I have not written much, or for very long, but this Sapientia book symposium is easily the greatest honor my work has ever received. I am very grateful to Joey, Dan, Hannah, John, Rachel, and Russ for reading, challenging, and extending my argument, and for Matthew Wiley and Joey Sherrard for putting this together and editing the essays.
One of my greatest fears as a writer is that I won’t say anything worth wrestling with. So much gets written and so little is worth reading. I’d like to at least try not to add more meaningless noise into this chaotic world. But that is a surprisingly difficult task, particularly when your subject is as broad as American or even Western culture in the twenty-first century. The very nature of writing social analysis is to rely on generalizations with significant exceptions. In that sense the work is always going to be too expansive. But paradoxically, broad social analysis is also often not expansive enough. In You Are Not Your Own I knew I was saying too much and too little about culture. I said too much by making sweeping claims which I think are accurate enough to provide meaningful insight, despite all the exceptions. I said too little by not elaborating on the endless implications of my argument. But contrary to the popular social media expectation that everyone must say everything about everything every time, I don’t believe my job as a writer is to do it all.
I see this book as a small contribution to a mountain of work done by great writers and thinkers and Christians over the last hundred years (at least). You Are Not Your Own belongs to a tradition. And really the best I can hope for is to reimagine the wisdom of people who came before me in a way that does some reader some good. But—and this is the whole point here—the project is not mine. It is not mine. It is much bigger, more diverse, with more beauty and complexity and wisdom and experience than I offer in this book. Which is why this book symposium is precisely what I hoped for. I need people to build upon and expand and correct my work, because it’s not my project. And because with my limited time and intelligence, I cannot say everything that could be said, and I cannot acknowledge all the exceptions within my argument.
At its best, the book is a communal project. And I would like to highlight that larger community. I see You Are Not Your Own as trying to continue the work of better men and women like C. S. Lewis, Jacques Ellul, T. S. Eliot, and others. But I am far from alone in this. There is a vibrant movement of evangelical scholars, pastors, thinkers, and writers who are all addressing these same fundamental problems in similar ways: Ashley Hales, Jake Meador, Jeffrey Bilbro, L. M. Sacasas, Andy Crouch, Tish Harrison Warren, Justin Giboney, Carl Trueman, James K. A. Smith, and so on. Each of these writers has identified and challenged the profoundly dehumanizing forces of the contemporary world in their own way, and argued for a more Christian community, one with the shared belief that we are not our own but belong to God, and therefore our family, church, neighbor, city, and environment.We don’t all come to the same conclusions, but I think we share a commitment to something like a Christian Humanism. We don’t all come to the same conclusions, but I think we share a commitment to something like a Christian Humanism, one influenced by phenomenology, ecology, justice reform, theological retrieval, skepticism towards technique and progress, and a response to the secular age in which we live.
In the book I speak about politics done at a human scale, one that is more manageable and tolerable at a human level, without recourse to vast bureaucratic engines (which inevitably crush souls). And I think we can extend this idea of the human scale to many of the Christian Humanists’ concerns. We want to practice church at a human scale. Not in vast, anonymous mega churches or video streams, but embodied and together through suffering and joy. We want to interact with our environment on a human scale. We want companies, institutions, and markets at a human scale, rather than ones that are maximized for efficiency. Where these ideas go and how meaningfully they form a movement will largely depend upon the institutional and communal support these writers receive. Which brings me back to this symposium—an example of both institutional (the Henry Center) and communal (all the editors and writers who contributed) support.
As I read through the main essays in this symposium, I was grateful and challenged. In the following sections I have taken the opportunity to expand and elaborate upon issues raised by the writers about You Are Not Your Own.
Coping with Small Pleasures
Easily the most challenging section of You Are Not Your Own to write was the discussion of the proper uses of small pleasures to help us cope with a disordered society. Dan Brendsel’s essay highlights some of the reasons why. After devoting many pages to the destructive way contemporary people tend to rely upon coping mechanisms to get through the day, I tried to make the case that not all simple comforts are harmful. There are good, proper, God-honoring ways of enjoying pleasures that do, in fact, make life in a disordered society much more tolerable. This is not an easy distinction to make, but I think it’s essential. If, as I argue in the book, society will remain inhuman at least in the near term, then we should expect to find ourselves taking comfort in things like good food, humor, music, and so on. I don’t think we should be afraid of acknowledging that these good gifts help us cope.
