I call it Swinburn’s Theory of Beguiling Embrace. For the sake of my fingers and to briefly conserve the alphabet, I’ll call it STBE. It explains the magnetic attraction many people find in church participation. And STBE reveals the allure of gang membership. Let me explain.
Every one of us considers ourselves unique. We each pride ourselves on the “fact” that we are one-of-a-kind, an exceptional specimen. At the same time, we crave community; being included as part of a group feeds our need for acceptance and it assuages our fear of being alone as we confront a menacing world. Yet neither our singularity nor our collective engagement satisfies us. We ache for something more. Something that embraces both our exclusivity and our shared identity.
Our seemingly conflicting needs can best be understood by comparing ourselves to pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece stands out as one-of-a-kind, yet the puzzle is incomplete without each unique contribution. But even when every piece has been properly fit into its place, the puzzle remains essentially a two-dimensional image. It seems to take on an added dimension, though, when a layer of lacquer is applied to the finished surface so the puzzle can be displayed as a finished piece, suitable for framing. The lacquer binds all the pieces together into a cohesive whole, recording evidence of the painstaking effort required to forge a unified expression.
Churches and gangs serve both as the finished puzzle and the lacquer that immortalizes it. Churches and gangs “complete,” in a sense, their members. Through STBE, they wrap their members in a comforting blanket, validating the individuality of each member while, at the same time, offering everlasting (as long as the conditions of membership are met) acceptance and embrace. Membership entices unique individuals to become part of a larger-than-life “family.” And, though the family provides the acceptance and protection the members need, it offers each member the opportunity to be themselves within the larger context of the group. Acceptance into the family is equivalent to an embrace, wrapping the member in a protective, loving cocoon.
There’s much more to the STBE, but that’s still brewing in my head at the moment, so I’ll stop and let it settle. I may write more about it later. Or this post may be the one and only time I’ll address the matter. Time will tell.
Love this, John. What a lovely metaphor. It was nice seeing you today. With lacquer over all our faces. . Meg