Last Monday I mused a bit on the difficulty I have trusting people. My friendships tend to be deep, but they form slowly.
Today I wanted to work out some thoughts on one personality-type I have a particular instinct to avoid–posers.
A poser is someone who is so desperate to belong they take up an ideology or cause to the point where it appears they are among that group’s most zealous adherents. In reality, they’re insecure. Their zeal is used as a way to keep people from discovering their selfish reasons for taking up the cause 1.
Christian circles are filled with posers, which shouldn’t be surprising for anyone who’s read the Gospels. Jesus himself said,
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers 2.’
Christian posers may do amazing things, lead “successful” missions, and even perform wondrous signs. But in the end, Jesus doesn’t know them.
It’s been my experience among Christians that posers tend to display certain character traits in order to trick even themselves about what they are actually doing. And I’m not merely observing this in others, in my own life I can look back and realize there have been times where I’ve been a poser 3. Pointing out the nature of posing is as much confession as it is insight into what I see in the world.
So let’s look at some common traits I see in posers.
Christians in my country have a peculiar dialect of English called “Christian-ese.” We all use it to some degree, no matter what our theological proclivities are, because it springs from the very language we use to interact with the deeper realities of the faith 4. I’ve done my best over the course of my pastoral call to avoid Christian-ese like a disease, but even I drop into it. “Pastoral call” is Christian-ese–it’s inescapable.
But the use of some jargon, because that’s just what happens when humans attempt communication, isn’t what posers do. Instead, a poser will use jargon at all times. If you talk about your vacation with a poser, they will frame all their interactions with your story with jargon. If a poser is describing their job, they will communicate their ideas only through the jargon particular to their chosen tribe. If a poser is asked about their faith journey, they will tend to describe it in such a way that only those fluent in Christian-ese could hope to understand. This is because, to the poser, jargon isn’t a result of the limitations of human language, it’s a badge of belonging. Posers tend to use ideological jargon the way kids use a “secret password” to enter a fort. Those who neither know nor embrace their secret language are not to be trusted.
A poser’s obsession with belonging means they require fierce borders between what’s “in” and what’s “out.” Without these strong borders a poser’s sense of security is weakened. The group in which they are seeking their belonging belonging becomes flexible and it makes it more difficult to know if they are “in.”
For this reason, posers do not react well to disagreement among group members–even on tertiary matters. Anything that weakens borders is a threat, and so must therefore be resolved. If that resolution is through dissolved relationships, that’s fine. If resolution must come by forcing people to back down and be silent even if they have another opinion, that’s also fine. A poser wants to belong, belonging to a healthy group isn’t necessary. In fact, a healthy group may not be what posers are looking for, because healthy human communities don’t require ultra-secure borders–these keep healthy groups from breathing.
If you’ve ever met a Christian who thinks other forms of worship music are sub-human, or a political activist who talks about other schools of thought as though its adherents needed to be beaten into submission, chances are you’ve met a poser.
In a wonderful twist of irony, a poser’s aversion for disagreement also leads to a need for enemies. Knowing who “they” are, after all, helps to better define their borders. Because of this, offering any sort of outsider reflection on a poser’s declarations will tend to result in a savage response. Why? Because sharing a thought which doesn’t align with a poser’s beliefs isn’t seen as a point of discussion, interaction, or connection. It’s viewed as an attack on the poser’s sense of belonging and security. This is probably why politics and religion continue to be considered “taboo” in polite conversation. Most folks tend to have a bit of poser in them, and therefor tend toward volatile defense over productive engagement when confronted with a member of another “tribe.”
My natural struggle with trusting people heightens my wariness, but it also means I tend to feel assaults from posers deep in my heart. I enjoy engaging. I want to interact with people and enjoy going back and forth in discussions–both learning and listening and sharing and offering different perspectives. When I mistake a poser for someone who likewise wants to engage, it can be traumatic.
So when I observe a combination of the character traits I’ve come to associate with posers I tend to step with careful precision. I am cordial, I make space for people to grow out of their posing and into something deeper 5, but I try very hard to not be sucked in to their need for belonging. For me, unless someone tries to wield their posing in a way which causes intentional harm to a community, I can show a great deal of patience. When I see a need to confront a poser over the harm they may be causing to their own community I tend to be prepared for the backlash, so it’s not as traumatic.
And encountering posers is not limited to my religious vocation. They can be found just about anywhere–among fandoms, in political organizations, at work, in families, and among activists. In most instances 6 posers require love, patience, and a bit of space where they won’t knock to many things over as they mature. And about the worst thing one can do to a poser is mistake their pathological need to belong with mature zeal–it helps them to fix their self-perception in an unhealthy state.
- And, yes, this post is all anecdotal reflection. It is my observation.. ↩
- Matt. 7:21-23 NRSV ↩
- A friend of mine likes to point out that Christians all start out as heretics. That’s true. But I also think we have a tendency to jump from conversion to posing in short order, often with the encouragement of the Christian community. See the song, “I Want to Be A Clone.” ↩
- Though there are different dialects. ↩
- This was a grace afforded to me, after all. ↩
- Posers in hate groups just need to be condemned with aggressive kindness, no waiting needed. ↩