Book Review

How do you think about your self?

Viewing "you" in light of God's Word

January 21, 2021

In 2017, Paper Magazine interviewed a 15-year-old pop-star-in-the-making named Billie Eilish. A relatively unknown Eilish introduced herself:

“I’m really different from a lot of people, and I kind of try to be. I don’t like to follow the rules at all . . . If somebody starts wearing something a certain way, I’ll wear the complete opposite of that. I’ve always worn what I wanted to and always said what I wanted to say. I’m super, super out there . . . I like to be remembered, so I like to look memorable. I think I’ve proved to people that I’m more important than they think.”

Eilish’s reflection on identity formation and self-expression is par-for-the-course for a person coming of age in our society. But it also represents centuries of social development in how Americans perceive themselves, what social observers like Trevin Wax call expressive individualism. For expressive individualists, the “purpose of life is to find one’s deepest self and then express that to the world, forging that identity in ways that counter whatever family, friends, political affiliations, previous generations, or religious authorities might say.”

Questioning how we think about ourselves

In the face of this belief and the many challenges it poses to the people of God called to deny themselves and follow him, Trevin Wax offers Rethink Your Self. His new book seeks to help people realize and reevaluate how they view themselves and recenter their identity formation around Christ.  

Wax serves as senior vice president of Theology and Communications at LifeWay Christan Resources and is a visiting professor at Wheaton College. He’s previously served as a missionary to Romania. He is a gifted observer of how cultural narratives shape our worldview. This book presents an expansion of Wax’s thoughts on expressive individualism from an article series he wrote on the topic for The Gospel Coalition.

Rethink Your Self opens with a challenge to “ask questions no one thinks about . . . doubt the ideas everyone else assumes to be true, and . . . [be] courageous enough to become unsettled and uncomfortable in challenging [our] once held beliefs.” Wax provokes us to consider that much of our “life is formed as much by what you unconsciously assume is the purpose of life as it is by any book or talk you’ve listened to on the matter.” We swim in the waters of “follow your heart” and “be true to yourself” every day. If those platitudes are faulty foundations for life’s purpose, Wax urges us that we need to know.

We are all prone to pursue significance outside of the gospel.

The book provides a framework for evaluating how people forge their identity and life’s purpose. There are three elements to this pursuit: Looking In, Loking Around, and Looking up. Different cultures reproduce different orders for people to prioritize in forming an identity. Pre-modern and non-Western cultures tend to “Look Around” first, to family, community, or social location for cues on who they are. Next, they “Look Up” toward transcendence or lineage to confirm meaning. Finally, they “Look In” to bring their sense of self into conformity with the expectations of their proper place in the world.  

Looking in and looking around

Contemporary American culture prefers the “Look In” approach. First, we “Look In” to identify the most earnest desires of our hearts. This self-discovery is followed by expressing yourself outward and “Looking Around” to be affirmed and celebrated by others. This one-two step is fluid and often requires a redesign of self-identification and expression as our desires change. When looking in and looking around grows unsatisfying, we can look up for inspiration, spiritual longing, or religious expression.  

Wax prefers to engage with the “Look In” approach, his intended audience’s approach. He articulates how this approach to identity formation, while seeming self-evident, is filled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Moreover, most people, throughout time and location, have found not only found this philosophy unworkable; they found it unimaginable.

Looking up

The second half of the book articulates a biblical alternative to identity formation, the “Look Up” approach. Through a thoughtful presentation of the gospel narrative, Wax explains how the Bible informs us that our life story does not start with ourselves or other people but with God. “Start with yourself, and you’ll collapse. Start with community, and you’ll conform. Start with God, and you’ll come into your own by finding your truest self in relation to him.”  Yet after internalizing centuries of cultural background and 24/7 messaging that perpetuates a “Look In” approach to self, it is not enough for us to be aware and think differently. We must incorporate habits into our lives that take our eyes off ourselves and fix them on Jesus.

The book models how to effectively communicate the gospel in a post-Christian setting. Apologists like Joshua Chatraw have noted that in a secular landscape, the gospel must engage with narratives beyond views of an afterlife and “Four Spiritual Laws.” Wax shows how within the pervasive self-discovery project, the gospel can subvert and fulfill our passionate pursuits of purpose. It is a worthwhile read for anyone navigating how to have edifying faith discussions in our day and age.

Rethink Your Self is a practical and accessible work that reads like a self-help book, even though it is the complete opposite. Wax communicates in a way that will resonate with Christians and non-Christians alike. Sociologists like Charles Taylor and Robert Bellah have unpacked our individualist culture at length, and pastor-theologians like Tim Keller have engaged with these cultural narratives. Still, Wax presents his analysis at a popular level that those in youth groups could understand and benefit from (I already recommended this book to our church’s youth minister).

With Rethink Your Self, Trevin Wax has given us a needed explanation of one of the most potent beliefs in our society. The book will be an incredible tool for ministers and leaders to understand their local contexts’ social trends. Christian leaders may even find it helpful to adopt his extremely accessible language to explain the nearly universal social force of expressive individualism. The book is also a great introduction to the gospel for someone working through identity formation and coming of age. While it’s easy to scoff at the self-expressive youth culture represented by figures like Eilish, we are all prone to pursue significance outside of the gospel. Moreover, as modern people, expressive individualism has rubbed off on us all one way or another. To that end, Wax’s call to center our identities upward will surely edify any reader of this much-needed work. 

Andrew Bertodatti

Andrew Bertodatti is a minister in New York. He resides in New York City with his wife, Karen, and their son. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24