Results tagged “Identity” from Reformation21 Blog

Created vs. Creative Identity


The problem (so to speak) with Christianity is that it places creaturely identity in the hands of the Creator rather than the creature. In other words, it holds that the identity of every human being--and, for that matter, every created thing--is fundamentally established by God, not constructed by the creature. Christianity and contemporary culture necessarily exist on a collision course on this matter since one of the defining features of our cultural moment is the perception that every individual has not only the ability but also the inalienable right to play a constructive part in determining his or her (or zir?) identity.

As Christians we acknowledge layers to the identity that we as individuals have been given by God. We are, in that sense (and hopefully few others), like onions. There is a creational layer to my God-given identity. That layer comprises, for example, my ethnicity, my age, and my gender. DNA testing might turn up surprises about my pedigree, but nothing, in the final analysis, can change the biological identity of my parents, the doctor's verdict ("It's a boy") upon my birth, or the precise time and date of my birth. There is, however, also a redemptive layer to my (and every believer's) God-given identity. On the basis of Christ's life, death, resurrection, and continuing intercession for me at his Father's right hand, I am a justified, sanctified, and adopted child of God, sealed by God's own Spirit, enjoying the rich benefits of my redemption and awaiting the full inheritance that belongs to me and my spiritual siblings.

Neither of the identity layers I have just noted lies within my own control. God is the author of both. Which is not, of course, to deny that there are aspects of my identity over which I do have creative control. The identity that I project to myself and others includes not only the created and redemptive realities just observed, but also a vocation (teaching), political convictions (I plead the fifth), a concrete nexus of relationships (wife, children, dog, etc.), specific tastes in food (Indian or Mexican), music (Americana), and film (anything by Wes Anderson or Pixar), and so on. Nevertheless, the creative and redemptive layers to my identity remain considerably more fundamental than those aspects of my identity that I myself engineer.

More to my present point, while the world may happily dismiss the redemptive layer to my identity as wishful (or needful) thinking on my part, it grows increasingly insistent on putting the created layer into my own creative control (and so effectively making me the Creator). Thus I might, if so inclined, self-identify (with this world's blessing) as a seventeen year-old Native American girl, and force others to relate to me accordingly. How dare you tell me my bathroom is over there? How dare you tell me my application for financial aid on the basis of my Native American heritage has been denied? How dare you tell me I'm actually a balding, middle-aged, white man? That's not how I self-identify. That's not, in other words, the identity that I have freely constructed for myself.

As Christians, we need not deny, nor should we trivialize, the event of individuals experiencing dissonance between their self-perception and their created (i.e., God-given) identity (whether measured in gender, ethnicity, age, or any other created facet of one's person). We must, however, insist that the world's answer to that event is, in the words of the BFG, a catasterous disastrophe. Rather than lovingly helping individuals reconcile self-perception with reality (i.e., helping individuals move towards their God-given identity), the world increasingly insists that reality conform to every individual's self-perception, thus amplifying the dissonance felt by certain individuals between self-perception and the reality of who they are (which reality invariably informs others-perception). Soaring depression and suicide rates among youth is but one fruit of such amplified dissonance. Human beings were quite clearly never meant to bear the psychological burden of establishing their own identity at the fundamental levels of gender, age, and ethnicity. The "freedom" to do so is an intolerable weight that, to all appearances, is crushing individual psyches.

As Christians, we would also do well to equip ourselves with resources for helping us and our own children understand and appreciate those aspects of identity that are God-given rather than self-engineered. A resource I've found most helpful in this regard, both in my home and in my work with middle-schoolers (where, given the age of my pupils, defense against certain cultural assumptions and agendas often takes the form of a good offense; i.e, intentional, constructive, theological training) is the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The tenth question of the shorter catechism, at least to my thinking, has particular purchase in our cultural moment. How did God create man? God created man male and female, after his own image, in knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, with dominion over the creatures. Quite a few assumptions and agendas of our age are, I think, undermined by that very simple description of how God made us. Thus, it constitutes exactly the kind of thinking with which I hope to arm my children/students as they step towards a mature presence in this world.

