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 / Aug 17

Blaise Pascal was well regarded in the 17th century as a scientist, mathematician, inventor and thinker. A prodigy from a young age, Pascal was wildly successful on several fronts over the course of his short life. One of his most significant contributions was his Pensées, a collection of philosophical and theological fragments that remain incomplete due to his early death at the age of 39. My recent reading of his Pensées has been from Peter Kreeft’s Christianity for Modern Pagans, in which Kreeft systematically proceeds through the “essential pensées” of Pascal, including 203 of the original 993. Each pensée is followed by a brief analysis, clarification or expansion from Kreeft on the thought of Pascal.

Self-love and our fallen nature

Reading Pensées has stretched my mind in a number of ways, particularly in Pascal’s discussion of self-love. With targeted and clear diction, Pascal speaks to the rampant and destructive self-love in the world surrounding him, indicting himself as he does it. This self-love, Pascal observes, is inherent to our fallen human nature. While that nature is fundamentally the same today as it was in Pascal’s day, our culture’s idolatry of individualism gives Pascal’s words particular meaning and significance today.

To frame Pascal’s discussion of self-love, it is helpful to begin with a question he proposes, from pensée 978: “Is it not true that we . . . like (others) to be deceived to our advantage, and want to be esteemed by them as other than we actually are?” Indeed, perhaps nothing is more deeply rooted in American culture than this desire. The real substance of our existence pales in importance to its appearance.

Self-love and social media

Consider the entire premise of social media presence: we create online profiles that feature the most exciting, enviable pieces of our lives or the most intellectually stimulating fragments of knowledge that we have to offer, filling our feeds with images or topics that appeal to the specific cultural subset we seek to impress. Our actual selves are crushed under the weight of perception. This is perhaps the most tangible manifestation of the deception of self-love today, but we display it in any number of ways, all intended to promote a targeted and specific image of ourselves that we find pleasing. Whether we actually are that person is essentially irrelevant.

Self-love and constructive criticism

Pascal proceeds to discuss how self-love keeps us from giving or receiving constructive criticism. We each have blind spots and deeply need the correction of others, but in a culture that praises self-love, giving or receiving this correction becomes difficult as we become unwilling to do so for fear of its damaging effects. Our self-love obscures our understanding of our deep need for correction. Pascal explains with a metaphor, again from pensée 978: “A Prince can be the laughingstock of Europe and the only one to know nothing about it” because “telling the truth is useful to the hearer but harmful to those who tell it, because they incur such odium.” Unwilling to do the painful and stretching work of growth through correction and criticism, we choose to remain in a perpetual cycle of “disguise, falsehood and hypocrisy.” This is not what we were created for.

The root of self-love

Ultimately, the deceptions from self-love that we create and live in are rooted in a desire to make ourselves God. Though biblical examples abound, the most poignant is King Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel. Surveying his vast kingdom from his rooftop, Nebuchadnezzar becomes intoxicated with power and filled with self-love, declaring, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (Daniel 4:30b). Nebuchadnezzar then hears a voice from heaven: “the kingdom has departed from you . . .until you know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:31b, 32b). Nebuchadnezzar is driven from his kingdom and forced to wander the earth like an animal, “made to eat grass like an ox” (4:33). His story represents an extreme example of the cosmic rebellion each of us acts upon when we live in our self-love.

Pascal points out the foolishness of living in this manner in pensée 617: “It is false that we deserve this position [of God] and unjust and impossible to attain it, because everyone demands the same thing.” The world is teeming with God-complexed individuals, and we blindly throw our hat into the ring. Kreeft puts it succinctly in his analysis to pensée 617: “Few think they are God in theory, but all do in practice.” Kreeft goes on to point out the problem: “there can be at most one winner” in this battle to be God. Ultimately, the satisfying of all my desires and the entirety of control that I possess if I am God infringes on that of all other beings. If I am God, no one else is God. If God is God, I am not. The point is this: ultimately, somebody wins. Our Creator has a distinct advantage.

The answer to self-love

Pascal thus places mankind in an immensely bleak condition: denying our brokenness, we seek prosperity through deception of ourselves and others, sinking deeper and deeper into our fallen nature even as we believe we are improving our standing. Thankfully, like any good apologist, Pascal does not bring us to the depths and leave us there. He proceeds to point to the cure. In pensée 617 Pascal points out: “No other religion has observed [1] that this is a sin, [2] that it is innate in us, [3] that we are obliged to resist it, let alone [4] thought of providing a cure.” No other source diagnoses and cures our human condition like Christianity.

The message of Christianity to Pascal’s presentation of self-love is a message of human weakness. In the words of the Lord to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The great irony of human existence is that in the pursuit of saving ourselves, we inevitably destroy ourselves. The message of the Bible is not that we are using the wrong method to save ourselves, but rather that the very act of saving ourselves is wrong.

In pensée 562, Pascal puts it like this: “There are only two kinds of men: the righteous who think they are sinners and the sinners who think they are righteous.” The righteous are those who know, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (64:6). Not even our best deeds can bring us close to Christ, and therein exists the great freedom of Christianity. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Christ has set us free from the need to perform, enabling us to accept and embrace our weaknesses, knowing that there is where the Lord will meet us. When we turn our eyes from ourselves to the only true God in a world of imitators, we will find what we crave.