The Susan Boyle phenomenon over the past week has had me inspired, delighted, and reflective. It’s quite a narrative. The link is below for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.
I’ve been thinking a little about the cliche axiom being applied, predictably, to this episode: “you can’t judge a book by its cover.” But I’m not so sure it’s all that helpful here, or in general really.
Stay with me. With our books, publishers are incredibly careful to pair the cover with the book. The right cover inspires a gut-level connection with the book itself, it enlists our eyes in the task of convincing our minds and hands to reach out, pick it up, peruse it, and consider buying it. Can you judge an actual book by its cover? Well, “judge” might be a clumsy word, but yes, you can. At least that is the aim of every publisher (and I imagine the author too). And they must aim thusly because their book sales have a lot to do with their success at getting people to pick up a book (or click on a link) and check it out. If the consumer can’t judge the book by itself, that book is in some serious trouble in terms of finding an audience.
With actual books, the aim is to match the cover with the contents, presenting the book as attractively and accurately as possible–a sense of integrity between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside. No one buys books that don’t look worth picking up and checking out. And, no one who buys a book will respect feeling led astray by “what it looked like it was going to be about” versus “what it actually was about.”
But here’s where the saying, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” as an axiom breaks down. Why is there an assumption about the correlation between “covers and contents” when it comes to people? We aren’t designed to be marketed and consumed. Yes, we do that with ourselves and one another (and no doubt Susan Boyle is already or soon to be engaged by those powerful forces herself), but we are not made that way. We are good ontologically, that is, in our being—that’s part of what it means to be made in the image of God. Making the point in another way, we are ends, not means.
Back to the phrase. You can’t judge a book by its cover. Perhaps it applies to some situations. But it does not apply in many more because there isn’t a sense of integrity between exterior and interior in things like intellect, compassion, determination, passion, kindness, and love…or vocal talent. The danger in applying the phrase, “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” to this and so many situations that we routinely do is that we perpetuate in our own minds and in the public consciousness a myth that the qualities named above and more are internals with naturally appropriate matching externals. In other words, there’s no such thing as human “cover” that suggests appropriate expectations for what contents may be found lurking around on the inside.
Case in point… Funny thing about a voice. No telling what it sounds like until you stop to listen to it.