Catechesis, then, might play an important role in preparing a Christian generation to engage assumptions and agendas in this world that, quite frankly, previous generations didn't face (or, at least, didn't face so pointedly). Who knew a catechism crafted in the 1640s could have so much contemporary relevance? Catechesis can also, in my experience, be quite fun (in a way the Westminster divines, to be fair, probably didn't anticipate). In my home and school my children/students sing the Westminster catechism. There have been various efforts to put the WSC (and other catechisms) to song. The effort I like best is that by Bruce Benedict. In addition to several CDs covering large portions of the WSC, Benedict also has on offer a songbook that will allow a fairly amateurish guitar play (like me) to accompany the catechized in their singing. If the present-day relevance of a seventeenth-century catechism never ceases to amaze, neither does the pedagogical value of a beat-up guitar and the knowledge of a handful of guitar chords. Regardless, in my experience, amateurish guitar playing coupled with the proclivity of children to create motions for songs you teach them is a formula for enjoyable education and, best case scenario, robust theological understanding.

Catechesis forms a critical component both in the Bible classes I teach and in my family's worship time. In fact, it's the component that neither my students nor my children ever complain about. And it's rewarding to me. Every time my own children and my students sing, for instance, the truth that God has created us "male and female," I take satisfaction in the knowledge that they are singing, unbeknownst to them, themselves into a binary understanding of gender, and so a notion of identity as created, that will very likely set them sharply at odds with the world they encounter in a few short years. God willing, that understanding will equally equip them to speak words of genuine hope into this world, hope discovered in learning to move towards rather than away from one's created identity and, better yet, towards the identity that God offers every human being on the basis of his Son's person and work.

Identifying Our Identity


At present, two popular--yet antithetical--positions about sexuality and identity exist within the orthodox Christian community. In their recently book Transforming Homosexuality, authors Denny Burk and Heath Lambert identify these as the traditional and neo-traditional positions. Both of these positions exclude from acceptable Christian behavior sexual acts that are outside of Scriptural marriage between one man and one woman. Also, both sides should acknowledge that even if they see the other side as wrong, they are Christian brothers aiming to work out a practical and biblical theology to minister to same sex attracted individuals.

So what is the major difference between these positions? Those in the neo-traditional camp believe that sexual acts performed with the same sex are wrong, but that people who have these attractions should not think of the temptation, in and of itself, as sin. Many of this perspective would accept the modern language of sexual orientation, even going so far as saying one can be a "Gay Christian" or "a Christian who happens to be gay." The orientation then is neutral, or even positive, as Wesley Hill states that those of a gay orientation have a way to "harness and guide its energies in the direction of sexually abstinent, yet intimate, friendship...being gay and saying no to gay sex may lead me to be more of a friend to men, not less."1 One's sexual orientation, in that case, is to some degree affirmed as a platform for unique and special spiritual fruit.

This way of viewing sexuality and Christian living has grown in popularity in the Evangelical world that has sought to engage those who experience sexual attraction to the same sex. One must at the very least be thankful for engagement with same sex attracted persons. Many remember a time when the majority position was mere rejection and disgust at those who wanted to learn about Christ but confessed these attractions. Thus, this camp wishes to say: "You can be a celibate Gay Christian, or be a Christian who happens to be gay and celibate."

The traditional view has major problems with this view, as will become evident. For those of the traditional understanding, not only is the act to be considered sin, but the desire and internal temptation itself is something to be repented of, not a means of special spiritual fruit.

The neo-traditional approach is thus at odds with the traditional and confessional understandings of the doctrines of original sin, concupiscence, and repentance.

For instance, The Westminster Confession of Faith (and its cousins the London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the Congregationalist Savoy Declaration of 1658) in chapter 6.4 and 6.5 states that original sin is "original corruption, whereby we are...inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions..." and that corruption as well as the act "are truly and properly sin." This means the desires to sin themselves are properly understood as sin. It is a sin to be tempted to sin, when that phrase is understood to mean an internal temptation of desire towards that which is a violation of God's law.2

The Westminster, Savoy and London Baptist Confessions did not invent this conception of sin, but we see it both in Church history in the Augustinian doctrine of "concupiscence", but also in the text of Scripture itself in the Pauline doctrine of "the flesh," (Romans 7, Ephesians 2, Galatians 5, etc) in James' explanation of temptation by way of internal lust (James 1), and Jeremiah's statement of the depravity of the human heart (Jeremiah 17:9). Finally, our Lord tells us that the sin of adultery is committed not merely by outward act only, but in our heart and with our eyes (Matthew 5:28).

