The Plastic Man

Growing up in the 1970’s in the Midwest, I loved watching sports on television.  NFL Football and the Chicago Cubs on WGN with announcer Jack Brickhouse were my favorites.  But I relished watching the Olympics when they came on.  During the two weeks they took place, my family would gather around the television each evening to watch.  Like many Americans, my nationalistic pride would soar as Team USA racked up the medals.

During the 1976 Summer Games, I still remember as a young teenager watching Bruce Jenner compete and win the Decathlon, the premier event of the Olympics.  The underdog against the favored Soviet Union athlete and previous Olympic champion, Nikolai Avilov, Jenner excited the nation as we rooted for this chiseled, flowing haired competitor clad in his red tank top and blue shorts.  Not only did he pull off the upset with his running, jumping, hurdling and hurtling, but he set a world record in the process.

Yet life goes on.  Though I remember afterwards seeing Jenner’s winning pose with outstretched arms on Wheaties boxes and his smiling, fresh face on the occasional sports commentary, to be honest like most of my childhood sports idols he simply disappeared from my radar screen.  Since I do not watch much television anymore, have never seen an episode of the Kardashians, and hardly know who they are, I had no idea he had been married to the mother until recently.  Of course, what brought this to my attention was the recent outburst of news that Jenner, now age 65, is going through gender transitioning to become a woman.

In many ways, this is none of my business, but if it is true he’s going to be interviewed by Diane Sawyer and have the whole thing filmed for a documentary, then he’s made it everyone’s business.  And for those cultural commentators who want to celebrate this moment because Jenner has finally “found her true identity,” I think you should hold on.  The story is not so simple as that.

Seeing his pictures in the grocery store aisle last week was surreal and just plain sad, even sadder than going to a forty-year class reunion and seeing what time did to classmates (or to you, as you look into the mirror getting ready for it).  For if anything, Jenner just looked so plastic.  The femininity aside, his face was not natural looking but stretched, thin, and mask-like.  One magazine showed several pictures through the years, and the stages of his well-documented plastic surgeries were evident.

These snapshots of Jenner’s outer plasticity reflect the inner man more than we realize.  In a well-written piece in the The Washington Post entitled “The forgotten history of Bruce Jenner”, Emily Yahr explains thoroughly how “The 1970’s All-American hero ended up here.”  What is fascinating about Yahr’s article is that she reveals how driven Jenner was to succeed and be at the center of attention.  When he placed tenth in the decathlon in 1972, “he later recalled looking up at the winner on the podium, burning with envy” and was “obsessed with winning.”  After his victory, he set aside athletics to pursue a media career.  Yahr states that “Jenner lived his life for the cameras”, appearing so much in the media that “his ubiquity became a running joke.”  Jenner also left the wife who supported him through his Olympic training and was the mother of his two children for first one and then another glamour wife.  One gets the real sense reading this article that his latest decision is just one in a long string of attempts by Jenner to find an elusive satisfaction or, perhaps more exactly, to reshape himself for the public eye once again.

The French philosopher Rousseau once said, “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.”  His adage also has a necessary corollary.  When man shapes God into his own image, the image becomes a moving target, resulting in man constantly reinventing himself.  In Jenner’s case, this has become tragic as he gives every appearance of, well, trying to give every appearance.

Yet people are not to be like Lego or Playmobil figures in the hands of others, where plastic parts are snapped on and off without consequence.  Instead, we are made in the image of God as male and female.  Human attempts such as Jenner’s to change that are truly affronts to Him who made us.  God alone is the determiner of our identity, including our gender and its accompanying sexuality.  Those who are seeking their true identity need to go to the One who was not made in God’s image but who actually is the very image of the invisible God.  He came to this world to reveal and restore that identity that, as Jenner’s sad story shows, has been so hopelessly lost.

Christ will help anyone find who he or she was made to be, from a confused senior citizen who was once an Olympic hero to a confused teenager suffering in quiet shame in his or her own bedroom. Jesus is the Potter who can truly transform you.  Not into a piece of brittle plastic, but by His own scarred and loving hands He will shape you into a beautiful vessel of His grace that reflects His own perfect image.

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