Welcome to the start of another academic year, as Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry begins a new year of “ultimate makeovers.” The makeovers will occur in various degrees, with different intensities for students, faculty, staff, attendees at educational programs for the community, and the cloud of supporters that have given life to the school. Ultimate makeovers are our “business.”
Although one definition of a makeover is “a complete transformation or remodeling of something, especially a person’s hairstyle, makeup, or clothes,” we will not have cosmetologists or image consultants available. Our kind of makeover deals with something less tangible but no less dramatically altering.
The idea of a make over was first used, according to Merriam-Webster in 1546, referring to the remodeling or “refashioning” of something, such as an old building or other structure, in order to make it useful for new needs. It appears the concept became one word, and started getting applied to the refashioning of one’s personal image around 1927.
Makeovers are now a fundamental part of modern life in many cultures and an enormous industry. According to Mint.com, a free web-based personal financial management service, beauty products alone are a $382 billion industry worldwide. (See here) In the highly unstable industry of journalism, some of the most stable magazines are devoted to ideas for personal makeovers: Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Glamour, Allure are all designed for women. But, this is not just a female phenomenon. The male fashion market in 2014 will exceed $402 billion, and male grooming products are estimated to reach $33 billion in 2015. GQ, the men’s fashion magazine, has had a following since 1957 and there are well-established magazine counterparts throughout the world, especially in Europe.
For those who are particularly tired of their look, you can even get “extreme makeovers,” which require boot camp like exercise programs, radical diets, and plastic surgery. You can get these high-octane refurbishings for yourself or your house. A popular television show called “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” surprises poor families, or those suffering from natural disasters, with dramatic overhauls of their homes.
There is nothing inherently wrong with makeovers. As a matter of fact, you don’t have to spend much time in the work world to discover that our self-presentation usually makes a significant difference in how people perceive our competence.
But, there is another kind of makeover that is more important than our external appearance—the kind of makeover you get from education. Education remakes our interiority. Good education buffs up our confidence in responding to the complexity of the problems we face; it tucks in the flabby edges of our understanding of our world and ourselves; and, it gives us an eyelift that expands our field of vision so we begin to see more of what is happening around us.
Theological education takes this refashioning of human interiority one step further. It provides an environment to receive an ultimate makeover for future counselors, chaplains, ministers, and leaders in non-profits, business and government. Theological education exists on the premise that the human person can be remade through intimate dialogue with the Mystery expressed and interpreted in an ancient religious tradition. The image of God as Potter and we as clay in the Hebrew Bible’s book of Isaiah has been a primary metaphor for describing the kind of ultimate makeover achievable through surrendering oneself to the wisdom, practices, and sacred sensitivity interlaced into the life and teachings of an ancient religious heritage. The Potter’s wheel will spin all year at the School of Theology and Ministry here at Seattle University.
At this level of makeover, our understanding of the world expands to a “metaphysical” horizon, reaching beyond what we can encounter merely through our senses. An ultimate makeover awakens us to the constellation of personal and moral issues underlying every challenge we face as members of the human race. It also builds confidence in our own abilities to impact the relationships, groups, organizations and work that God brings into our daily living, and heightens our trust that the necessary inspiration, strength and focus will come to us in situations when and where we will need it. The ultimate makeover of theological education hones our skills in discerning our vocational call, even as we try to operationalize this call in the changing contexts of our lives.
It will spin during our study, prayer, conversation, debate, “stretch” experiences, mistakes and missteps, successes, opportunities for learning and unlearning; crossing through moments of new awareness that bring disillusionment and discouragement, as well as revelatory “eurekas;” and, by way of laughter, tears, and buckets of reflection. Collectively, in the process we will all undergo an incremental interior re-making. Many will not see all of these changes in us, and some of our more significant transformations will likely go unnoticed by all but those closest to us. But, a theological education can make all the difference in the way we live our lives. This is the difference between an interior makeover that is part of a life of pilgrimage, and other kinds of makeovers.
In retail marketing there has been an interesting parallel to the concept of makeover: the overused oxymoron, “new and improved.” (How is it possible to improve something that is new?) One of the oldest “new and improved” promises is an 1861 advertisement in a Boston newspaper touting superior spectacles. “Sore, weak and inflamed eyes scientifically doctored and a cure in every case warranted,” the ad promises. (See here: oldadsarefunny.blogspot.com) Most of us can all live side-by-side with an oxymoron like new and improved because we all desperately want improvement and newness in our lives. In some first encounters with many poor homes in America it can rattle ministers and social workers to discover the piles of clutter – booty acquired from Goodwill, the Salvation Army, church bazaars, garage sales, Wal-Mart – mounds of clothes and plastic in all shapes and sizes, each offering a few moments of refreshing newness, a chance to feel as if it is possible to start things over.
The ultimate makeovers in theological education depart company with other makeovers when it comes to new and improved. In every generation this kind of education becomes “improved,” but it is never really something new. It has roots in the wisdom acquired through centuries of women and men struggling to understand the real meaning of human existence, and trying to develop the skills and perspectives needed to build a new kind of world according to the design of a different sort of Architect. With an ancient, always improved, but never new ultimate makeover you create a new chapter in the human condition for each generation. You remake yourself so others might become inspired to remake themselves. You engage the world with a metaphysical and moral compass that allows you to navigate the worst the human condition can throw at you, and to respond to evil with a transforming goodness.
Terrorist groups recently released hideous videos from Syria showing the execution of three men by laying them face down on the ground and slowly beheading them with a knife. I accidentally stumbled across the video while looking for news. At the time, it was believed that one of the men killed was a Franciscan priest, although this now seems unlikely. Crowds are shown standing around the doomed men, many of them filming the gruesome act on their cell phones, while periodically turning to look blankly into the camera of the videographer. I have never witnessed a more perfect example of what Hannah Arendt referred to as “the banality of evil.” She used this as a description of Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann, who showed neither hatred nor remorse for his leadership in the task of sending Jews to death camps during World War II. He was just doing his job, and felt no moral obligation or personal investment in what his actions meant to others or the broader scheme of things. The image of the video from Syria, and the banality of its evil, is yet another reminder that no other species is capable of such a loathsome act, and our world is still in desperate need of ultimate makeovers.
In the past, such makeovers have produced saintly ministers and religious leaders, moral government and military civil servants, altruistic educators and health care workers, and torchbearing journalists, social workers and business leaders. Remarkably, these people emerged in times and barbaric environments like the one shown in the video out of Syria.
As we begin this school year, let us remember that the time we spend together in this holy enterprise is critically important to the future of the church and the world. Many have come before us who had this kind of education, and used it to change the world in the most unlikely places, because when you have an extreme makeover your path to true happiness occurs only by following your inner call, no matter where it takes you.