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.
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.