In 1979, Richard Lovelace analyzed what it meant for local churches to pursue strategies of spiritual revitalization in his book Dynamics of Spiritual Life. Without being formulaic, he gave a paradigm of what are (1) the preconditions for spiritual renewal to occur (a grasp of a knowledge of God, ourselves, the depth of sin, and an awareness of the dynamics of the flesh and the world), then (2) the primary elements of renewal (grasping the benefits that we have in Christ, justification, sanctification, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and spiritual authority), and finally (3) the secondary elements (mission, prayer, community, theological integration, and disenculturation).
The very last element, “disenculturation,” was especially instructive as Lovelace points out two kinds of “enculturation” in the church. First is what he calls destructive enculturation, which is a spiritual community that has been saturated in the values and social norms of the godless world around them. The second is what he calls protective enculturation, which is the building of restrictive measures to keep the world out.Richard Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1979), 190. Of course, as a strategy for authentic and vital spiritual renewal, neither work. Strict religiosity does nothing to restrict the indulgence of the flesh (see Col 2:23) and worldliness only allures us with the promises of acceptance, pleasure, and meaning, without ever actually granting it. Protective enculturation produces what Lovelace calls a “cultural rust” and destructive enculturation disintegrates any meaningful distinction between the world and God’s people. Both are spiritual catastrophes. And both are, more or less, worldly.
As Lovelace shows, the answer to a protective enculturation is not more worldliness and the answer to worldliness is not more protective enculturation. The answer to both is having a lived-experienced of the benefits of our union with Christ. Being “in Christ” not only protects us from the world more effectively and fruitfully than strict religiosity, but it also grants us the desires and longings of our hearts, rather than seeking it through the promises of the world. Enculturation (both destructive and protective) is a failure of understanding and appropriating the fullness of what we have and who we are in Christ. Lovelace, then, shows that a strategy of “disenculturation” is needed. He says, “many of our people are severely enculturated because their relationship to Christ is so insecure that they are not free to cut loose from cultural support.”Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 211.
What is uniquely beneficial to Alan Noble’s You Are Not Your Own is that he is able to name and identify—more thoroughly than most—the “cultural support” that we are often most afraid to cut ourselves loose from. And for pastors and spiritual leaders, much of our power is to be able to name what is unspoken, to be apocalyptic about the powers and principalities that work in subversive and implicit ways in our systems and institutions, our advertisements and social media, and then to identify the subconscious ways we digest and participate in them.
Noble explains how our society has catechized us into believing that we are our own and we belong to ourselves. This, of course, implies certain responsibilities (“Responsibilities of Self-Belonging”): justifying our existence, curating an identity,For pastors and spiritual leaders, much of our power is to be able to name what is unspoken. creating meaning for our own lives, adopting criteria for what is moral and what is immoral, and maintaining a sense of belonging without it cutting into our absolute freedom.
Our society “helps” with these responsibilities by showing us “happy, attractive, wealthy people on YouTube living their best life and sharing it online,” getting us to believe “that fame or attractiveness or wealth can make our lives meaningful” and then providing therapeutic or self-actualizing techniques that remind us that pursuing what I desire is our most important moral obligation, even (or especially) when this pursuit hurts or abandons others along the way (p. 39). It provides ways to optimize your life to be bigger, better, faster, and more efficient, along with being more confident in your self, your identity, your views, your body shape and then how to perform your life before others for their affirmation.
But, of course, our society fails us. Researchers are finding that today, young adults “are perceiving that their social context is increasingly demanding, that others judge them more harshly, and that they are increasingly inclined to display perfection as a means of securing approval.”Thomas Curran & Andrew P. Hill. “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016.” Psychological Bulletin (2019): Vol. 145, No. 4, 410–29. In other words, our society supports individual expressions of a self-curated identity, but at the same time we experience from our society 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 society rarely allows us both.
But our society tells us all kinds of conflicting messages: be more productive and have a more balanced life; be more fit and post pictures of yourself at all the restaurants; be a good parent and don’t let anyone get in the way of your ambitions. We never can live up, but at least we have Instagram where we can post pictures to give people the impression that we are.
