A major challenge in communicating spiritual concepts is that we don’t have an adequate language to describe things we’ve never seen—things for which we have no tangible referent.
For example, we’ve never seen God. That makes it impossible to definitively describe divinity. Nor have we seen most of the other things we attempt to describe when discussing the spiritual realm.
Because of our lack of referents, we resort to metaphors. Similes. Analogies. Comparisons. We try to explain the unfamiliar by comparing it to—or contrasting it with—the familiar. And we didn’t come up with this technique on our own. The Bible is full of examples.
One biblical metaphor I find particularly fascinating is found in 2 Corinthians 2:14–17. I’ll quote from J. B. Phillips: “Thanks be to God who leads us, wherever we are, on his own triumphant way and makes our knowledge of him spread throughout the world like a lovely perfume! We Christians have the unmistakeable ‘scent’ of Christ. . . . Who could think himself adequate for a responsibility like this?”
If it isn’t challenge enough to be like Jesus, to act like Jesus, and to think like Jesus, we’re here commanded even to smell like Jesus—figuratively, of course.
Have you noticed how we’re rarely content to just settle for a biblical metaphor or simile. Rather, we search for illustrations to make these comparisons come to life even more. And how do we do this? By piling on more metaphors and similes, not to mention a lot of commentary.
With my confession in the foregoing paragraph now on the table, let’s turn our full attention to the subject matter promised in the title.
Story One: Dolce & Gabbana
Several years ago, my wife, Leonie, saw a Dolce & Gabbana men’s fragrance on sale, heavily marked down. It was called “By.” Since it was selling for only a small fraction of the original price, she bought it as a gift for me. I liked her choice—and her frugality. And she seemed to think By definitely enhanced my smell.
One day while we were shopping at an antique store, I was leaning against the counter as Leonie and I talked to the proprietor.
“Would you mind walking down to the other end of the counter?” the woman asked me.
Not sure what she had in mind, but trying to be cooperative, I obliged. Reaching my destination, which was about 10 feet from where I started, I turned to see what I was to do next.
“Would you mind walking back to where you were before?” the woman asked.
Puzzled, I again obliged. But as I passed in front of where she was standing on the other side of the counter, she leaned her head back, closed her eyes, breathed in deeply, and with a look of sheer euphoria on her face, moaned, “What is that fragrance you’re wearing? I’ve got to have some for my husband! That scent is heavenly!”
Actually, By wasn’t advertised as a “heavenly” scent. Rather, it was called “wild and provocative.” But that was something I discovered later through internet research. So when I responded to the comments of the woman on the other side of the counter, I just said I was glad she liked my smell. Then Leonie gave her the details of who produced the product and what it would probably cost if she wasn’t able to find it in a super-bargain bin as we had.
Story Two: True Religion
Months later, Leonie and I were shopping at a Ross store when she discovered another fragrance she immediately recognized as having “wild and provocative” potential. The fragrance was True Religion. Apparently, the True Religion clothing line dabbles in fragrances as well.
What really caught Leonie’s attention, however, was the fragrance’s packaging. It came in a bottle that was a perfect replica of a personal whiskey flask.
Leonie’s wicked sense of humor led her to imagine how fun it would be to have me sitting around a table with my fellow ministers at some ministers' meeting and pull the flask out of my pocket and set it on the table as if I were planning to take a swig.
To my fellow ministers, it would look like the real thing. And if they happened to be close enough to read what it said on the flask, they would see only the baffling words “True Religion.”
Because Ross’s prices were low and the entertainment potential for the bottle was high, Leonie made a split-second decision to purchase it. Fortunately, True Religion turned out to be a pleasing scent.
One morning, I spritzed on a little True Religion and headed off to Walgreens to buy something. As I paid, the young woman behind the counter smiled and said cheerily, “You smell great.”
“It’s True Religion,” I said—not stopping to think how that might come across to a youthful cashier who was just trying to share pleasantries with an old-dude customer.
During her job orientation, she no doubt had been warned about the weirdo-, freako-, creepo-types she might encounter. I suddenly got the idea she was trying to remember exactly where that button was under the counter that she was supposed to push when she felt threatened and needed to discreetly call for security backup.
Realizing that my comment had unsettled her, I sought to explain: “It’s True Religion,” I repeated. “That’s the name of the fragrance.”
It seemed to take a moment for this new information to register. But she let out an audible sigh and stammered that she hoped I’d have a good day. She seemed relieved to see me leaving the store.
Story Three: Mr. Snodgrass
Mr. Snodgrass was a billy goat, so named because my father had read a story in which a Mr. Snodgrass was the villain. The name seemed fitting for a villainous farm animal who stank like . . . well, let’s just say that words are inadequate to convey the magnitude of his stench.
Mr. Snodgrass stank so badly that we felt compelled to build a special pen and a little shelter way out back of the barn so that we could avoid extended exposure to his revolting aroma.
Now, in all fairness, I must admit that a billy goat’s stench is a nanny goat’s aphrodisiac. Mr. Snodgrass’s repulsive odor announced to his entire goat harem that he was an undeniably high achiever. His extreme stench declared that he was the catch of all catches.
His stench was so overpowering that I risked throwing up whenever I had to deal with him up close! Which is why, except during breeding season, he was banished from both goat and human society.
To be totally honest, I have no recollection of exactly when—or the reason why—we got rid of our goats. Maybe Mr. Snodgrass died of old age. Or maybe we sold him—or paid someone to take him!—when we got rid of the six or seven female goats we used to milk. But one final Snodgrassian memory remains indelibly stamped on my brain.
For several years after the departure of the goats, Mr. Snodgrass’s pen and the crude little shelter I’d built for him remained empty and ignored, removed as they were from the major traffic ways of the farm. But when I came home after graduating from college, my dad said that our days of goat husbandry were well and truly past and we should tear down Mr. Snodgrass’s solitary-confinement chamber.
I expected it to be an easy task because, when I’d cobbled it together in my early teens, I hadn’t tried to make it earthquake- or tornado-proof. And I’d definitely followed no engineer’s drawings in its construction. So I was surprised that it was still standing.
But the real surprise hit me when I pried loose the first board. It seemed that Mr. Snodgrass had suddenly returned to participate in the demolition. Exuding from every crack and crevice of that ramshackle old hut was Eau de Snodgrass, a fragrance undiminished by the elapsed years. It was as stomach-turning as ever. Absolutely revolting.
Now the Moralizing
I’m not in the habit of contradicting scripture. But I wonder if the text on which this sermon is based should have been more carefully qualified.
Instead of saying, “We Christians have the unmistakeable ‘scent’ of Christ,” perhaps the passage should have said, “When we wear the label Christian, our scent is inevitably going to be viewed as the scent of Christ—whether that scent is heavenly, or creepy, or downright revolting.”
James Coffin lives in Altamonte Springs, FL, a suburb of Orlando.
Photo illustration by Spectrum
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