October 24, 2012

My Beef with Identity: Abstract Language and Youth Ministry

"Hey, that's my identity!," I hear myself say, playing around with the thoughts, swirling about my head, the youth pastor's sermon provoke. "You took it. Now give it back!"

I slump in my seat. This is a sermon that I'm sure has been recycled (for better or worse) hundreds of times. Hearing it is as normal as skipping breakfast; it's nearly part of my routine. Christian speech about "identity" is typically overbearingly simplistic and cliche. Why would youth pastors subject themselves--and their listeners, teenagers!--to such vague, abstract language concerning a complicated psychological and sociological phenomena: identity. What's more alarming is such teaching without any supplementary pedagogical methods to help clear the waters.

"Find and discover your identity in Christ," and "your identity has been mucked up by the passions of this world" and "we must repossess our identity from the enemy" are all phrases I easily imagine a youth pastor spouting off to his group. But, what becomes plain to see, after a little study and thought, is the difficulty in pinning down an adequate definition of this term, thrown around so vehemently.

I have a feeling our metaphorical understanding of identity as something--an object to seek and search out, or perhaps something lost and hidden deep down in the soils under uncharted terrain--contributes to our (more or less) careless and nonchalant handling of it. Think about it. Metaphors are employed to aid us in understanding some abstract idea. Perhaps our routine use of identity in everyday talk and negligence to reflect on its meaning have given us confidence that we've mastered its mystery. But think with me all the ways identity is used in popular discourse and then try to define that sucker, neatly. Not going to be easy.

While researching popular uses of identity, I stumbled upon a draft of James Fearon's What is Identity? for a political science class at Stanford. He wrote:

The meaning of “identity” as we currently use it is not well captured by dictionary definitions, which reflect older senses of the word. Our present idea of “identity” is a fairly recent social construct, and a rather complicated one at that. Even though everyone knows how to use the word properly in everyday discourse, it proves quite difficult to give a short and adequate summary statement that captures the range of its present meanings.[1]

Essentially, according to Fearon, there are two "linked" senses of identity in popular discourse: social and personal.

In the former sense, an “identity” refers simply to a social category, a set of persons marked by a label and distinguished by rules deciding membership and (alleged) characteristic features or attributes.[2]

Here identity is used, in society, to understand "proper" interaction with members outside one's social groups, for instance a mentally-handicapped person, gypsy, or monk. In sociology, status and role have parts to play here. Though this aspect is seriously intriguing, I want to focus on the personal aspect--though eventually moving pass Fearon--because of its pervasiveness in Evangelical churches and youth groups.

In the second sense of personal identity, an identity is some distinguishing characteristic (or characteris- tics) that a person takes a special pride in or views as socially consequential but more-or-less unchangeable.[3]

The latter is more about a person's self-understanding, the story one tells him/herself, but usually that which is a source of pride and esteem: Japanese, Christian, introvert (personal examples). In some instances though, a person will identify themselves as/with something they don't esteem: shy, overweight, homosexual could be possible examples. We could call this latter instance negative personal identity (npi).

Here's an interesting example of npi from the movie The Sandlot: Scotty Smalls, the main character, in a scene where he's conversing with his mother about the hiccups in his friend-making endeavors (since they are new to the neighborhood), openly laments--and not so subtly reveals how he sees himself--"Face it, I'm just an egghead," to which his mother simply counters, "You'll always be an egghead with an attitude like that." "Oh mother, if it were only that easy," I think for him.

Scotty obviously views his eggheadedness as "socially consequential," in that he's no good at making friends. He's better nerding out in his room with his erector set.

Ultimately though, Fearon's definition, while perfectly adequate for his discussion, falls short for us doesn't it? When Christian youth workers speak about identity, they aren't calling for "some distinguishing characteristic that a person [a youth] takes a special pride in." Sure, ya, they want that, but they want more than that. What youth pastors (and don't forget parents!) beckon their youth toward is something of an objective identity (if there was such a thing), seeing oneself as a part of the people of God, as taught in Scripture. Read in your cheesy youth pastor voice: "I want you to know who you really are!"