When we aren’t living up to what society tells us is the good life, we feel the sense that we aren’t doing enough. That feeling is guilt. The good news is that our modern world knows what to do with guilt. We just do more. We post better pictures on Instagram, with more expensive filters. We work out more, eat better, and work more efficiently, optimizing everything along the way.When we aren’t living up to what society tells us is the good life, we feel the sense that we aren’t doing enough. Until you find that it’s still not enough. Which leads to the feeling that maybe it’s not that “I’m not doing enough” but that “I am not enough.” That feeling is shame. It’s hard to optimize yourself out of shame.
Because our society fails in its promises, there is a deep cultural sadness. Researches show that this inability to keep up with the kind of life our society tells us is the good life has a strong link to increases in reported suicide and self harm. In Britain, the number of adults reporting self harm between 2000–2014 has more than doubled.“Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey: Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, England, 2014,” Chapter 12: Suicidal Thoughts, Suicide Attempts and Self-Harm. Over fifty-one percent more young adults felt ‘overwhelmed,’ ‘stressed,’ and ‘anxious’ in 2016 than did in 2009. Those feeling depressed had risen by ninety-five percent and has created for us an “endless loop of self-defeating over-striving in which each new task is another opportunity for hard self-rebuke.”Christian Jarrett, “Perfectionism As a Risk Factor for Suicide,” British Psychological Society Digest, 27 July 2017. Trusting in the self-belonging project of our society has made us into fragile people who now “require new techniques to cope with the stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and inadequacy” (p. 95).
I think we have good reason to believe many in our church, confessing Christians, have attached their Christian faith to a life devoted to the responsibilities of self-belonging. As Noble points out, many have related to Christ or his church as something that enhances their life, like a gym membership or subscription, rather than something we belong to. The problem is that when Christ or his church confronts our idolatry or self-expression, we simply “cancel” our belonging and find something new, since, fundamentally, we belong to ourselves (p. 119). Christian leaders must expose how the belief of “self-belonging” runs in our churches at a more subterranean level. It ought to be unearthed, named, and displayed as a life that leads to deep fragility and sadness. There is a necessity for a deep work of disenculturation in our churches.
Noble, however, in a few places helpfully warns us against expecting life to simply be easy when we accept that our life belongs to Christ and not to ourselves: “Things are still pretty terrible out there. Almost everyone else you meet will continue to believe they are their own and so are you. Almost every institution will treat you like an autonomous individual, subject to instrumentalization and valued according to efficiency” (p. 131). Noble is not wrong. We should not expect an easy life when following Christ, since Christ himself tells us it will not be easy (Matt 16:24).
There is no magic here, only a confused, desperate, anxious world, and God. There is only technique, dehumanization, self-medication, and Christ’s love. There is only the freedom to accept the truth about your existence, even when it doesn’t change the world or fix all your problems (p. 131).
I appreciate the sober reminder. But I think we have some reasons to believe this process of transitioning out of a life of self-belonging to a life that consciously belongs to Christ includes a deep sense of joy. As I quoted Lovelace above, many of our folks do not “cut themselves loose from cultural support” because they are insecure about their relationship to Christ. But the church’s role is to lead our people to grasp all the benefits and blessings that we have in our union with Christ. While we may taste the sorrows of today, by the power of the Holy Spirit we can also taste the power of the age to come (Heb 6:5). There is a weight of glory that sits heavy on the heart of those who walk in the Spirit that out weighs the passing trouble of our individualistic and performative age (2 Cor 4:17). “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound” (Ps 4:7).
As desperate as our society may feel, it just proves that our only hope is in the renewal of the Holy Spirit, who gives witness to our spirit that we are adopted children of God, heirs with Christ (Rom 8:14-17), who himself has received all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places and shares them with us (Eph 1:3-6). In Christ, I will receive by grace everything that he receives by right and merit. I will hear the Father say, I love you, I’m proud of you, I’m pleased with you as loud and as often and as intimately as Jesus hears it himself. Union with Christ means what is true of Christ is true of me; what belongs to Christ belongs to me. The deeper and more thoroughly we grasp this, the more easily we will joyfully cut ourselves off from the cultural supports that only end in self-medication and resignation.