The Immortal Part
Back when I still taught high school, I always loved teaching Shakespeare. It was one of the hardest things I did all year, getting 17 and 18 year olds to buy into a play like Othello. When it clicked, though, it was magic. I had more success with the Moor of Venice than anything else, mainly because Othello is a lot like high school. Lies and betrayal, love and lust, and, above all, reputation.
I could spend a lot of words on all the various ways that reputation functions in this play, how without that concept everything else comes undone. Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about one particular bit of dialogue and a lesson I used to teach. About the middle of Act Two, the maleficent Iago manages to get Lieutenant Cassio into a drunken fight which costs him his rank. Now, because Iago may or may not be a representation of the devil, he orchestrates the whole affair so that his manipulation remains invisible to everyone but the audience. Once Othello busts Cassio down to a common soldier, Iago swoops in as the comforting comrade. It is here that reputation gets discussed:
Cassio: Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial. My reputation, Iago, my reputation!
Iago: As I am an honest man, I thought you had received some bodily wound. There is more sense in that than in reputation. Reputation is an idle and most false imposition ; of got without merit and lost without deserving. You have lost no reputation unless you repute yourself such a loser. (II.iii.252-261)
They go on like this a bit longer, but these are the two quotes essential to my lesson. I made up posters, one with each statement, and hung them on different sides of the room. Then, after a bit of discussion, the kids had to divide up: which belief did they buy more? They couldn’t sit on the fence; they had to choose a side. Then, we turned it into a game. After a bit of strategizing, they would then begin to argue their point of view, trying to convince members of the other team to change positions. Given that high schoolers love games and love to think they’re right, things usually got lively.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about reputation, what it means, who it’s for, and, more specifically, things I’ve done to damage mine. While I don’t think I’ve ruined mine, at least not with most people, I have certainly made choices which have called it into question. I have taken action which has caused some to doubt what they thought they knew about me. In the grip of pride and foolishness, it took me time to see the damage such uncertainty can cause. It is shocking how quickly trust can be lost, how long it takes to restore. As I have started on the road back to steadfastness, I have started to think about reputation in a different way. For the Christian, there is a different perspective, I think, than the two cited above, one which trumps all the rest.
Scripture has a lot to say about reputation, with the general consensus giving weight to Cassio’s words: a good reputation is important. “If you have to choose between a good reputation and great wealth, choose a good reputation” (Proverbs 22:1) ; “When arguing with your neighbor, don’t betray another person’s secret. Others may accuse you of gossip, and you will never regain your good reputation.” (Proverbs 25:10) ; “He must also have a good reputation with outsiders so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Timothy 3:7). It is in Paul’s letter to Titus, however, where I found the why. A good reputation in and of itself is not the aim. Rather, my reputation exists to serve God, to draw others closer to Him.
As Paul is explaining what and how Titus should be teaching different kinds of people, Paul ends three consecutive sections with the same reason: “…so that no one will malign the word of God….so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us….so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive.”
In other words, God is at work in the world through His church, and a Christian’s bad reputation is only going to interfere with the mission. Make no mistake, we are living in a time of war, and the soul of every person alive between now and the end of time is at stake. Think about the magnitude of that for a minute. There are more than 7 billion people on the planet right now, and more are coming every day. Each one of us, believer or not, is at the center of a battle. That’s a lot of fronts to cover, and certainly not something I can manage, so I darn well better not get in the way. I am not a great evangelist, I’ve known this for a long time. I don’t know that I will ever be one who can use my life, my personal struggles, to win people to Christ. So, I must lead by example. If I am going to be active in God’s work, I have to let a good reputation speak for me, not for my own sake, but for other people. Thus, I have to live a life which reflects God’s holiness to the world, so that the lost and lonely will see what is so attractive, so right, about walking on the way.
That means hardship and a denial of the world. Our culture is one which encourages us to seek out pleasure and individual satisfaction above all else. There is little glorification of honor, little to remind us that our actions affect those around us. Do what you like, we’re told, and if someone doesn’t like it, that’s their problem. Political grandstanding aside, when was the last time you heard even a mention of reputation out in the world? We are, I think, surrounded by Iago’s smiling face. He comes to us in our weak moments, telling us things which sound perfectly reasonable, but which serve no interest so much as his own.
That’s the thing about losing sight of ourselves, our reputation, and our purpose, it rarely happens all at once. It’s with a constant stream of whispers that Iago causes the implosion of friendships, marriages, and lives. When we begin listening to that convincing voice, as Eve did in the Garden, and we forget what we know to be true. We don’t stop to check the voice’s claims against the voice of truth, against the Word, and down the slippery slope we go. The truth begins to seem pliable, subjective even. That might be true for someone else, we say, but not for me.
It’s a tough fight to fight, and one that I’ve lost a lot recently. With God’s help, though, by listening to hard truths and finding them in Scripture, I can withdraw, rise again, and get back into the fray. For, you see, I did not come to this realization through my own understanding. It was the voice of the Holy Spirit which finally got through like the sound of middle C…once I had quieted myself enough to truly hear. At the end of the day, we all hear voices. The question is, to whom will you listen?
As I have worked on this piece, the Christian organization World Vision U.S. has made a decision and reversed it within a matter of days, the whole affair having a profound effect on their reputation. While I don’t know all the motivations which prompted each turning, nor how long-lasting is the damage, I do have a certain amount of sympathy for them. As the organization’s president, Richard Sterns, justified a “very narrow policy change”, I heard echoes of my own rationalizations. Neither one of us, I think, is proud of wearing those blinders, but there is hope. There’s always hope.
There’s hope that the next time Iago comes around, saying “And what’s he then that says I play the villain? When this advice is free I give and honest…” (II.iii.1486-7), we’ll both have the wisdom to stop and consider. What will this decision show the world, God’s holiness or my selfish pride? World Vision, no doubt, has their own sorts of policy reviews, but I don’t have a committee. So, I’m working on getting one. I’m making a conscious effort to surround myself with good, Godly people who will hold me accountable and remind me of the truth I hope to profess with this one life of mine. Othello and Cassio’s great mistake was that they never talked to each other, only to Iago. That’s not something I aim to repeat any longer.