We want our children to see themselves properly, do we not? Not as consumers of markets, adults in shrunken bodies, stupid nor mistakes, unnoticed nor overlooked, unwanted nor unloved. According to Scripture, adolescents, if they've been baptized into Christ, are something. They are much more, in fact. They are his body in/to the world. I get that--I know that. And I know this is important for youth to understand. This is why I sympathize with pastors and their efforts to rid their youth groups of false identities, to march against mendacious marketers and manufacturers. Youth pastors want their youth groups to understand how God sees them. No doubt!

But this is my beef: many teach and preach identity as something youth need to understand, but utterly fail when it comes to helping actually form it. That's right, form. Not without the help of James K. A. Smith, I'm employing a different metaphor from the ones above. Preachers can stand in front, hands pointed and voices elevated all they want, but unless they bring their sermon and its application to the ground, that is back from lofty abstract language to substantial engagement with the teenagers, little to nothing will change.

Why? Because youth workers are not the only ones in the business of forming identities. This is not eye-opening. Why else would we have to talk about identity so damn much?

In our gone-mad, capitalist America, youth are wanted for identity formation. If Nike can form the identity of a thirteen year old kid, to see Air Jordans as more than shoes, as a part of the good life, then guess what will follow? Yep, money. And to make matters worse, there are thousands of companies which understand identity formation better than, maybe, anyone. Professionals are paid a grip of money to ensure the identities of their customers remain perpetually infatuated and caught-up in their brand, logo and product.

Now it is here that I believe James K. A. Smith's book Desiring the Kingdom helps a ton. Published in 2009, as the first volume to a three-part series on a theology of culture, this book should be required reading for professors, pastors and youth workers alike (after reading it, I seriously contemplated buying this for every professor at my previous school). In it--and I'm wrapping up now--Smith, a Christian philosopher and professor, relocates desire to the center of the discussion on philosophical anthropology, the study of what it is to be human. He argues, quite masterfully, to be human is deeper than thinking and believing, projects of modernity. Fundamentally, to be human is to desire, it is to be a lover. And this is important to our discussion on identity? I think so.

What if identity--the story we tell ourselves--is intrinsically linked to desire? What if identity formation--the shaping of who we are--takes place "within" our primary loves? And what would this mean for adolescents and their youth pastors?

First off, it would mean overly-simple, proposition-saturated and word-heavy sermons on complex psychological and sociological phenomena will not cut it. Secondly, it would mean we are in need of a complete reconfiguration of how we handle identity at youth group. Anyone up for it?


[1] Fearon, James D. "What Is Identity (as we now use the word)?" Thesis. Stanford University, 1999. Print, 1-2.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Ibid., 2.

October 19, 2012

Thinking on Christopher Rollston

Some loosely tethered thoughts...

My friend Ben received a text message from me two days ago. I had just previously been (unintentionally) engulfed in the mighty whirlwinds of an intriguing controversy I was reading about online via personal blogs, mainly Religion at the Margins, where I read the heartfelt words of Thom Stark and current students at Emmanuel Christian Seminary (previously Emmanuel School of Religion) regarding a troubling mess involving Christopher Rollston, beloved professor of Old Testament and Semitic Studies at ECS.

Still spinning is my head after working to wrap my brain around the whole story. Others who were close to the action--or better, turmoil--have spilled much ink explaining, clarifying and unfortunately righting the wrongs that have gone out like grenades from this issue.

If you want to read about it, which could potentially keep you busy for a good while, there is plenty of very interesting material. To start you off--and after clicking you will soon realize why I say "plenty"--read (or skim) this. Inevitably this post is too huge, so peruse this instead. Or, try some of these related links. Whatever you read, whether all, some or nothing, it seems a grave injustice is taking place with the (probable) termination of a fabulous scholar, teacher, friend and Christian over disheartening circumstances.

The facts get muddied, especially when so much already has gone public. And it doesn't help when apparently administration from ECS paints an unclear picture of what is really going on.

Rollston wrote an opinion article for Huffington Post regarding the Bible's marginalization of women. As Stark has already thoroughly commented, from a biblical scholar's perspective, nothing about Rollston's article was controversial, at all. I read it, and (for what it's worth) agree. But a colleague of Rollston's, Paul Blowers, didn't. And he made himself known on Facebook. The ensuing controversy would soon flood over.