But Brendsel is right to point out that there is a danger here: “We might ask if this amounts to little more than Christian branding of ‘the way of resignation’, divine approval of coping and self-medication?” In contrast, Brendsel argues that we should see these things as “signs of God’s redemptive presence and tokens of his redemptive purposes,” which is true. But perhaps it is precisely the redemptive quality of these gifts that help us cope.
I think the problem Brendsel is rightly identifying is the temptation to instrumentalize God’s work in our lives. If we accept that God gave wine to gladden our hearts, we might begin to remove the subject (God).What God provides comforts us not only because of the gift itself but because it is a gift from God. And soon, without meaning to, our attention is only on wine gladdening our hearts. Wine becomes a mere tool, rather than a purposeful gift. We do this with all kinds of God’s works. By regularly attending church, we receive encouragement from other believers and we come to know the Word of God better. But if we ever perceive church merely as a tool for encouragement and moral teaching, we have lost something precious. Similarly, when we view a good book or a song as a tool for relaxation or a means of distracting ourselves, and not as a providential gift, I think it does “amount to little more than Christian branding of ‘the way of resignation,’” because it is a vain effort to provide comfort to ourselves with human tools, rather than to rest in God.
What God provides comforts us not only because of the gift itself but because it is a gift from God. To delight in such gifts is to practice accepting your radical dependence upon God, that you are not your own. The fact that these gifts have practical and tangible benefits (reducing anxiety, reviving our spirits, putting trials into perspective) does not make them less redemptive or less gratuitous. These are precisely some of the ways small pleasures are redemptive.
I am still not altogether content with my discussion of coping with simple pleasures, but I do think these issues of discernment are important to work out in community (like this symposium!).
The Sacrifice of Parenting
In her essay, Hannah Anderson poses one of the most personally troubling questions about belonging to God: “How might we protect and cultivate the humanity of our children in an inhumane world?”
There are a million tiny ways for me to live for myself each day. And that means a million different habits of self-belonging for my children to develop as they watch me. Will they see their father working excessive hours instead of being present with them? Will they hear me defend myself by saying that “I’m just doing this so you can have a nice life”? Will they see me give my time and resources to care for friends in need? Do they see me committing to friendships? Will they see me choose efficiency in shopping or dressing or education over the higher goods of goodness, beauty, and truth? Will they know my love and approval even when they aren’t high achieving and successful students? Will I give them the impression that unless they get a graduate degree and a prestigious job they are failures?There are a million tiny ways for me to live for myself each day. A million tiny ways. I don’t want to contribute to the social pressure they already feel to live for themselves. But I know that I do.
Near the end of her article, Anderson makes an important observation that gives me some hope: “The work of the Christian parent is to preserve their humanity at all costs, and in the process, rediscover our own.” For all the ways in which we can get overwhelmed by the fear of unintentionally teaching our children that they belong to themselves, parenting also exposes our hearts, giving us a better understanding of how we have already imbibed the contemporary anthropology. And if we cannot see our complicity, we can’t act to change it.
For example, I regularly want to skip church on Sunday mornings. I am not proud of this fact. Please don’t tell my pastor. But I’m tired and overwhelmed. I know that if I go, I will be exposed to brothers and sisters in Christ who need my prayers, my time, my love and attention, and honestly, I already feel spread too thin. Plus, it’s a lot of work to get three kids out the door.
