The Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We Are in an Age of Self Obsession, by Mark Sayers. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
After spending years in conversation about church and culture – and years in youth ministry – Australian Christian leader Mark Sayers came to realize that the conversation about what kind of churches would reach and transform communities was missing a key point:
“All our attempts to reshape the Church in the West will at best be sabotaged and at worst fail because there is a huge unnamed problem with people inside the Church…The people inside churches were suffering from an identity crisis. They seemed filled with insecurity about who they were and what difference their faith made in their lives. Jesus’ mandate to go out and preach the gospel in Mark 16:15 seemed to have been replaced by the maxim to ‘go into the world and convince people that you are not a Christian dork.’
“I would preach at megachurches in the suburbs, led by wonderful leaders whose hearts burned to see their community come to know Christ, yet who would tell me that they often worried that the baby boomers in their congregations were more concerned about what the brand of the SUV they drove said about them than about sharing Christ with their neighbors.” (p. xviii)
Somewhere along the way the concept of a soul – vertically defined – has given way to the concept of a self: basically the soul without God, without transcendence. Where we have little concern about our souls, we’re obsessed with our selves, trying to be happy, successful, fulfilled and constantly looking around to see how we measure up.
Sayers doesn’t come down hard on this as a heresy or travesty, so don’t picture some old preacher shoutin’. He’s sympathetic. But he does make a good case for how that has left us with a problem that people didn’t have before, and explains our higher level of self-absorption: We’re trying to define our lives horizontally.
In spite of the title, most of the book is about this idea of a horizontal self. It does propose alternatives and solutions, but its strength is in describing the cultural situation in which we find ourselves and what it's doing to us.
How Did This Happen?
“For the last one hundred years, we have been slowly rejecting the social institutions of our forebears. The dream was for the individual to be truly free from constraining cultural expectations. And for better or for worse, we got what we hoped for: today individualism reigns. We no longer look to social institutions and community to find our sense of self; rather, we seek to ‘be free,’ to ‘express ourselves,’ and to ‘be happy with ourselves.’ But how do we achieve these things? We have unprecedented personal freedom, but our freedom is accompanied by a haunting sense of being lost.” (p. 6)
For centuries, he says, Christians resonated with the story of Pilgrim’s Progress, which is built on the premise that all are created in the image of God, struggling to connect with God and dealing with the burden of sin. This was the cornerstone of human identity, and the Judeo-Christian worldview was largely built upon it. Or consider the legacy of the Greek culture, emphasizing the virtues:
“The giant of Greek philosophy, Socrates, believed that if humans came to understand what was good, they would act in a way that was good, and therefore their lives would be happy.” (pp. 8-9)
In both cases, we have human beings defining themselves in vertical terms: by how they connected to and in some sense measured up to transcendent ideals and a greater good.
Although many of our tools for evangelism and discipleship were created by and for people who lived in that Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman world, typical Westerners today find themselves “free from all that.” So the messages do not resonate, at least not very well. We just aren’t the same people. Or at any rate we don’t see ourselves through the same lenses.
“A mere nine years after John Bunyan had published Pilgrim’s Progress, the citizens of Athens found themselves under attack by the navy of Venice. To protect themselves from harm, they hid in their temple, the Parthenon. The temple represented the heights of Greek culture and thought. When Greece converted to Christianity, the temple had been turned into Athens’ cathedral. The citizens of Athens thought the Parthenon was a good hiding place because they believe the Venetian invaders would never fire upon this symbol of both Christian piety and the heights of Greek thought. They were wrong. A mortar shell was fired at the temple, and the building because the ruins that we see on tourist postcards today.
“Although no one realized it at the time, it was deeply symbolic moment. For centuries Western culture had looked backward, but now a new period in history had begun. Humans began to look forward; we had entered the modern age.” (p. 11. A footnote cites Middleton and Walsh’s 1995 book, Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, p. 56.)
At this point, says Sayers, people began to turn away from spiritual and moral sources to find their sense of self, looking to science, the material world, human potential, etc. Add in the increasing anonymity (and normlessness) of urbanization, the elevation of productivity over character reinforced by the industrial revolution, and a backlash promoting individualism, and the deconstruction of what Sayers calls “the vertical self” was complete.
The Horizontal Self
The reason why modern Westerners have this “new” identity problem is that it appears to be up to us, looking to the world around us, to figure out who we are. It’s not a given anymore. Nor are the answers obvious, or unchanging:
“In a secular culture drenched in a worldview of suspicion, the individual cannot look higher than the self with any degree of certainty…with God playing no real authoritative role in informing identity, people look to others as the ultimate judge. Whereas the vertical self looks to heaven for favor and approval, the horizontal self looks to the world for approval and acceptance. For people who hold a horizontal sense of self, the creation and cultivation of a public image are paramount.” (p. 17)
“Reinvention is not just encouraged in our culture; it is demanded. We are told that to not reinvent ourselves is to not stay relevant. I spoke to a group of college students recently, and they said that the biggest pressure they have in their lives is to ‘keep up’ – keep up with the right look, the right music, and the right technologies.” (p. 23)
This issue of keeping up was also discussed in another book I wrote about lately, Richard Swenson's The Overload Syndrome. I think this is why it makes me mad if my friends want to take me shopping and make me over, or urge me to spend money on the latest tech tools. I don’t buy into being “fashionable,” and resent the implication that there’s something wrong with the way things were, say, last year. I don’t care what’s hot and what’s not. Yet I’m still a little insecure about it: If I wear my hair pretty much as I did in the 80s, are people going to laugh at me? If I don’t care what’s on TV or rush to see the latest movie, am I somehow “out of it”?
One result of “the horizontal self,” not surprisingly, is a form of multiphrenia: a fragmentation of the personality. We become adept at holding together divergent beliefs and personalities depending on the situation in which we find ourselves in a sometimes desperate attempt to feel good about ourselves: we try to behave like others, to be “with it.” Lacking a core sense of identity, we may put a tremendous amount of energy into defining and marketing ourselves:
“Just think of the millions of hours people across the world now spend cultivating their online identities on site such as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, tweaking the images and identifies they wish to broadcast to the world. Never before has humanity spent such an inordinate amount of time making ourselves look good. Today we do not even blink at such narcissism; it has become a linchpin of youth culture. Doing such a thing even ten years ago would have meant being shunned or at least thought of as arrogant. ... In the media-drenched landscape in which we live, vanity is no longer a sin; it is a virtue.” (p. 34)
Tomorrow: Products of a Celebrity CultureNote: I'm writing about this book not just because I found it helpful, but also because I got a free copy of it through Thomas Nelson's book blogging program. So did a lot of other people. You'll find reviews all over the place.