Altercations like this one capture my attention. The politics in Christian universities and seminaries, particularly confessional institutions, with professors and their scholarly freedom (or lack thereof) and others who have a stake in them, whether that be the administration, alumni, prospective students, or donors, fascinate me, especially when priorities are exposed. My stake in Professor Rollston's issue is minimal to nothing, but it has got me thinking about a professor I had the privilege to sit under, a man I respect to no end.

After reading a few open letters from students showing support for their professor, I started to tear up. Their words reminded me of my own thoughts for a professor of mine at Life Pacific College, where I just graduated in May.

You have to understand a few things. I see similarities between these professors, Christopher Rollston and mine, who I will name Dr. Smith. The characteristics that students described Dr. Rollston with could be perfectly transferred over to describe Dr. Smith. Additionally, both ECS and LPC are very small confessional schools with amazing faculty for their size. Wondering, I ask myself what would happen to LPC if such a controversy went down. It'd be ugly.

At LPC a few years back, a friend I won't name (for those who might know this story, it will surely bring a smile) rocked the boat a bit during his polity interview, which is where graduating seniors stand before a board of professors to be tested, essentially, on doctrine, ministerial practice and Foursquare polity to become liscenced Foursquare ministers (most pass through the fires and walk out purified and a little taller with Foursquare pride boosting their step. Others, unfortunately, realize they had more straw than substance and must try again). In retrospect, and I suspect then, during the heat of it as well, it's a little humorous. This friend said some things, in his interview, that didn't sit well with his panel regarding Scripture. Pinning the origins of his conclusions to the teacher he had learned them (Dr. Smith) seemed plausible. So he did. But it caused a ruckus through our very little campus among students and professors.

Dr. Smith, letting us in on what happened, shared with our class last year about how he wrote endless emails and papers to several individuals and the administration concerning his actual view, articulated much better by him than a student. The boil eventually died down to a brew then went away for good. Thank God.

I have a special place in my heart for those who have shaken me up in my constellations of belief. I learned what they learned and thus realized my worldview was impoverished at best, and uttering failing at worst. Dr. Smith was one of these people for me, and I'm positive for most who take him have found him humble, passionate, brilliant, biblically-honest and thoroughly Christian. By my standards, he's the best of the best. I was blessed to have him. And I couldn't imagine future students not having him!

The unraveling Rollston mayhem has sparked some questions in me. What happens, at a confessional institution, where faculty must align themselves with certain positions doctrinally, when an honest professor/scholar confronts a position and genuinely concludes, through rigorous study, something different or contrary? How should s/he handle this? These questions remind me of Peter Enns awhile back, when he was asked to leave Westminster Theological Seminary for writing Inspiration and Incarnation, a great book. What role do big giving donors have with the degree of academic freedom Christian institutions have/allow, apart from what is said? What does it mean to be a "Christian" university, seminary or institute of another kind? How is such a thing--a system?--Christian anyway? How does a faithful institute operate, live out its mission and values? Is there such a thing as institutional obedience?

A prayer:

Father, only you could bring good out of the muck we make. I ask for your hand in Christopher Rollston's affair. Bring about good, justice, truth and even joy. Only you could do a thing like that. Give us all courage to be thoroughly Christian in our everyday. To you be the glory, Amen.

October 5, 2012

The Future of Books?

The author of Not Only a Father, Tim Bulkeley, has done something unique with his new book (link at bottom). He has made it available online, the whole thing, start to finish, and even made it possible to converse with readers through commenting on each section of the book, to give him (and other readers/commenters) more of an understanding of the thoughts of his readers. I think this is a great idea. I'm interested in seeing how it goes.

You can make your own notes, like the ones you scribble in the narrow margins of your own books at home, but for all to see. It's like a bunch of people all reading the same book, at the same time.

It seems this would give authors broad access to thoughts, ideas and feedback of readers, academic and lay, quickly and on a grander scale, something (most) authors, I'm assuming, would want and learn from. Hopefully I'll be able to join in the "pages" and unfolding discussion.

And I admit I stole the "future of books" bit from a smart man/teacher/blogger I like named James McGrath.

Click here to see!

