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Family Room

Image isn't everything; it's what's inside that counts. That moral has been a staple of children's bedtime stories for generations. Countless family films and TV shows have shamed superficiality and preached the value of a person's character. And rightly so. Yet as valid as that lesson is, it's not long before such pretty bows of virtue get rudely untied by a media culture aware that promoting inner beauty, peace and strength won't send merchandise flying off store shelves. Contented people are lousy consumers.

The fact of the matter is that somewhere between kindergarten and adulthood we're told to forget those preschool platitudes and face the fact that image is everything. The only time "what's on the inside" really counts is when it came from Taco Bell. Clothes make the man. You are what you drive. And heaven forbid some poor sap should be caught drinking the wrong beer. From colas to cell phones, young people are conditioned to look for certain labels and accept no substitutes.

Of course, teenagers aren't the only ones getting stung by the media's image-is-everything mentality. Some folks in the music biz have mourned the way their industry has stepped up its emphasis of style over substance. Former R&B artist Chaka Khan said, "It's like anybody who has a look can be a singer or entertainer now. The talent is almost not necessary anymore. I think a lot of people are out there making videos, singing and making a lot of money based on nothing but a cute shape and a pretty face."

Rocker Sheryl Crow made a similar observation and even acknowledged the implications of that attitude for young fans: "Music has become generic, and now it's all about the images. It has made it virtually impossible to be ugly and be popular. And it's really manipulating how young girls see themselves, how they define beauty."

Those of us old enough to remember pop music before the advent of MTV can probably think of a few talented artists who had great faces for radio but would have had a hard time selling themselves in a visual medium. Beauty is now a prerequisite for success … as is youth.

I remember reading a funny story about The Alarm, an aging alt-rock group from Wales that was trying to make a comeback two decades after their mid-1980s heyday. "We kept hearing we're too old," lead singer Mike Peters said. Undaunted, and believing their music to be as relevant as ever, The Alarm decided to promote their latest single by changing their name to The Poppyfields, concocting a fake biography and casting the music video with a group of much younger lip-synchers. It worked. In 2004, "45 RPM" became the band's first Top-40 hit on the British singles chart in 14 years.

Music is just one medium consumed with outward appearances. We've all been warned not to judge a book by its cover. Nevertheless, publishers spend an enormous amount of money pre-testing the allure of various book jackets for upcoming releases because, like it or not, people do judge books by their covers! We live in a climate of clutter. Products abound. Book and magazine publishers, television producers, advertisers and record companies will do whatever it takes to get noticed. That usually means overemphasizing externals.

It's comforting to know that appearances don't carry much weight with God. Biblical examples include the anointing of a king in 1 Samuel 16:7, as well as Matthew 23:27, which finds Jesus rebuking the Pharisees, calling them "whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean."

To become more like Jesus Christ, our children need to adopt His priorities by cultivating pure hearts and solid character. That means rejecting the shrill antagonism of celebrities such as Britney Spears, who stated in her recent song "(Drop Dead) Beautiful," "Whoever said beauty's on the inside is a liar." Sadly, Britney may actually believe that. But our kids don't have to. Let's continue to teach them that what dwells inside a person matters most, even as the voices of their image-obsessed culture scream otherwise. It's not just a lofty moral for animated films and children's bedtime stories. It's an eternal truth.

Published July 2011