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.