But whenever I am seriously tempted to lounge around the house on Sunday mornings, I remember that my children are watching me. And if I choose to abdicate my responsibilities to the Body of Christ whenever it’s too costly (and belonging to others is always costly), my children will come to believe that I belong to myself, that I have no belonging to the church, and therefore, neither do they. And so, I get dressed and go to church even when I don’t feel like it. And when they complain about how boring church is, I patiently explain that we don’t go to be entertained, and we don’t go just for our personal benefit. We also go to give our brothers and sisters in Christ hope and encouragement. We go so that we can sing spiritual songs and hymns that remind them of the truths of the gospel. To Anderson’s point, this is precisely what I need, too. To preserve my children’s humanity, I must establish family practices which remind them that they have meaningful obligations to God, the church, their family, their neighbors, and creation.
My life is a testament of whom I belong to, which is both frightening in its weightiness and ennobling, because it means that each of those million tiny choices to live out my belonging to God is an act of worship.
This isn’t just true of those with children, to be clear. We are all watched by those around us, even when we aren’t aware of it. Our friends, roommates, neighbors, coworkers, and the strangers who observe us all get to witness to whom we belong when we act in this world. While I do believe that the parent-child relationship is unique in some ways, Anderson’s basic principle remains the same for everyone: when you consciously work to preserve the humanity of others, you will rediscover your own.
The Joyful Resistance of the Church
I am grateful to John Starke for emphasizing an underdeveloped theme in You Are Not Your Own: the truth that a life lived belonging to God brings benefits. I suppose I was so concerned with avoiding the toxic lie that people suffer because they aren’t Christian or they aren’t Christian enough that I failed to emphasize that there is real joy in belonging to God. We will still suffer. Society will still treat us in inhuman ways. But Starke is correct to remind us that there are “benefits and blessings that we have in our union with Christ.” And as he observes, reminding Christians of those benefits and blessings is one way we “disenculturate” our churches.
I am reminded of my own experience with deep Christian friendships, and how they have given me a “taste of the power of the age to come,” as Starke says. I’m speaking of friendships based on the assumption that we belonged to each other because we belonged to God, and therefore we were not free to abandon each other when life became difficult or we annoyed each other. The kind of friendships where I knew with absolute confidence that they would be there for me, to comfort me, to correct me, to love me whenever I need it. I haven’t had many of these friendships. They are hard to find and maintain.I’m speaking of friendships based on the assumption that we belonged to each other because we belonged to God. They involve sacrifice and great risk of betrayal and heart break. They demand vulnerability and a lot of unstructured time just being together. But they also have given me the joy to carry on when life has felt unbearable.
Unlike marriage, where you have an entire ceremony devoted to defining, vowing, and publicly proclaiming your belonging-to-each other, the union of Christian friendship often goes unspoken until you are required to see it. Recently I have apologized to two close Christian friends for encroaching upon their time when I was in a period of personal crisis. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was really saying to them was, “You have no obligation to care for me, because we don’t belong together. Our friendship is one of convenience.” In both cases these men told me in no uncertain terms that I was wrong to apologize, that they had signed up for just such a burden by becoming my friend many years ago. I can’t tell you the comfort that gave me. It was very much, very tangibly a “taste of the power of the age to come.”
Our churches can be known as places of cultural resistance, where an alternative to self-belonging is lived out in public, where people can see that they don’t have to live so alienated from one another in transactional and highly contingent relationships. But for that to happen, those of us in the church will need to do the very hard and risky work of loving other people in community over time.
The Question of Sexual Identity
Early in the process of writing this book, I made a decision not to explicitly address LGBT+ issues. Not because I don’t think these issues are important. They are. And not because my thesis doesn’t apply to these issues. It does. But because I think beneath many of these debates within the church and the broader culture is a more basic, more pervasive, more insidious ideology: self-belonging. And if we can’t identify that ideology, I don’t think we can properly address issues of sexual identity. As Rachel Gilson states in regard to the debate over the term “gay Christian”:
“Concerns for our language choices will be more effectively received if our belonging to Christ, and belonging to his Bride the church, is actively facilitated and celebrated. They will also be more effective if those with concerns stop posturing as if same-sex attracted disciples are more vulnerable to these identity traps than others. We can’t ignore, for example, the many Christians in this country who consider their citizenship in America as just as important to their sense of self as their union with Christ. Noble’s survey carries ample data for diverse avenues of Self-Belonging.”