This difference in identifying the desires, and not merely the acts, as sin is not mere semantics. It has profound consequences in how we address the person who desires to live the Christian life who has experienced same-sex attraction. When we are called to repentance, are we called to merely do different things or to desire different things? How you answer that question will determine how you counsel practical application of our battle against sexual sin.

Think of this firstly in how you counsel a man who confesses a common temptation of sex outside marriage with women he works with, socializes with, or sees at church. As a pastor should you counsel a man to harness his sexual energies to be more of a friend to women and have an identity as a lustful Christian? Or ought he be encouraged to mortify, kill, that desire for a sexual mate besides his wife, and affirm his identity in Christ as a hedge against his adulterous desires? One hopes all Christian pastors and counselors would attack the lust, and remind the Christian of their identity in Christ, that they are not to be discouraged by their sin, or embrace their lusts for good purposes, but to embrace their placement in Christ as their sole identity even while he struggles with sin.

Certainly, there is a place for identifying what we struggle with. We claim to be simultaneously sinners and saints. But we are saints in status, even while sinners in constitution. To identify solely as Christian, as in Christ, as declared righteous is not to deny sin in our lives, but to be able to fight against it. We fight against our fallen nature with what God has remade us to be. Can you be a Christian that struggles with same sex attraction? Yes. In fact, being a Christian means you struggle with sin rather than surrendering to it. Only a living thing struggles, only a born again saint struggles with sin. But we are no longer identified by our sin. Then should you identify as a gay Christian? No. For the same reason you should not identify as a stealing Christian or greedy Christian or lying Christian. Such a label confuses status with composition.

There is a better energy to harness in our sanctification. That energy is the Spirit as He cements our identity in Christ. Should we welcome those that come from the gay and lesbian community? We must do so! It is also our duty to remind all men and women of the liberating truth that if one embraces Christ, he or she is not defined any longer by his or her sexual attractions or temptations. Within the list of the condemned in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 are those who are identified by their sin including the greedy, sexually immoral, drunks and "homosexuals." But the glorious truth of 1 Corinthians 6:11 is Christians have a new identity: "Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." While Christians may still struggle with each of those sins, our identity in Christ trumps each temptation, and we are no longer identified by our sins and temptations, but by Christ.

There is a great practicality in the doctrine of identity in Christ. The Christian struggling with same-sex lust is told: "You are not weird, or an outcast, or a special sort of sinner. No, you are just like the rest of us, and struggle just like the rest of us. While one person sits in the pew on your left with active struggles against gossip, the person in front struggles against pornography, the one in back of you struggles with greed, and the one on the right struggles with pride. None of them are identified by their sin, but identified in Christ. You can be assured that we are not heterosexual or homosexual Christians, nor divided between lying and prideful Christians, but united as Christians who struggle against sin, and struggle to mortify it together and grow more and more into the likeness of Christ, whose name we carry."

All Christians struggle with sin throughout their lives here; but, that sin does not define us. Our lapses with sin do not define us. Christ alone defines us. He shares his title to a believer with no other, excepting the Father and Spirit, whose name we were sealed with in our baptism. (Matthew 28:19) This is not semantics. It is the practical theology of our identity in Christ, our doctrine of sin, and our active repentance. Let us dust off the words of John Owen, applying it to all Christians in our sinful corruption, excepting no group from the task as Christians: "Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you."

1. Wesley Hill,Spiritual Friendship: Finding Love in the Church as a Celibate Gay Christian, (Grand Rapids: Brazos PRess, 2015)pg 81.

2. Some object here that we can never understand temptation as sin because Jesus was tempted and resisted. But while our Lord was tempted externally, because He was free of the effects of original sin in the fall, Jesus did not have the corruption of a fallen nature for this confessional idea of internal corruption and temptation to apply to Him.

