By / Jan 21

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. 

By / Jan 13

Editor’s Note: This interview is part of a series engaging the authors of new or notable books. Because discipleship and spiritual formation go hand in hand, the goal of this series is to introduce you to beneficial and enriching works in order to better equip you to love God with your mind as well as your heart and strength. Find the entire series here.

You do you. Follow your heart. Be true. These are a few of our society’s favorite slogans when it comes to identity. All of them are connected because at their core each one is about seeing yourself as an individual. Each one, in other words, is about you as a me. And this kind of atomized outlook about identity and how to live is a defining aspect of our time. But what does the Bible have to say to Christians in the age of self help? Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Trevin Wax about his new book Rethink Your Self: The Power of Looking Up Before Looking In, which explores this very topic. 

You have spent a lot of time analyzing how cultural narratives impact Christians and the church. What prompted you to write Rethink Your Self, and what audiences were you hoping to engage?

I love asking questions about why people think the way they think and do the things they do. What are the hidden assumptions that people don’t question? 

In looking at what passes for “common sense” in our society, you can see one overarching message in music, TV shows, books, and movies: the purpose of life is to look inside and discover yourself and then express yourself to the world. I wanted to peel back the layers of some of our best-loved slogans like “Be true to yourself” or “Follow your heart” and interrogate them. Does this way of life work? Does it deliver what it promises? Why do other societies reject this way of thinking? 

I had three people in mind as I wrote:

  1. The 20-something college student at the start of their life and preparing for their career, who has some big life decisions ahead and doesn’t want to mess up,
  2. The 30-something Christian who wants to grow as a follower of Jesus, who wonders if they’re following the common sense of our society more than the countercultural way that Jesus lays out and
  3. The person who’s a little older and has experienced setbacks and disappointment in life, who wonders if all the talk about “chasing your dreams” and taking charge of your destiny is good advice after all and who is ready to rethink their assumptions.

Rethink Your Self explores a concept that you’ve written about extensively: expressive individualism. What is expressive individualism, and why is it vital for individuals in our culture to be aware of this belief?

Robert Bellah and the sociologists who wrote Habits of the Heart are the ones to first use this descriptor, and they trace the origins of expressive individualism back into the 1800s. 

The Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor calls it “the age of authenticity”—in a way that pits authenticity against conformity. Taylor describes it as the idea “that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority.”

The key here is that 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. 

The book presents three elements to identity formation: “Look In,” “Look Around,” and “Look Up.” Can you explain these concepts? Why is the order in which we prioritize these impulses vital to how we form our sense of being? 

These three approaches to life are determined by what gets priority. How do you determine who you are and what your purpose in life is?

The “Look In” approach says to start with yourself. You do the hard work of looking in, to discover who you are and what you want to do with your life. You then look around for friends and colleagues who will support the version of yourself you choose. And then, if you feel like you need a spiritual dimension to your life, you may look up to God or a higher power in order to have something more transcendent to add to your life. This is the dominant way of thinking in our society today.

The “Look Around” approach says to start with the people around you. You look around to your community to tell you who you are and what your purpose of life is. Then, you look up to the sacred order that connects you to the people around you and the ancestors who have gone before you. Finally, you look inside as you come to terms with the person you are, in relation to the community you belong to. This is the dominant way of thinking in other parts of the world and has been dominant for most people throughout history.

The “Look Up” approach says to start with God. You look up first in order to see what God says about you and to better understand his divine design. Looking up prioritizes the transcendent. God is the one who defines you and your purpose, not you and not your community. Next, you look around to the community of faith that is called to cheer you on, to correct you, to love you as part of the family that looks up as its starting point, not ending point. Finally, you look inside and see how God loves you just as you are, while still planning to make you the best possible version of who you are, as he conforms you into the image of his Son. This is the biblical way of seeing life—God first, others second, yourself third.

What challenges does a culture that prioritizes “looking in” for identity formation pose to the church? What challenges does it pose to Christian leaders? 