This was precisely the reason I chose to address questions of identity and the self rather than questions of sexual identity. For any attentive reader, the implications of our belonging to God on our sexuality is perfectly clear. But honestly, I don’t want to have that conversation yet, because it is downstream. It’s only one of many manifestations of self-belonging. It just happens to be the most visible and culturally relevant today. But if we can’t accurately see how deeply we’ve imbibed a secular, contemporary idea of identity, I don’t see how we can have a meaningful conversation about whether the term “gay Christian” is appropriate.
Again, I agree with Gilson that these conversations are important. But more qualified people than myself have already made their cases. And I worried that if I chose to focus on questions of sexual identity, this book would be co-opted into a largely fruitless and harmful intra-evangelical culture war. My diagnosis is (I hope) deeper and more basic than the way these issues are typically framed. Regardless of your sexuality or your views on sexuality, if you can read You Are Not Your Own and not see yourself implicated in the false anthropology which says that to be human is to belong to yourself, then I worry you did not read carefully enough.
My hope is that faithful Christians like Rachel Gilson will take the work I’ve sketched out and build upon it to better understand modern sexuality and how the church can respond.
A Diverse and Resting Church
One of the omissions in my book is how different communities in America experience the pressure to belong to yourself. I was aware of this, but for the sake of brevity chose not to dive into all the exceptions, even though those exceptions are instructive, which is one reason I was pleased to read Russ Whitfield’s essay.
The false anthropology which I critique seems to be more common among European and White Americans than minority and immigrant communities. There are plenty of exceptions to this, but I think it is basically accurate. For example, when it comes to hospitality (a practice of belonging to your neighbor!) Whitfield observes that it “has been a hallmark of the historic Black church from its earliest days.” My impression is that the minority experience in America has historically required closer communities and unity.One of the omissions in my book is how different communities in America experience the pressure to belong to yourself. Put differently, White middle and upper-class Americans have the most “freedom” to pursue the Responsibilities of Self-belonging. I’m not sure how I could prove such a claim, but I believe it to be true. Take that for what it’s worth.
Although I knew minority and immigrant communities in American were often less affected by the anthropology of self-belonging, this point was powerfully driven home to me when speaking at a church on the East Coast. After I had given an overview of this false anthropology and explained the beauty of accepting that we belong to God, our family, our neighbors, and creation, a woman from Central America approached me with an unusual question.I may not remember all these details correctly, but the basic story is accurate and insightful. She explained that she was an immigrant, and that her problem was not that she had been taught that she belonged to herself. Growing up in Central America, the assumption was that people in the community belonged to each other. When a neighbor was sick, everyone brought food for them without question. But in coming to America this woman experienced constant pressure to abandon these practices. At her job, her coworkers and managers expected her to prioritize her career over her family. She was shamed for being content with her position in the company. Her question to me was how she could cope with the pressure to belong to herself. I don’t remember what my answer was, but I am afraid it was not as encouraging as it should have been.
Whitfield wisely points us to the experience of minority and global churches as models of belonging to God. His own story of a neighborhood party is a great example of this. And it reminds me that we have the resources and models for living as exiles in a hostile culture. We have faithful examples throughout the centuries and across the globe of Christians who managed to resist inhuman and ungodly ideologies, and thereby public testify to the goodness of belonging to God.
I fear that our problem is one of will, not knowledge. For instance, what keeps Christians in America from being known as “people who rest”? Nothing but will. Whitfield highlighted the powerful testimony of prodigal feasts. I would say the same thing about prodigal resting. For a society consumed by anxiety, total work, and self-optimization, the idea of truly resting—not in despair or dissipation but in faith that God will care for us—is almost unimaginable. We can be people who live unimaginable lives simply by sitting and being still, by rejecting the frantic, self-important hustle of modern life, through hospitality and naps and conversation and stillness. We should not try to brand ourselves as hospitality people or rest people, because that would be falling into the same old trap of efficiency (“being hospitable is an efficient way of winning souls!”). All we have to do is accept the prodigal, gracious life that God has called us to, and allow that life to be visible.