Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A quick response on authenticity

Brett McCracken recently wrote an article on authenticity for The Gospel Coalition that I really enjoyed. The first few paragraphs are a brilliant summary of how evangelical Christianity has, perhaps, come to value this thing called "authenticity" a bit too much. When you collect and list a bunch of the phrases Christians use to describe how they don't quite have it all together, it looks awfully pessimistic:
In recent years, evangelical Christianity has made its imperfection a point of emphasis. Books were published with titles like Messy Spirituality: God's Annoying Love for Imperfect People, Death by Church and Jesus Wants to Save Christians, and churches popped up with names like Scum of the Earth and Salvage Yard. Evangelicals made films like Lord, Save Us from Your Followers, wrote blog posts with titles like "Dirty, Rotten, Messy Christians," and maintained websites like,,,, and—a site that includes categories like "A Hot Mess," "Muddling Through," "My Broken Heart," and "My Wreckage."
McCracken explains how this emphasis on authenticity may have developed as a counterreaction against "fake people" in the church who care more about saying and doing the right things than on what's beneath the surface. So we throw off the pressure to be "good Christians" and adopt this kind of authenticity that generally translates to opening up about our sin, our struggles, and our imperfections.

But he points out that, absurdly, there is something inauthentic about this popular kind of authenticity: "Often, what passes for authenticity in evangelical Christianity is actually a safe, faux-openness that establishes an environment where vulnerability is embraced, only up to a point." So we open up about a safe middle ground of sins (while keeping quiet about the smallest or biggest ones) to establish our credibility as "broken" or "wounded" people, focusing on the 'victim' component of being caught up in sin rather than the 'perpetrator' part.

McCracken exhorts his readers not to use our sin as a badge of authenticity or as a way of being "real" with each other, and to also remember that Jesus cleanses us from that sin and calls us to be holy. It's a thoughtful critique of how pessimistic our quest to be "open" can become, and his insight and courage in calling out what is very much an active trend in the church (at least, in my church) is commendable.

The main critical thought I had about the article was how he seems to portray "authenticity" and "holiness" as if they were on two sides of a balance (or pendulum): we've gone too far over to the authenticity side, and we need to come back more to the holiness side (but not too far!). I think this is a subtle misconception. If we in the church place too high a value on holiness (relative to other values), we get "fake people" who put on a show of "good Christian" behavior. But if, in reaction, we place too high a value (again, relatively speaking) on authenticity, then people can just put on a show of authenticity!

But the tension here isn't actually between holiness and authenticity—it's between faux-holiness and faux-authenticity. Putting on a façade of either holiness or authenticity is actually inauthentic (and, it could be argued, a detriment or cheap substitute for actual holiness). The problem isn't too much authenticity at the expense of holiness; it's that we fake authenticity just as we fake holiness—and we do either because we're more interested in with looking good to other Christians or outsiders than we are in the harder task of actually becoming like Christ. The two aren't really in tension with each other, only the cheap approximations of them that we associate with the real things.

1 comment:

  1. Seems to me that 12-step groups like AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) are great examples of "authentic" authenticity--they strive to counter the pressure to "look good" to others (you're anonymous!), and in doing so they do, indeed, open up the possibility of become more like Christ.