Wednesday, February 20, 2013

authenticity and democracy

This week at TFA we have the honor of having Joshua Mitchell, author of Tocqueville in Arabia, with us.  While reading his fascinating book, one passage stood out to me on the connection between the democracy and our search for authenticity.  He writes:
To think of oneself as an individual rather than to understand oneself as a role is really a rather remarkable historical achievement [...].The latin term, persona, supposes a distinction between the actor and the mask he puts on. [...] In the democratic age, when everything is on the move, the mask seems ill-fitting and has the appearance of an awkward artifice. [...] In bemused movements it is treated ironically; when it appears grotesque to its wearer, a caricature of the beauty and purity of the individual behind the mask, the tender and never-ending search for "authenticity" commences. [...] That is why the language of "authenticity," so prevalent in America, is scarcely heard in the Middle East.
This rings true to me.  We throw off the prescribed roles of husband or wife, parent or child, even man or woman, of teacher or student (is school about learning from the teacher or are the students to teach each other?), even consumer/producer (customized consumption makes us the producer in some ways), just to give a few examples.   It is interesting to note that this throwing-off of roles and searching for the authentic self brings with it a certain shunning of responsibility and commitment.

What does this mean for institutions such as the church, which do not do away with roles?  One might argue that the roles nurtured by these institutions, such as roles in marriage, or even the role of worshiper vs the One who is worshiped, are actually more true to our intended self than bare individualism can ever provide.  To think that the truth could lie more in the role than the self seems almost blasphemous to claim in our culture of self-expression.

I find myself once again needing to distinguish between authenticity and truth.  Whatever they are assumed to be, they are not the same, as Jim Gilmore and Joseph Pine point out in their book, Authenticity.  Could assumed roles better lead us to truth than a search for authenticity?

This has implications not only for the church, but for understanding those from other cultures, as Mitchell points out.  We must seek to understand such basic underlying assumptions of those in another culture, and the reasons for them, before we can really begin to speak with them in a meaningful way.

(photo credit

Friday, February 15, 2013

Lent - some thoughts to get you started

It is now the season of Lent in the church calendar.  I hope to write more about it, but in the meantime, here are two posts from the archive to get you started:

seasons of the church: Lent
lenten hymn

also - a short reflection by a friend, Sarah Ngu:
why the language of self-control falls short

Is there anything in particular you would like to read a post on, concerning Lent?

Tuesday, February 12, 2013


“Made with REAL fruit” proclaim the labels.  “Vintage” says the shop sign or the web banner.  Much of today’s marketing makes use of our desire for that which is authentic.  And since nobody likes something that is fake, we by their more-real products.

The longing for and exploitation of authenticity has permeated much more of our society than just advertising.  The popular TV show “Girls” “strives above all else for authenticity,” according to Ms. Dunham, the show’s creator and lead actor.  (NYT1/2/2013 ) This is particularly reflected in clothing choices and in tag-lines such as “almost getting it kind of together”.

Politics also turns on authenticity.  At times it seems that the true character of a particular political leader is more important than his or her policies.  While it is nothing new that we want our leaders to have integrity and good character, perhaps the preoccupation with their “real” lives is ultimately unhealthy because of its high cost.

Social media, too, promotes a culture in which that which seems authentic is more highly valued.  Or at least, in an online culture where one can instantly age a photo through Instagram or selectively choose what part of your self you reveal, it creates a longing for authenticity.  

 Where does all this leave us?  As I considered these trends, I found myself asking a few questions.

First, has the very word “authentic”, in a self-defeating way, come to mean nothing at all?  In a NYT article by Rosenbloom entitled “Authentic? Get Real”, Jeff Pooley points out that you can’t “be told by a social media guru to act authentic and still be authentic.”  There is a deep irony here.  The more people value authenticity, the more it is manufactured, to the point where Pooley says “we want something real.”  This statement only makes sense if that which is real has become different from that which is authentic.  

Bound up in this question is the question of whether the term has become not only useless, but out-dated.  The quantity of books coming out this year which include “Authenticity” in their titles seems to belie this suggestion, but my survey of web articles seemed to be more concentrated in the 2007-2011 range.  Do you have thoughts on this?

Secondly, is the longing for authenticity in our culture primarily individualistic and potentially destructive of community?  Andrew Potter, in his bookThe Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves suggests that our obsession with authenticity is self-absorbed and competitive individualism.  One might think that acknowledging ones true self would promote open and honest relationships.  However, given the difficulty of knowing oneself to begin with, and our propensity to try to be more authentic than another person, there is reason for concern.  It is worth considering more carefully the degree to which individuals within a community, and the community as a whole, should strive for authenticity.

Finally, how are we as Christians to view all of this?  Certainly we value truth and honesty.  The issue becomes more clear when we consider choices that a church might make about its presence in a city.  How does it focus on the transforming power of the gospel: does it focus on the grace extended to weak and fallen people, or the hope-for result of that grace, and of sanctification?  

One might even argue God does not reveal himself as “authentic” (although the assumption is that he is, of course, real).  Authentic revelation implies a degree of disclosure that the infinitude and mystery of God’s personhood seems to make inadequate or false.  It also involves, to some extent, representation, which we must avoid in the worship of God.  We do not worship an authentic version of God, but his very self.

On a more positive side, I think we would agree that we want the church to be a place where people can come as they are.  This is how we come before God; should it not also be our posture before each other?  A more positive understanding of authentic christian community could come from this.

What are your thoughts on all of this? Questions?  Comments appreciated!

For your convenience, here is the definition of authentic:
authentic |├┤╦łTHentik|(abbr.: auth. )
1 of undisputed origin; genuine: the letter is now accepted as an authentic document | authentic 14th-century furniture.
• made or done in the traditional or original way, or in a way that faithfully resembles an original: the restaurant serves authentic Italian meals | every detail of the movie was totally authentic.
• based on facts; accurate or reliable: an authentic depiction of the situation.
• (in existentialist philosophy) relating to or denoting an emotionally appropriate, significant, purposive, and responsible mode of human life.