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 ...1
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