"The false self is deeply entrenched. You can change your name and address, religion, country, and clothes. But...the false self simply adjusts to the new environment. For example, instead of drinking your friends under the table as a significant sign of self-worth and esteem, if you enter a monastery, as I did, fasting the other monks under the table could become your new path to glory. In that case, what would have changed? Nothing."

So wrote the Trappist Monk Thomas Keating some years ago. Whatever the merits of Keating's own solution to the situation he describes, his analysis of our basic human condition seems spot on to me. Keating understands that licentiousness and legalism represent not only alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of relating to divine law, and so of laying claim to one's inheritance (whether measured in present or deferred beatitude), but also alternative (albeit de facto related) ways of constructing identity, and so projecting an image of one's self both to one's self and to others. Some define themselves by conquest and consumption; others by strict conformity to moral standards of one provenance or another.

The Gospel, by way of contrast and solution to the "false self," bids us find our identity in our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work for us (forgiveness and renewal), and so in the vast love of God for us which stands behind our participation in the benefits of Christ's person and work. Thereby it simultaneously invites us to forfeit those identities we have so carefully constructed via conquest and consumption or moral conformity (to precepts divine or human).

Recently I've been thinking about the way in which Margery Williams's classic children's book The Velveteen Rabbit (1922) captures this particular dynamic of the Gospel.

The Velveteen Rabbit has, of course, intrinsic worth. He's made of velveteen after all. Velveteen may not be proper velvet, but presumably it beats polyester or mere cotton as far as materials go (disclaimer: I don't actually know what I'm talking about on this score). Similarly, we human beings have intrinsic worth as image-bearers of God. Our image-bearing ontological/functional status should, at least in principle, go some way towards establishing our sense of self-worth as well as the worth of others. But in our fallen (or in the Velveteen Rabbit's case neglected state), the truth about our origin and inherent status rarely suffices to keep the "false self" at bay. The reality is we're wired for relationship, and questions of self-worth and identity inevitably revolve in the final analysis around the reality of whatever relationships (or lack thereof) we find ourselves in. Because sin has severed the relationship that matters most, we end up feeling lost and worthless; hence the quest to establish identity and worth down those paths noted previously.

The Velveteen Rabbit ultimately discovers his own identity -- and so forfeits his own "false self" as well as any false hope entertained of realizing his eschatological end ("realness") through false means -- in the love bestowed upon him by the Boy. The Boy's love doesn't (initially) change what the Velveteen Rabbit is (i.e, a Velveteen Rabbit). But it does impart previously unrealized value and identity to the Rabbit. Similarly, God's love for us doesn't (initially) change what we are by nature, but it does impart a previously unrealized value and identity to us. God's love, in other words, defines us. God's love -- measurable in the lengths that God has gone to in order to rescue us from the guilt and misery of our sin -- bestows upon us the freedom to stop defining ourselves to ourselves and others by our conquest and consumption (on one hand) or (on the other) strict conformity to moral precepts.

But in the end, love not only defines the Velveteen Rabbit; it also transforms him. The Velveteen Rabbit, true to the prophetic word of the Skin Horse (the Velveteen Rabbit's source of inspired truth), achieves realness on a new level by virtue of the love bestowed upon him, even though that love (and so the path to eschatological realness per se) introduces, whether directly or indirectly, considerable pain and sorrow to the Rabbit's life. God's love (and the realization of his love for us in the person and work of Christ) likewise leads to our own transformation (glorification). But, as every Christian knows and numerous New Testament texts conform, the path to glory is paved with pain and suffering (Rom. 8:17).

Of course, all analogies -- including those based on children's literature -- break down in the end. The Velveteen Rabbit's eschatological end necessarily separates him from the Boy whose very love imparted identity and an inheritance to him. God's love, which imparts identity and inheritance to us, draws us into his presence more concretely in the end (which is to say, God is our inheritance). But perhaps enough parallels between the Velveteen Rabbit and the Gospel exist to extend G. K. Chesterton's apology for the "ethic and philosophy of elfland" (and so all that children's stories stand to teach us) to Williams's classic work, even if it the Velveteen Rabbit (1922) slightly postdated Chesterton's comments (Orthodoxy, 1908).

