“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts.”

– William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s immortal lines refer to different stages of life, but the picture of the world as a stage applies to contemporary culture.

If you’ve read this column over the years, you’re likely familiar with the term “expressive individualism”—a description that comes from Robert Bellah’s book of sociology, Habits of the Heart. It’s the idea that your identity and purpose comes from looking inside to discover your deepest desires and then expressing your uniqueness to the world. The way to be authentic is to define for yourself who you are and then be true to that self-definition in the way you express yourself to the world. I’ve written a number of columns on this topic as well as a book—Rethink Your Self.

On Performative Individualism

A pastor friend of mine in New York City, John Starke wonders if expressive individualism has morphed into something more like performative individualism:

What was previously discerned as self-expression in our culture has now subtly turned into very demanding cultural expectations.

The “freedom” to define and express yourself has evolved into the obligation to do so only in ways that are culturally acceptable. We think we are the ones who choose who we will be and what roles we want, and yet societal demands push us toward acting—embracing the roles we are expected to play. Here’s John again:

Our culture supports individual expressions of a self-curated identity, but at the same time we experience from our culture a conflicting message: If our self-expression doesn’t meet certain socially constructed expectations, we will be ignored, isolated, dismissed, or canceled. We want to be ourselves, but we also want to be loved. Our culture rarely allows us both.

Performers Will Be Judged

Social media creates the illusion of identity being malleable and changeable. We can establish, change, and reestablish our online identities, trying out different personas whenever we wish. Even the word “platform” in association with social media paints the picture of a person on stage playing a role. We define ourselves by our desires, and then we display ourselves to those around us. What John observes is how in our actions of self-expression and self-display we are performing. And the nature of a performance is that it invites judgment.

In Rethink Your Self, I put it this way: “We’re all broadcasters now, and we’re all waiting for someone’s applause.”

You might think that in a culture where everyone’s individuality is supposed to be discovered and displayed that people would refrain from rushing to judgment. If the first and greatest commandment is to “be true to yourself,” then the second is like it: “affirm whatever self your neighbor decides to be true to.” No judgment, right?

That’s not how it works out. In a time when the expressive devolves into performative individualism, it’s impossible to escape the sense that you are always “on stage” or that someone somewhere is judging how you play whatever role you’ve adopted, or that someone else may dislike or reject the role you’ve chosen for yourself. We live in a state of perpetual auditioning.

Embracing the Principle of Hiddenness

John sees the perverse effects of performative individualism on our spirituality and points us to a better way.

Jesus teaches us to aim our lives towards the “the Father who sees in secret” (Matthew 6:4). There is a principle of hiddenness to our spirituality that feels foreign to us. We impulsively only work to live publicly and performatively. The way of Christ seems fruitless to modern people. How are we to make a difference? How are we to be loved? But Jesus and other New Testament writers work out this principle of hiddenness that shows us that there is actually a spiritual potency to it. We might call it a fruitful dormancy.

John is right. The performative impulse in our spirituality today draws us back to the Law, where we yearn to be seen as righteous. It also prevents us from truly feeling the full blessing of gospel rest, since we’re still “auditioning.”

Going a step further, we should not only question the performative aspect of individualism but also the individualistic impulse. If we only resist the performative, we may assume that as long as individuals do spiritual disciplines in private, without any public acclaim or performative instincts, they are counter-cultural in how they press against the spirit of the age. But the Scriptures lead us to also resist the individualistic so that we don’t assume that what happens in the privacy of one’s “quiet time” is the end-all of spiritual devotion.

The Sermon on the Mount stands against performative individualism in both aspects: Jesus chastises the Pharisees for their glory-seeking disciplines. But He also tells the disciples to let their light shine—a command intended to be lived out corporately, not as isolated individuals. Performance-oriented Christianity collapses before the perfection of Christ. Individualistic-oriented Christianity collapses before the people of God who are created to be a corporate display of His glory.

A Different Kind of Performance

How then should we live? How do we live faithfully in a society where it’s easy to become exhausted by expressive individualism or stressed out by performative individualism? I have two brief suggestions.

  1. We are to remember that we serve God as an audience of one. In a broad sense, as Kevin Vanhoozer would say, we are actors who do perform the Christian life, and yet much of this performance is not for anyone else to see. These hidden acts of devotion form and shape us into people who reflect the image of Christ.
  2. We are to remember that the ultimate display of God’s glory is not in the performance of a single individual expressing his or her inner uniqueness, but in the swelling of God’s symphony, where we all have different parts to play in the orchestra that spreads the beauty of God’s love into the world.

When we feel the world push back on our Christian identity or judge our Christian expression because we won’t go along with certain cultural norms, we look to the Church that in Christ has overcome the world. The Church must be where we turn for a stronger and more enduring sense of corporate identity. It is there, among the people of God who are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, that performance, expression, individualism, and community are redefined by the life-giving cross of Christ.


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