When I was 15, I wanted very much to be real. Most of us did then: It was 1996, and we still believed in grunge. We wore flannels and Doc Martens and turned up our noses at anything that smacked of trying too hard, because trying wasn’t authentic. We thought social conventions were boring and fake, and that people should just be themselves instead of trying to be like everybody else. In my quest to be real, I eschewed makeup and fashion and pop music. When I came downstairs in the morning to go to school, barefaced, basic, my hair still in the damp braid I’d put it in the night before, my sister, destined to be a successful millennial, would raise her eyebrows and say, “You’re not wearing that to school, are you?”
What was harder was figuring out how to be an authentic Christian. Within my church’s youth group, none of us wanted to be hypocrites in any way, especially when it came to faith. We were savvy and skeptical, independent minded, anticonsumerist, true to our true selves. What made our faith real was that we had chosen it ourselves, and it came from deep personal experience. We weren’t faking it.
But also it seemed like a lot of us were faking it.
Nowadays, instead of what we call authenticity, I’ve come to value masks and costumes, rituals and pageantry and ceremony—what theologian Kevin Vanhoozer calls “the drama of doctrine.” If we have any hope of a spontaneous, authentic spiritual expression at some point in our lives, it will only be born of the continual practice of choosing what is loving and right, cultivating the habits of virtue so that they may become natural, or second nature. Then, as Plato says, the mask, if worn long enough, may become the face. Or as my grandma used to say, if you keep making that face, it might get stuck that way.
Vanhoozer says that we ought to understand what it means to be a person differently than modern thinkers like Descartes did. When Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” he implied that to be human was mostly about having a brain—being an independent, disembodied mind whose existence depends on reason. But Vanhoozer argues that to be human is to be a person in conversation with others. I am a “communicative agent” called into existence by God, one “who can enter into dialogical relationship.” My selfhood is grounded in my divine creation and calling but exists in and is constructed by my conversations with others. My identity depends on how I respond to my “divine casting call,” how I embody the role I’ve been given, and how I engage with those around me.
I believe I am called to actively live into an identity that is my true one. There is nothing fake about assuming this role—fitting into its costumes, learning its lines, reciting them, or improvising them. Instead, my best chance for authenticity is born from embracing that role. The part I’ve been called to play is that of disciple, and, like a method actor, I must live into the role as best I can. I can’t expect the right response to emerge spontaneously—I have to practice and memorize until, yes, the lines become so familiar to me that I can speak them without even thinking about it.
How do we learn our parts? We study Scripture, allowing our minds to be shaped by the eschatological realities it teaches so we learn to see ourselves and our world correctly. We learn to see how we fit into the drama of redemption. Doctrine strips us of the false masks we give so much time and effort to maintain, allowing us to see ourselves truly as people who are called, known, and loved by God. Christ is in us, and the more we embrace that identity, the closer we come to living authentically.
So, actually, it’s not authenticity I oppose. What can move authenticity from being an adolescent virtue to a mature one is understanding that to be authentic is not to tap some inner well of individuality and spew emotion from there; to be authentic is to practice playing the disciple role I’ve been given in God’s drama until I inhabit it fully. I will inhabit it differently than anyone else, but I don’t seek to be unique; I seek to be conformed. When I am conformed to the image of Christ, I am more myself than I could ever be otherwise.
Taken from Where Goodness Still Grows: Reclaiming Virtue in an Age of Hypocrisy by Amy Peterson. Copyright © 2020 by Amy Peterson. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson. www.thomasnelson.com
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