When Calling Yourself a "Christian" Isn't Enough


As a new Christian, I was very interested in studying cults. I studied the nuances of Mormonism, Jehovah's Witnesses, Unitarianism, and so on. When we think of cults, we tend to think of groups that not only pervert what the Bible says about salvation, but especially that depart from what Christianity has long taught since the very beginning. One of the other interesting features of cults is that they desperately want to be seen as in the mainstream of Christianity. When the Mormons come to my house, they insist that they're "Christians" - in fact the last ones that came to my house told me they're evangelicals.

Recently, I was reflecting on an important point that Dr. Trueman has been making for a number of years--namely, that the term "evangelical" has not only lost its meaning, but that it probably needs to be abandoned altogether.

Is it possible that the term "Christian," like "Evangelical," isn't enough? Since the Nashville Statement was released this past week we have seen a number of negative responses from people also wanting to claim the name of Christian. I have seen many people claiming that suicides among the LGBTQ community will skyrocket every time Christians reaffirm what they've always said on these issues. I have seen nobody try to argue that what is in the Nashville Statement is innovative or foreign to what Christianity has always taught.

Truthfully I don't see engagement from the dissenters when it comes to the text. I do see the modern shaming, naming, and bullying tactics of the crowd being employed in full-force. I don't see anyone carrying the flag for historic Christianity who is opposing the Nashville Statement. There is no effort on the part of the dissenters to make any connections with the teachings that have been part of the catholic (universal) church since Christ established it.

In this regard, one of the most important books that have been released in the last year was the book Unchanging Witness, by Donald Fortson and Rollin Grams. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Unchanging Witness approaches the theological question of human sexuality from two fronts--the historical front and the exegetical front. Fortson and Grams spend most of the book examining every biblical text that refers to human sexuality, and especially to homosexual behavior. They spend about a quarter of the book surveying direct quotations from the early Church Fathers, the church during the Middle Ages, and the church during the renaissance/Reformation period. Their overall argument is that not only do the Scriptures teach with unanimity and clarity that homosexual behavior is sinful, but their larger point is that the church in history has spoken with one unanimous and unchanging voice on this specific question. Lutherans and Calvinists may differ on the Lord's Supper. Methodists and Baptists may disagree over how to baptize. Baptists may disagree with Baptists over the five points of Calvinism (the list goes on). No Christian church or denomination ever disagreed on the morality of homosexuality.

Here's the real money quote from Unchanging Witness

"On the issue of homosexual practice, no person or church or group should say that biblical texts mean something other than what the church has said all along because...both Scripture and the church have clearly and consistently said the same thing. The issue comes down to this: the authority of Scripture and the relevance of the church's teaching" (Fortson and Grams, pg. 5).

This is precisely where I wish to come back around to the question of whether it's enough to just claim the name "Christian." The people who are spearheading the 'Gay Christian' movement are innovators in the extreme. They must argue that there is no relevance to the church's teaching on the subject of sexual behavior, because there is no argument to be made in that regard. Can someone really claim to be Christian while enjoying the church's teaching (perhaps) on the doctrine of God while they at the same time willfully jettison its interpretation of what the Bible says about human sexual behavior? They can, perhaps, but they would be 'Christian' in name only. It is our relationship to the history of the church that makes our claim to be Christians meaningful. Wolfhart Pannenburg said this:

"If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norms, and recognized homosexual unions as personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical grounds but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church" (Christianity Today, November 11, 1996, pg. 37).

Whatever you think of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood... whatever you think of the helpfulness of issuing public statements signed by hundreds of professors and pastors... whatever you think about the CBMW's willingness or unwillingness to deal with the errors that they put forth during the ESS controversy... an objective reading of the Nashville Statement ought to ring true to all people who are Christians in any sense that our forefathers would have recognized. Those who belong to the cult of Evangelical Libertinism are howling in pain right now, but they should be recognized for what they are: a fringe cult masquerading as Christians, just like the Mormons and Watchtower folks.


