worthless, but silly and, ultimately, impossible. If someone were to tell me that, I’d be able to take off the toupée and get on with life as an accepted man with a “bald” soul.
The gospel–which claims that Christ became incarnate, lived, died, and rose again for our salvation and our ultimate justification/acceptance before God–is a soul toupée’s worst nightmare. In the gospel, we are exposed for what we are. Our cover-ups are uncovered; the game of hide-and-seek comes to an end and we lose. Why would this exposure ever be good news? Precisely because there is Another who willingly bears the shame, reproach, and guilt that is ours because of sin and brokenness. Because Jesus is exposed, counted as unacceptable, and cast down to death on our behalf, our exposure before God–the removal of this silly soul toupée–leads not to rejection but full acceptance; we are not cast down to death but pulled into new life. That kind of promise–the promise that I can be known, “truly, all the way through,” and yet not rejected–is exactly the kind of assurance I need in order to take this terribly obvious, rather ridiculous thing off my soul.