Two great friends of mine (and two contributors to the Catalyst world over the last 8 years), Tim Willard and Jason Locy, have a new book out called Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society. It’s a great book that I have enjoyed reading, and so I decided to sit down with them and ask them a couple of questions about the book.
First, tell us a little bit about the book. Where did the idea come from?
T&J: When we first started working on the book a lot of “unusual” things were going on in culture. Enron and Tyco were in the news for corporate fraud. We were both looking for houses at the time and the prices seemed outrageous. Credit card offers were filling our mailboxes and "McMansions" were popping up everywhere. The whole world just seemed “off” and we just couldn't shake it.
So, all of that was happening and then, over in the church world, the relevance movement began taking off as churches tried to look more and more like culture. We couldn't resolve this idea, it was odd that culture appeared so messed up yet the church wanted to adapt to it versus countering it with something different. Society seemed to be influencing the church instead of the church influencing society.
Everything felt upside down to us, but we knew there was a different way—a different way for us (as people) and for culture and the church and Christians.
What is veneer?
T&J: In the book we talk about wood veneer, which is a thin surface level coating that manufacturers apply over an inferior product. So, you have this nice and shiny coating that sits over top of something not so nice.
But, there is a twist. People have a veneer too. We all struggle with things that we think are “inferior.” Our inferiority comes from the scars and scrapes and dings of life. Things like failed relationships or lost jobs or problems with kids—things that often embarrass us. So we try to cover it all. We veneer our scars with a version of ourselves that is shiner and brighter.
In the book you refer to “the language of culture.” Could you explain that idea?
T&J: Yeah, when we evaluated and studied the ways in which culture was expressing elements of veneer we noticed that culture celebrates and elevates certain things. That is to say, the culture speaks a certain language. In today’s society the language of culture can be defined as celebrity, consumption, and technology (or progress).
We see the language of culture affect our lives as we buy into what this language communicates. In celebrity, a certain lifestyle is elevated as the epitome of success. Through consumption, we believe we can find meaning, and express meaning, through our purchases. And in technology we have found ways to present ourselves in a particular way that may or may not be totally true.
So, the language of culture affords us plenty of ways to veneer and we’ve taken the bait.
What unexpected lessons did you learn while you worked on the book?
The book started out as a critique of culture. But, what we discovered was that the problem of veneer was a problem with humanity. This was a “people problem,” if you will. So, we started addressing the issue from that standpoint.
I don’t know that, from the beginning, we could have imagined the book going this route. But, looking back now, I don’t know that it could have gone any other way.
How does the idea of veneer affect us as leaders?
T&J: In the world of veneer the focus is on the promotion of self and “How can I get ahead?” Of course this is the complete opposite of what it means to be a leader (and the opposite of how we were meant to live in general). Deep down we recognize this but there is a tension that exists as we try to fit in with a culture that says, “To be a leader we need to be relevant and savvy and have a platform.”
So, we have to move past that type of thinking. We have to realize that what is successful in the eyes of the world is not always the right choice. This begins with some introspective work as we evaluate our motives.
There is a great quote by Henri Nouwen that touches on this idea: "The leader of the future will be the one who dares to claim his irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows him or her to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying the glitter of success and to bring the light of Jesus there."
Thanks Tim and Jason for a great book, and a great reminder to leaders!
By the way, a bit about the authors.... Jason Locy owns a design firm called Fivestone, has three kids (one adopted), has designed/created lots of stuff for Catalyst, is incredibly offended by pickles, eats way too much Waffle House, and is an average basketball player. Tim Willard is a writer, storyteller, and has served as the editor of the Catalyst GroupZine for the last several years. He used to play in a band, grew up in Pennsylvania, has really cool rock star hair, is the father of two beautiful young girls, makes great chocolate chip cookies (I'm not kidding), wears lots of plaid, and is annoying in his love of the Florida Gators.