The Intricacies of Interracial Marriage (Part 2)


In light of current discussions regarding racial reconciliation, we thought that it might be a benefit to our readers to run a series of videos from a longtime contributor, Rob Ventura, and his wife, Vanessa, concerning a variety of subjects related to interracial marriage. Rob is the pastor of Grace Community Baptist Church in Providence, RI. Rob and Vanessa have been married 20 years and have three children.

The interviewer, Suhylah Claudio, has provided the following rationale for this series of interviews:

"To share the varying perspectives on race, ethnicity, culture, and nationality from various ethnic backgrounds. The purpose is to dispel myths and stereotypes and expose points of view from those whom we may not feel are 'like us' and ultimately to think about what Scripture says about these things. My goal is to help unite us as one race of Christians who are aware of the perceptions and experiences of one another so that we can be more sensitive and loving as brethren in Christ."

In this second video, Rob and Vanessa talk about their thoughts on the racial identity of the children of an interracial marriage, as well as about the opportunities we have in light of our backgrounds for the spread of the Gospel.

Identity, Affinity and Christ

So many of the controversies surrounding the church at present center on concepts related to identity and affinity. Whether these issues are sexual, ethnic, biological or political in nature, one cannot escape the seemingly ubiquitous existential clamor with which we are daily inundated. Bombarded by a steady stream of headlines about scandal, social injustice, political policy and manufactured pandemonium, the Christian is ever in danger of losing a sense of who he or she is in Christ. When we enter into debates in which emotional hijacking tends to be par for the course, we must guard against the temptation to abandon the center of gravity of the Gospel and to trade our identity and affinity for something other than Christ and His people.

This danger is not foreign to the pages of the New Testament. Many of the pervasive issues that the Apostles tackled in the foundational days of the New Covenant church were those having to do with identity and affinity. Whether it was the Judaizers tempting Jewish converts to forfeit their fellowship with their Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ or the Corinthian error of picking and choosing which of the teachers in the church would represent their particular affinity group, the fledgling churches were constantly in danger of departing from Christ in order to settle in with another identity or affinity group. The potency of the Judaizing heresy lay in the fact that false brethren appealed to the heritage of a select portion of the believers in the body. These false teachers baited the newly converted Jewish believers with their past, saying, "This is your heritage. Don't abandon your heritage. Don't betray us." In Corinth, members of the church were vying for particular teachers to lead their affinity groups. The deleterious subtlety of this error was seen in the fact that the teachers with whom they aligned themselves were men who had been appointed by God to be ministers in the church. New forms of these pernicious errors can and will most certainly surface in the church today. When they do, they inevitably threaten our Gospel identity in Christ and affinity with His people.   

For the Christian, nothing short of knowing Christ and who we are in Christ will suffice. When we remember that Jesus stood in our place, for our sin, and took the wrath that we deserve in order to forgive us, cleanse us and reconcile us to God (as well as to unite us to all of His blood bought people), we come to understand that our past doesn't identify us any longer. In turn, we start to recognize that we don't have to search for a particular affinity group--we've already been placed in one, namely, the Church. The Apostle Paul labored tirelessly to establish this principle in the minds of God's people. He gave the Galatians the remedy to their misplaced identity when he explained, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26-29). 

A tangible loss of real spiritual joy will always accompany our misplaced quests for identity and affinity. There is a deep seated joy that flows from realizing the newness of life that we have in Christ in the Gospel. So much of what we read or hear online today lacks this sense of Gospel joy. When we allow psychological constructs, social agendas, party spirits and cultural identities to take the place of the good news of Christ crucified for sinners, we invariably forfeit the benefit and implications of the good news. When I was a new convert, many in the church would tell me, "Nick, you've got to remind yourself that you'll always be a drug addict." I'll never forget the inner freedom and joy that I finally came to experience when I realized that I was a new creation in Christ. The Apostle reminded the Corinthians of this very thing when he wrote, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). A new name, a new identity, a new experience, a new community, a new life in Christ--these were the truths that caused joy inexpressible and full of glory to well up deep within in my heart. 

