My wife, Gwyneth, is recently on an early 2000’s nostalgia trip watching America’s Next Top Model on Hulu. Because, why not? And, we’re getting old. There is not a pair of skinny jeans in sight! She usually shows me great love by turning it off when I come home. I occasionally sit down and watch a bit with her, reciprocating her great love. We do love watching elimination competitions together because the drama of Tyra Banks (or whoever the judge may be) saying “Sorry, you have to go,” and the subsequent tears and loving farewells is at the same time heart warming and heart wrenching. Don’t @ us! I cannot even come close to understanding the criteria of fashion model judges. All the women are tall, lanky beauties but Tyra seems to have strong feeling about who is a model and who isn’t. The other day I heard her say something like, “You’re being pretty, you aren’t modeling.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN!? I cannot even begin to try to explain what makes a fashion model photo good and what makes it bad. I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the eye. How do you learn something you don’t understand?
I have taken some photography classes and I’ve been loving me some Instagram for almost 8 years now. So I do think I have an eye for photography, but I don’t think I could explain that to you either. You can study composition and contrast and all kinds of other techniques but there does seem to be something else going on with photography. There is a je ne sais quoi (french for “I don’t know what”). I think the best way to learn would be to start taking pictures.
As it is in fashion photography and probably every kind of art, the learning is experiential. Some might be better at finding language for it, but most artists I know settle into trusting the je ne sais quoi. It is instinctual, intuitive and mysterious. Most of my Instagram art has to do with noticing the light and the clouds (like my first post in 2011). My discipline is just looking up and not taking it for granted. I’m sure I could learn more technique, but it won’t be the technique that gets me to the je ne sais quoi. I really don’t know what that is.
And so it is with Jesus. We don’t know him in abstraction, we know him as he is. We know him person to person. But so much Christian talk is about him, that the depth of his je ne sais quoi might get lost in the propositions and theories that get so much airtime. I think any talk about Jesus is pretty boring if you aren’t really interested in doing what he said. Something special happens when you get beneath your skepticism and try to live as he lived and taught his disciples to live in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). If you want to really know Jesus, you must try out doing what he said.
I was struck by this again as I read John 7 with some college students at Rowan College of South Jersey. In John 7, Jesus secretly goes to Jerusalem for a religious festival. He is not sure it is the right time to present himself to the authorities in the seat of power because he is not ready to hand himself over to be killed. He knows they have it out for him so he is cautious. But half way through the festival he goes up to the temple and begins to preach. I imagine him throwing off his cloak and hood in dramatic slow-mo and stepping up onto whatever the first century version of a soapbox is, saying “Ok, fine. I’ll do it!” There is great danger in this.
About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him. (John 7:14-18)
Jesus is saying something like this: “What you’re feeling from me — that astonishment — that’s the je ne sais quoi from my father. There is something about me that is attractive, but it’s not me; it’s God. If you want to really test it out. Do what I’m teaching you to do. Try it out. God sent me, and you will know this is true only by doing the same sort of things that God sent me to do. And that’s all I am teaching. You won’t figure it out before you get into it. Everyone has an opinion about me, but the only way to test your opinion is to see how it feels when you follow my lead.”
You don’t need some monumental faith to do it. You only need enough faith to try. Try loving your neighbor. Try feeding the poor. Try forgiving those who hurt you. Try speaking truth to power. And you don’t have to do it alone! Try singing a worship song with the congregation at a Sunday meeting. Try praying with a cell. Try trusting someone with the trouble you are feeling. Try loving someone who is hard for you to love. You’re going to feel it. That is Jesus’ invitation. You’re going to get the je ne sais quoi .
Jesus is advocating for another kind of knowing — one to which the question “Qu’est–ce que c’est?”/“What is it?” does not really apply. Like Tyra Banks knows something about fashion photography that I do not, Christians who follow Jesus by actually trying what he says know something about Jesus that others who haven’t tried do not. In fact, they know him personally. If you want to have a relationship with Jesus, it might seem elementary but I say it nonetheless, you have to do what Jesus says. And when you do, you will love him, and you will experience him in ways that I cannot predict — probably in ways I haven’t yet. This mode of knowing is a comfort to me, and may clear some of the obstacles you or the people you know are having when your doubts are at their strongest. You won’t be able to think your way into relationship, you will have to DO your way into it. Which is already true for many of the things we value. To know the je ne sais quoi of following Jesus, you might be tempted to start with “What is it?” But I suggest you begin with “What can I do now?”