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 |ôˈTHentik|(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.

1 comment:

  1. There's a book I spent some time reading that dealt with authenticity specifically in the realm of music (Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance, Peter Kivy). The preoccupation of some music scholars for "authentic" performances of historic pieces prompted some of his discussion. He ultimately landed on four types of authenticity:

    1) faithfulness with regard to composers' intentions
    2) faithfulness with regard to contemporaneous performance practice
    3) faithfulness with regard to contemporaneous sound
    4) faithfulness to individual style and originality.

    His whole project seems relevant to your comments about whether authenticity has any meaning at all, and if it does, whether it is more than an individualistic or divisive word. Each of these authenticities is faithfulness to some valued reference point, and each approach will result in a different version of a single piece. As such, there are multiple authentic approaches. The question is, is there any such thing as the "real" piece beneath those layers of authenticity?

    I can't answer that question well, nor will I suggest that other things of which we demand authenticity are equally as elusive in their "real" forms. Nonetheless, I think the distinction between the "authentic" and the "real" is terribly significant, especially with regard to God and our lives.

    If I want to live an "authentic" life - what does that mean? I think the problem is that we have too many different ideas. For one person, that means living to be true to self. For another, it means living without reserve. For the Christian, surely it means living a life based on the reality of God as he has revealed himself and on the mystery of God that yet remains.

    Just musing here, but I like your thoughts.