Expressive individualism poses a challenge because we’ve been commissioned to proclaim a message that is radically God-centered. The gospel challenges the “Me” with “I Am”—the One who created and sustains us. Expressive individualism would have us look deep into our hearts to discover our inner essence and express that to the world. But the gospel shows how the depths of our hearts are steeped in sin; it claims that what we need most is not expression, but redemption.

The world says we should look inward, while the gospel says to look upward. In an expressive individualist society, that message is countercultural. 

Also, in a culture like ours, it’s not that suddenly all the sanctuaries are emptied and the church gets rejected. Instead, the people who continue to attend church do so because they believe the church can help them find and express themselves. Religiosity doesn’t disappear; it morphs into something adaptable, something you embrace on your own terms. Faith is no longer focused on reality or something true; it’s a therapeutic choice intended to aid you in your pursuit of self-exaltation and self-fulfillment.

The book posits that the optimal way to think about yourself is the “Look Up” approach. How did Jesus model this in his life?

Jesus constantly turned our attention upward. The primary thrust of all his preaching was that the kingdom of God has drawn near. The first three petitions in the prayer he gave his disciples are all oriented to God’s glory and God’s kingdom purposes. He relativizes the importance of “looking around” first in terms of priority when he calls for allegiance that supersedes love for family members. He demotes the importance of “looking in” first when he says that to find your life you must lose it, and that his path is one of self-denial. Jesus is constantly pointing up—to God’s design, to his ultimate purposes, and to our need to look up for redemption through him. 

You refer to sociologists like Robert Bellah and Charles Taylor in your book. For many readers, this may be their first encounter with these influential thinkers’ ideas. How can social theorists like Bellah and Taylor help Christian leaders understand trends in their churches and communities? 

I pushed almost all the sociological references to the endnotes because I wanted the book to be as accessible as possible, without academic terms and concepts. But for the church leader who picks up this book, I hope the books and thinkers quoted in the endnotes will be a resource for further reading and reflecting. It’s important for us to know something about the world we’re called to do ministry in. Social theorists can help us understand the context and culture, so that our evangelistic and discipleship strategies can become more effective. Good missionaries learn about the countries and communities they’re called to serve. Why should it be any different for those of us “on mission” here in the U.S.?

The book counsels that to “Rethink Your Self” you will need to go beyond thinking and reevaluate your habits and spiritual disciplines. What are some suggestions for spiritual formation you present in the book?

The reason one of the later chapters in this book is focused on spiritual disciplines like Bible reading and prayer and churchgoing is because we will not be able to counter the “Look In” approach unless we are constantly bringing ourselves back in line with the “Look Up” approach. The problem is, even these spiritual disciplines can drift toward the “Look In” approach; you read the Bible merely for inspiration in your quest to define yourself, or you pray to God as just a helper when you need him or you go to church to be affirmed by others in whatever life you decide to pursue for yourself. What we need are disciplines that are intentionally directed toward keeping our primary focus and priority on God at the center of all things. My goal with that chapter was to get us “rethinking our habits” so that we can reinforce biblical truth in a world that will often lead us to drift.

The conversation you begin about the struggle of identity formation transitions into a presentation of the gospel narrative. Was this book intended to be evangelistic? How can Christians enter into conversations about self-discovery to present the gospel to their neighbors?

I was careful not to use Christianese or to assume Bible knowledge on the part of the reader because I wanted people who are not believers to pick up the book and be able to understand it. So, yes, I wrote the book with non-Christians in mind. And one of my prayers throughout the writing process is that someone would come to faith after having read the book.

But I also was thinking about the Christian who may be a churchgoer and yet has fallen for the “be true to yourself” message because it’s so prevalent. My hope is that they will begin to recognize the “be true to yourself” message in all sorts of media and entertainment and politics whenever they see it. I also hope they will better understand how the Bible challenges this perspective with something so much better and more soul-satisfying. I hope readers will see Jesus for who he is, come to love him for being so much better than what the world has to offer, and follow him with increasing passion and devotion.