Christian Virtue in the Age of Authenticity

The word doesn’t have to be annoying, but it usually is.

I opened up my big, red Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary (yes, I still have one of these dinosaurs on my desk) and found five definitions for the word “authentic.” It used to mean (1) authoritative, but now means (2) something worthy of acceptance or belief or reproduced in accordance with the originals. Authentic can also mean (3) real or actual, or (4) refer to a musical chord progression. It’s the fifth definition, however, that has become standard: “true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character.”

In a day where people disdain hypocrisy more than any other vice and prize transparency more than any other virtue, you can be as obnoxious as you want to be, fail spectacularly, and sin repeatedly, as long as you never pretend to be any better than you really are. It makes no difference what errors you say, think, or do, if only you are true to yourself. This is life in the Age of Authenticity.

Which is not all bad. Jesus spared no verbal expense in rebuking the hypocrites of his day (Matt. 23). It’s good to tell the truth. It’s good to be consistent. It’s even good, as a general rule, to learn to be comfortable in your own skin, to refrain from trying to be someone or something you’re not. Authenticity appeals to so many of us because it seems a welcome antidote to calculating, self-righteous priggishness.

But living in the Age of Authenticity comes with many dangers–common vices made more deadly because they are willfully mistaken for virtues.

For starters, it should be obvious (but isn’t) that if your authentic self is a boorish self-promoter, it’s hardly a great win for the cause of honor that you are true to your own personality. Many pundits have tried to explain why Donald Trump has maintained his remarkable ride atop the GOP polls, and likely their theories about economic angst and conservative disappointment with the GOP establishment have something to do with it (as does almost non-stop media coverage for months). But Trump also benefits from being virtually gaffe proof, not because he doesn’t make any but because he makes them so often and doesn’t seem to give a rip. It’s not for me to tell you what to think of Trump’s policies, but I think by any objective measure he has shown himself to be someone who, how shall we say, would not meet the criteria for church office laid out in 1 Timothy 3. But as a candidate in the Age of Authenticity, he’s a perfect fit. In 2012, Mitt Romney was undone because of an off the cuff comment about 47% of the country that don’t pay taxes. Rick Perry went from Republican darling to disaster because of the word “oops.” When people think of Marco Rubio, many people still think of him getting thirsty on live television. Trump gets caught in a dozen slip ups like these–only much more substantive–every week. But because he never seems embarrassed with himself, unsure of himself, or anything other than delighted to be himself, he has (so far) been impervious to the usual gotcha moments that bedevil normal candidates. There is something refreshing about a candidate who refuses to play by the media’s rules, but playing by your own rules is nothing to celebrate if those rules aren’t worth celebrating.

There is always the danger that commendable forthrightness degenerates into crass and loutish behavior. I like how Anthony Thiselton translates 1 Corinthians 13:4-5: “Love waits patiently; love shows kindness. Love does not burn with envy; does not brag–is not inflated with its own importance. It does not behave with ill-mannered impropriety; is not preoccupied with the interests of the self; does not become exasperated into pique; does not keep a reckoning up of evil.” Thiselton points out that the word usually translated “rude” in verse 5 is used (as a verb) in 7:36 with reference to behaving properly toward one’s betrothed and is used (as an adjective) in 12:23 with respect to the unpresentable parts of the body we cover up. In other words, “In all three contexts the contrast defines the opposition between on one side courtesy, good taste, good public manners, and propriety, and on the other side thoughtless pursuit of the immediate wishes of the self regardless of the conventions and courtesies of interpersonal life” (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 1049). Perhaps the pendulum was due to swing back to the “raw” and the “real,” but maybe we’ve missed the biblical (and loving) rationale behind long held prohibitions against swearing, against immodest dress, and against using sexually graphic language in public. No matter what seems most “authentic,” Christians should show the world a better way.

We mustn’t forget that the goal of those who carry their cross is self-denial, not self-expression. Think about what you would you want in a father, a general, a coach, or a president. Confidence would be good, but only if it’s a confidence rooted in stability, humility, and sacrifice–pretty much the opposite of what passes for authenticity today. Contemporary notions of authenticity are highly selective. As Collin Hansen pointed out to me recently, “The guys on Ashley Madison don’t get credit for seeking their authentic selves in an affair. But the guy who leaves his kids for another man does. Kim Davis doesn’t get credit for living authentically. But Caitlyn Jenner does.” Authenticity is often just another name for unfiltered bloviating or a certain kind of sexual progressivism. To be authentic is to be free from the bourgeois values of chastity, meekness, and self-restraint.

There are other dangers too.

Like the fact that in the Age of Authenticity the fear of contradiction between the public and private self is so strong that it has forced many people to fuse the two into one. When being “real” trumps all concern for decorum, due process, and quiet deliberation, we assume that every private discovery and painful journey must be made public. There is no place for Paul camping out in Arabia for a couple years or Moses getting his act together in Midian for a third of his life; everything we are learning, everything we are feeling, everything we are experiencing must be out in the open now and forever.

With this eliding of private and public comes an even deeper confusion about the nature of Spirit-wrought contrition. When Christians talk about being broken or being messed up or being complete failures, I think I know what they mean. At best, this language is an admirable expression of the continuing presence of indwelling sin and our constant need for a Savior. But we must be careful. Admitting that you are a screw up–as if God looks at sinners with a wearied grin that says “Come here, silly boy, and let me tousle your hair”–does not exactly capture the explicitly moral language of David’s God-directed plea in Psalm 51. Likewise, simply being honest about weakness in your life is not what the Heidelberg Catechism has in mind when it says “the dying-away of the old self” is “to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it” (Q/A 89). Authenticity is not to be confused with repentance.

Perhaps the biggest danger of all in the Age of Authenticity is that our authentic self gets misplaced. For those who have been joined to Christ through the miracle of faith and the power of the Holy Spirit, being true to ourselves means being true to Christ in us.  Remember, it was the Gnostics who peddled the false gospel of salvation-through-self-awareness, while the authentic gospel promised something better than authenticity. The New Testament says little about getting in touch with the real you and a lot about walking in step with the real Him. If you follow the logic of Matthew 23 it becomes clear that hypocrisy is essentially saying one thing and doing another. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking that what we do or think or feel matters less than whether we admit to doing and thinking and feeling those things. To act in a way that is right and proper, even when you feel something different, is not hypocrisy. It’s called maturity.

Put on the virtues of Christ, put off the vices of darkness. That’s the New Testament model (Eph. 4; Col. 3). Give it a try–with hard work and humility, with passion and with prayer, with real progress and with a lifetime of repentance. It’s actually much more practical, much more preach-able, and much more powerful than all stylish substitutes that pass for integrity and character in this Age of Authenticity.