These are the truths which are meant to shape our minds so that we will be able to navigate our way through a world that tells us our past, our desires or our preferences are what ultimately define us. Then, and only then, will we be able to speak helpfully to the issues of the day without derailing or disenfranchising our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our union with Christ in His death and resurrection means that we are defined by who He is, what He has done and what we have become in Him (1 Cor. 6:9-11). As this truth grips our hearts, we will find that our affinity group consists of all those who--no matter their moral, socio-economic, ethnic or political background--have also been raised to newness of life together with us in Him. 

As strange as it may sound, one of the more insightful discussions of Trump's political success is offered by "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams. Trump is a "master persuader," he argues, who knows and uses human psychology to far greater effect than anyone else in the field, either party. Trump will be America's next president, he predicts, since "psychology is the only necessary skill for running for president."

Adams's blogging about persuasion, (ir)rationality, and identity is quite interesting. Like me, he's not concerned about Trump as a candidate so much as he is about him as a cultural phenomenon. Michael Cavna, Comic Riffs author at the Washington Post, helpfully summarizes Adams's explanation of the Trump phenomenon in six points:

1. Trump knows people are basically irrational.
2. Knowing that people are irrational, Trump aims to appeal on an emotional level.
3. By running on emotion, facts don't matter.
4. If facts don't matter, you can't really be "wrong."
5. With fewer facts in play, it's easier to bend reality.
6. To bend reality, Trump is a master of identity politics--and identity is the strongest persuader.

Madison Avenue types and sharp political advisers long ago figured out the priority of identity over reason, wisdom, judgment, and whatever else one might think pertinent to being President. (Similar statements can be made about the products we buy or services we hire or society we keep--everything is branding and branding is about identity.) Sadly, this is the way things work in our post-Freudian world. Still, it's difficult for us to believe that identity actually does trump all else, which may be why even our most cynical politicians seldom play this card as brazenly as Trump does.

We are living through a time when reason is being reimagined in terms of psychological identity. Things that were thought to be mad not long ago are now viewed as necessary consequences of our fundamental principles not because those principles have changed on the page but because they are now being read through this lens. Justice Kennedy's majority opinion in the Obergeffel v. Hodges case is a rather clear instance of this in law.

In the arguably more pragmatic domains of American business, politics, education, and religion, what counts as reasonable or a rational course of action will be whatever works. If identity politics, business, education or religion works (not just as a complement to sobriety, decency, gravitas, judgment, competency, and so on--as Clinton seems to be betting--but even in fairly open defiance of most of these qualities) then it will become quite rational to be as irrational a candidate as Trump.

But can this be? Postmoderns insist reason itself is culturally construed and evolves along with everything else. Adams, however, continues to diagnose the Trump phenomenon more as an escape from reason rather than as a redefining of reason. Still, his analysis suggests that irrationality is the new reason. Either way, here is Cavna's annotation on the first point: 

"If you see voters as rational you'll be a terrible politician," Adams writes on his blog. "People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keep us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence."

That's a basic point of contemporary evolutionary psychology (often used to criticize religious belief). If this critique is true of anything, however, then we have no good reason to believe that any of the things we believe are true (including this critique), "except maybe sometimes by coincidence"--and this is no minor point. This popular strand of evolutionary psychology may free Trump and all the rest of us from a sense of obligation to truth but it does so at the expense of the very possibility of knowing anything or at least of being able to know that we know anything. It's ultimately self-defeating.

Fortunately for knowers and speakers of truth everywhere, reality is a very stubborn thing. We can believe what we like about what is reasonable and right and true and we may be dead wrong in what we believe and do about it too. Madness is possible and our madness, however widely shared, does not bend reality or define reason or redefine truth--only our psychological state. There are limits to our revolt against reality including the truth about our personal identities. Reality always wins in the end; the only question, as Carl Trueman recently pointed out, is how much damage we will do to ourselves in the meantime?

'Who do I say that I am?'

