Recently I’ve been watching American Idol with exemplary commitment. I’m not exactly the show’s biggest fan, though I do find it entertaining. But by watching American Idol I get to hang out with my teenage daughter, and I am her biggest fan.
Even if you’ve never seen the program, you’ve probably heard something about Simon Cowell. He’s become the archetype of the blunt truth-teller. Actually, “blunt” doesn’t begin to capture Simon’s utterly unscreened honesty. If a contestant sings horribly, while the other judges are looking for ways to be constructive, Simon will say, “Frankly, you were horrible.” In the early rounds of the competition, if a potential candidate shows no potential, Simon will inevitably say something like, “You have no future in this business. You’re best bet is to be a wedding singer.”

To be sure, Simon is sometimes unkind in his choice of language. But I must say that his basic judgment often seems to me to be spot on. There’s a reason why Simon is such a success as a producer of pop music. He usually knows what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t waste anyone’s time in getting to the point.
Though Simon can be rude at times, his bluntness could be seen as a gift. Some of the contestants in the early rounds seem to think they’re great singers when they are, in fact, embarrassingly bad. Without confronting the truth of their lack of talent, they might very well waste years of their lives pursuing their impossible dreams. Simon might very well keep some people from squandering their young adult.
I wonder sometimes if I need a Simon Cowell in my life. I wonder if you do. As hard as it may be to hear the truth about ourselves when it isn’t nice, sometimes we do need to hear this truth.
I had a Simon Cowell in my life. His name was John Holland. John was an actor who appeared in over a hundred films and many stage performances. Perhaps his most notable role was as the butler in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady. When I was a young pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, John offered to give me “Bible reading” lessons. He believed that all pastors should read the Scriptures with accuracy and vigor so as to commucate their true meaning. John was an amazing Bible reader, who often read in the worship services at Hollywood Pres. (Photo: John Holland as the butler in My Fair Lady.)
I consented to John’s offer and had several reading lessons with him. Like Simon, John made no effort to be nice in his critique. I’d start off reading a passage, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God . . . .” Inevitably, John would interrupt me with something like, “Stop! That’s terrible!” But he wasn’t being mean. He was telling the truth, and would explain why my reading was terrible. Almost always I’d see that he was right, and I’d go back and try again. Under John’s tutelage I became a much better Bible reader. By “better” I don’t mean showy. I mean that I could capture and convey the true meaning and sense of the text.
Every now and then someone will say to me, “I like the way you read the Bible.” If I have time, I’ll tell them about John. If I don’t, I’ll offer a silent prayer of thanks for John Holland, my Simon Cowell.

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