Moore: Give us an idea of what motivated you to write this book.
Wax: I love asking questions about why people think the way they think and do the things they do. What are the hidden assumptions that people don’t question?
In looking at what passes for “common sense” in our society, you can see one overarching message in music, TV shows, books and movies: the purpose of life is to look inside and discover yourself and then express yourself to the world. I wanted to peel back the layers of some of our best-loved slogans like “Be true to yourself” or “Follow your heart” and interrogate them. Does this way of life work? Does it deliver what it promises? Why do other societies reject this way of thinking?
Then, I wanted to bring the ancient wisdom of the Bible to bear on this way of life, so that people would see just how countercultural Jesus is, in how he views the meaning and purpose of life.
Moore: All of us have reference points that we use for our well-being. Unpack a bit what the differences are of looking up, in, and around
Wax: These three approaches to life are determined by what gets priority. How do you determine who you are and what your purpose in life is?
The “Look In” approach says to start with yourself. You do the hard work of looking in, to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. You then look around for friends and colleagues who will support the version of yourself you choose. And then, if you feel like you need a spiritual dimension to your life, you may look up to God or a higher power in order to have something more transcendent to add to your life. This is the dominant way of thinking in our society today.
The “Look Around” approach says to start with the people around you. You look around to your community to tell you who you are and what your purpose of life is. Then, you look up to the sacred order that connects you to the people around you and the ancestors who have gone before you. Finally, you look inside as you come to terms with the person you are, in relation to the community you belong to. This is the dominant way of thinking in other parts of the world and has been dominant for most people throughout history.
The “Look Up” approach says to start with God. You look up first in order to see what God says about you and to better understand his divine design. Looking up prioritizes the transcendent. God is the one who defines you and your purpose, not you and not your community. Next, you look around to the community of faith that is called to cheer you on, to correct you, to love you as part of the family that looks up as its starting point, not ending point. Finally, you look inside and see how God loves you just as you are, while still planning to make you the best possible version of who you are, as he conforms you into the image of his Son. I believe this is the biblical way of seeing life—God first, others second, yourself third.
Moore: As you well know, in his book, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre talks about how people living in ancient times (and many still today) gained a sense of what they should do by listening to the community around them. The book of Proverbs tells us that “in the midst of many counselors there is wisdom.” Looking around assumes that there are wise people in your orbit. What kinds of people ought we to look for in giving us guidance?
Wax: People who will tell us the truth. People who can see and want to bring out the best in us. Expressive individualism (the “Look in” approach to life) often casts the community as something to escape from, to differentiate yourself from in order to chart your own path in the world. Or in some cases, it casts the community as the cheerleader and affirmer of whatever path you’ve chosen. In neither case do we see the community as the source of what you mentioned in your question—guidance and wisdom. As Christians, we need the community of faith to, yes, cheer us on when we’re flagging, but also to gently correct us and challenge us when we’re not on the path to Christlikeness.
Moore: In our therapeutic, Me-centric age, we are habituated to look in. If it takes a superior pursuit/pleasure (HT: Thomas Chalmers) to leave an inferior pursuit/pleasure, how does looking up bring the kind of life that we truly long for?
Wax: We are habituated to look in because we think it’s when we get in touch with our deepest desires that we can then figure out what path to go down. I make the point in the book that our desires are often in conflict, and we often don’t recognize our deepest desires. The only way to truly look in and discover your deepest desires is for God, the One who designed us, to tell us what those desires are, and how, ultimately, they all point us back to Him as the only One who can forever satisfy. Looking up first doesn’t mean we never look in, and it doesn’t mean we try to squelch or repress our desires. It means we look to God to help form, direct, and reshape our desires. The world says “follow your heart,” but the Bible says “direct your heart.”
Moore: Being true to yourself or “authentic” is heralded in the modern era as a great good. Would you describe a few differences between a worldly sense of authenticity and what you see the Bible saying about the idea? Also, is the biblical idea of authenticity any different than being a person of character or having integrity?
Wax: In the biblical sense, to be authentic means to be a person of wholeness and integrity, someone who is not two-faced, double-minded, or one of the hypocrites Jesus warned about. So, in that sense, authenticity is something every Christian should pursue. I’m using “authenticity” though in ways that line up more with Charles Taylor, the philosopher, who labels our culture one of “authenticity”—that is, there’s a particular way of realizing your own life, and it’s up to you to stand out from whatever your family, community, faith, or political party tells you to be. You’ve got to be you. (I’m paraphrasing Taylor, of course.) It’s that latter understanding of “authenticity” that is set against “conformity” that I’m critiquing. Christian teaching leads us to a counterintuitive approach, where we are most authentic (“true to ourselves”) when we are most conformed (“to be like Christ”). It is in the pursuit of Christlikeness that we come into our own as the person God always intended us to be—where our personality and uniqueness is not obliterated, but redeemed and glorified, where we are most “ourselves” and most like Jesus.
Moore: In the same spirit as biblical scholar, Richard Bauckham, you remind us that the best story is found in the Bible. There are many, important truths in this story, but would you underscore a few that highlight that looking up is the best way to live?
Wax: We can start with Genesis, and the beautiful picture of human beings created in God’s image. Right there, we see God’s design and the purpose He gives humanity—that we’d reflect Him in our relationships, in the way we work and rest, in the way we exercise authority, cultivate creativity, etc. Looking up points us to God’s original design, and it also helps us identify ways in which sin has misdirected our original purpose.
Moore: What do you hope readers take from your book?
Wax: I hope they will begin to recognize the “be true to yourself” message in all sorts of media and entertainment and politics whenever they see it. I also hope they will better understand how the Bible challenges this perspective with something so much better and more soul-satisfying. I hope readers will see Jesus for who he is, come to love him for being so much better than what the world has to offer and follow him with increasing passion and devotion.
David George Moore is the author of the forthcoming Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Leafwood/Abilene Christian University Press). Some of Dave’s teaching videos and contact information can be found at www.mooreengaging.com.