"Be holy, for I am holy" ~ 1 Peter 1:16

One of the most difficult things to do is tell the truth...about ourselves. The church prides itself on being a bastion of truth in a world of lies, yet her members often forget that they cannot preserve the truth unless they first preserve it about themselves. One of the ways we can discern whether we are preserving the truth about ourselves is by taking note of our verbal habits, those patterns of speech we adopt that describe who we are - especially in relation to God and each other. These patterns of speech about ourselves reveal our hearts and whether we are primarily seeking affirmation of where we are - by others and by God - or whether we are seeking to become more like God.

I took note of these patterns of speech in a video that recently received a lot of attention on the internet called "We are the Church" (watch here: It was noteworthy for many because it deals with those professing to be 'the Church' who self-identify as 'gay', 'queer', and 'trans'. Those combinations alone will always stir discussion. But beyond the self-applied labels drawn from our current sexual lexicon, the way the individuals in the video described (rather than labeled) themselves, in relation to God and others, is reflective of certain verbal tics that many church-goers - whether liberal or conservative - have adopted. 

If you watch the video you will note the tenor of the descriptions: "I am received"; "I experience grace and community"; "I am loved"; "I am fed"; "I am...the Church." These are good things, of course, but can become toxic when not held together with other, equally good things. Noticeably absent are Christian notions of sacrifice, repentance and hope for change. In fact, in the tone of these men and women is a tinge of 'I dare you' to consider it even appropriate to talk about change and what that might entail, other than change from societal and ecclesiastical constraints that we can smirk at in light of the "freedom" of the Gospel. 

The contemporary philosopher Charles Taylor has been keen to point out the shrinking frames of reference we employ to understand and articulate our identity. Having abandoned more universal notions of "human nature", we seem satisfied to describe ourselves only in terms of ourselves and our chosen tribe (see his Sources of the Self). Taylor calls this "the flattening of modern consciousness". The modern self is the expressed self, Taylor says, where we describe ourselves based upon what we find significant. This is usually done by a personal disentanglement from the sticky webs of birth and historic communities, and a conscious re-entanglement with like-minded souls who will accept and affirm us as we express ourselves. I would suggest we often do the same while speaking with a Christian accent. 

Accordingly, the Gospel becomes about receiving forgiveness for all the ways society, the church, and I beat myself up, so that I can better live my authentic self in community with other authentic selves in the name of Christ. Or, the Gospel becomes about a "hamster wheel" of personal sin and forgiveness that never draws us out into considering what life might be like "in Christ", where we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to crucify our "fleshly selves" (Galatians 5:24) and sacrifice an immediate sense of personal meaningfulness for the greater goal of strengthening the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12). 

The tragedy of layering over our expressive self with Christianese is we cut ourselves off from the hope for change we find in God. Hope can only be found when we talk about ourselves in light of God. 

The ability to speak the truth about ourselves is fundamental to our ability to worship God. This is the wisdom behind frontloading a worship liturgy with confession of sin, because before we lift high the name of God we must hold low the name of our self. In the presence of God we must forsake our self-imposed expressions of who we think we are, and let Scripture 'read' us and define our state. When the Spirit presses the Word on our hearts, we are led to genuine repentance of our sin where we are able to consider the good news of the Gospel and our exclusive identity in Christ. 

Calvin famously wrote that the knowledge of self and knowledge of God are intertwined to the point that sometimes we do not know where the one begins and the other ends. Knowing ourselves to be sinners opens us up to knowing the grace of God that rushes into our sin, even flowing down into and softening the hardened trenches dug deep in our hearts by the force of sexual habit. Knowing God to be a forgiving God encourages us to know ourselves as sinners - yet with hope. The intertwined knowledge of which Calvin speaks is an ever deepening knowledge that, rather than leaving us in a state of complacency or despair, charges us with hope in the midst of our sin - hope that the same grace which announces our forgiveness will change us into the image of the Holy One we worship.

As we learn to tell the truth about ourselves as Christians we need to infuse our words with such knowledge. When we do so together, as the Church, we become a place of truth as well as hope. Instead of affirming ourselves into a standstill, our descriptions become doorways through which the work of the Holy Spirit draws us up to God through Christ. 

Rev. D. Blair Smith is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a doctoral student in patristics at Durham University. He's currently a research visitor at the University of Notre Dame