I know, I know; I’m a year off on this one, thus totally ruining my reputation as a hipster-twenty-something. So sue me.
The Killers’ first single off last year’s album Day and Age was the song “Human” (music and lyrics above). According to the Killers official website, the song was inspired, at least in part, by a quote from Hunter S. Thompson who claimed that Americans are raising “a generation of dancers.” “Dancers,” in this context, is a pejorative term referring to the shallow self-absorption in which we find ourselves. And so the band asks the probing question, are we more? “Are we human, or are we dancer?”
LEGENDS OF THE FALL
But what does it mean to be human? This has been a problem psychology has probed for years. There’s even a whole division of psychology called “humanism,” whose origins are credited to one Mr. Abraham Maslow. I can’t think of anyone better to summarize Maslow’s work than writer Donald Miller:
“Maslow held that man was motivated by a hierarchy of desires: A person would seek food, then shelter, then sex, then companionship, and on and on. Only when one need had been fulfilled would he pursue the next until, at last, he had achieved what he referred to as ‘self-actualization.’ I don’t remember what Maslow said happens after self-actualization. I suppose a person wins a stuffed bear; the specifics of the theory escape me.” (Donald Miller, Searching for God Knows What, p. 30)
Self-actualized? But what is this “self” I’m supposed to be actualizing? Modern theories send us only further inward into our own souls like a dog chasing his own tail. Deep down I suspect the reason the Killer’s song owes its success to its stirring question as well as its infectious beat.
The Hebrew scriptures tell us that man is uniquely made in the tselem, or image of God. My nerdier readers will be familiar with the Latin term imago Dei, the “image of God” (btw, it’s pronounced “ih-MAH-go DAY” – try it; you can impress people at parties).
What does it mean to bear God’s image? It’s not that we look like God. It’s that as humans we share certain attributes of God. In the immediate context of Genesis, we share God’s creativity and relationality. But it also refers to our intelligence, our will. In this strange Latin phrase, we find our basis for personhood.
And sadly this image has been so terribly broken by our ancestors. There was a day, long ago in a perfect garden, when man turned against his Creator and got thrown out. And every day since then, we have been handed down this broken image, like some ugly, tragic family heirloom. This is what Martin Luther called “the incurvature of the soul,” that we are fundamentally bent and twisted, seeking no one’s good but our own.
REDEEMING THE IMAGE
We know we’re lost. We know we’re in trouble. We know we’re far from Eden, our former home. That’s why culturally we become “dancer,” seeking the numbing effects of our world in a vain attempt to assuage our homesickness.
In scripture, we find the Psalmist petitioning the sky, “Father what is man, that you are mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4)” The apostle Paul asks, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? (Romans 7:24)”
The answer to these most painful of life’s questions came not through a program of self-help (there’s an oxymoron for you to chew on), not through a press kit or a political philosophy.
For God, the answer to this question was a pregnancy.
Redeeming the image that had been broken meant that God Himself would lay aside the robes of divine privelege and put on the overalls of human weakness, even to come to earth as a child, laid in a feeding trough.
Jesus was God. In the flesh. Flesh means “human.” Jesus was uniquely God and human, and in His humanity, He demonstrated what it means to truly be human, to live a life of abundance and of conformity to His Father’s good character.
No one says it better than Athanasius, who wrote a fourth century text called On the Incarnation. Athanasius was a short man from north Africa, which earned him the title “the Black Dwarf” (not making that one up, folks; but he was a highly respectable man in his day and in ours). Athanasius wrote quite beautifully on the restoration of God’s divine image:
You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. He, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself… (St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation, III.14)
The early church would later use the word theosis. It refers to the act of becoming “God-like.” Not that we become God, but through God’s Spirit-mediated guidance we ourselves can “become conformed to the image of the Son (Romans 8:29).” And we quite equally have hope in a future reality as well, for we know that “we are children of God, and it has not appeared as yet what we shall be. We know that, when He appears, we shall be like Him, because we shall see Him just as He is (1 John 3:2).”
Jesus was human. We are dancer. But through His example and the gift of His Spirit, we may learn to dance the rhythms of our Creator, in whose image we were created, and whose image we strive daily to obtain.