October 2, 2012

The Young Days: Why Faith That Grows Up is Good

I spoke with a good friend. Talking on the phone can often be a labor-some endeavor for me, but this call was good, a much-needed catch-up with someone I admire and respect.

We talked about many things; finding jobs, transitions, ministry and getting in it again. One of the things we got to talking about was something I'll call 'the young days.'

Certain times throughout my education in biblical studies, I pondered at the world of (Christian) academics, specifically my instructors. I remember having conversations with friends that, though I wanted to be educated and smart, I never wanted to loose that simplicity, that childlike glint in an innocent eye, that simplicity that I feared may had lifted from some of my beloved teachers.

My friend talked to me about his faith, and the holes he was punching in it. There were questions, like uncovered rocks, he was now turning over. "Faith and life used to be simple," he lamented. Simple was life before thinking, before analyzing, before experience.

I, too, remember. When I was 18, 19, all that mattered was that I loved Jesus and wanted to minister to the world. I had fire, and heart. Rawr!

The young days were when you saw in black and white. You experienced God's love in some real way and now you wanted to live the rest of your life pursuing that for others, or whatever version. That's what mattered. Life was simple. Doubt never lurked, ambiguity was too big a word and any other obstacle was minuscule and trivial.

But, time goes by. Then what happens? You grow up (hopefully). You learn. You experience.

Life isn't so cut-and-dry. You take in people, stories and suffering that don't fit well with a simple outlook. What seemed so right before, whether belief or practice, in retrospect, seems ignorant or juvenile. The beautiful simplicity of the young days is overcome by complexity, bringing a host of other dangers.

Some grow up and "realize" that those were the days. It's easy to want them back, or think you want them back. It seems natural, at least if you grew up in and/or regularly participate in American evangelicalism, to dismiss doubt, ambiguity, complexity, skepticism--an odd collection of trademarks for growing faith--as ills to be cured rather than gifts to be treasured; prizes of adulthood.

A friend told me once that it isn't until (roughly) the age of 25 that a person can hold things, two separate ideals or concepts, in tension. Additionally, this is when someone can see (better or, for some, very clearly) the gray amongst the once steady intake of black and white, wrong and right, sin and obedience. Eventually though, simplicity breaks down.

In a culture that worships the age of 21, the glory of the young and the dream of the old and fading, I want to encourage us along the maturity process, to open our arms to welcome things like doubt, complexity and skepticism as friends and companions, though once (or still) strangers. I'm advocating a faith that grows up. Here's my take:


This word means many things to many people. Essentially, and in modest terms, I am uncertain about my views on things, things that were, back in the day, easily-grasped and quickly-swallowed, things I didn't think twice on. Specifics? My view of Scripture, my view of Christianity and Christian practice, my view of world religions, my view of myself and my view of God for starters.

Growing-up-faith is one that doubts and a faith that doubts--oddly enough--actually opens you up to learn. What does certainty lack? The ability to hear, listen and learn.


I am a firm believer--and I may be wrong, but I doubt it; wink, wink--that nothing is simple. 2 + 2 is fairly straight forward... I'm moving on. Life seems simple when young and naive. But life rarely ends this way.

I don't know about you, but when the profound absurdity of life at all really sets into my bones, I remember again the unavoidable finitude that has seized me. Complexity brings humility, at least it does to me. Amidst the structures and politics, ethnic groups and classes, I find myself as small as ever in my skin and sometimes this is just what I need. I am not as great as I think I am. I am not the center of the universe. God is beyond my cognitive reach. Remembering I am small, reminds me of others and Jesus' command to love.


It's a blessing and a curse. I am a skeptic. I'll admit, way too often my thinking and over-analyzing gets in the way of just enjoying things as they are, which is exactly what is needed sometimes. But, skepticism--that symptom of adulthood--moves you beyond the routine, the normal, the typical. Skeptics call out the phony, the fake, the not-working mechanisms in our religious machinations and call and pray for a fresh take, an in-breaking of fire and wind. Give a skeptic some freedom and she will bust the molds of dead religion and offer a creative space for reflection and transformation.

Check this book out for Addison Hart's take on Christian skepticism, and its good.

Besides, practicing and enjoying our new friends joins us to the massive could of witnesses hovering over us, full of saints beckoning us to follow their example. So grow up. You're in good company.