This is the fifth part of our team book review & forum based on The Courage To Be Protestant by David F. Wells. (series index here) It was written by Danny Slavich, a student at Southern Seminary who writes at almanac of captivity.
The basic thrust of this chapter is to explore the inward turn that American individualism took, especially after the 1960s. “In a nutshell,” says Wells, “what happened was that our individualism, which had always been a potent factor in American life, turned inward [....] The pursuit of the self was what life was all about” (136). The moral world which previous generations inhabited has been replaced by the governance of the self, in which everything was to and from and for the self. And, on top of it all, evangelicals cannon-balled into this puddle, creating a gospel of self-pursuit. America at large bought in also, with ” the entire nation putting itself on the psychiatrist’s couch” (139). As the world modernized, Wells argues, a movement arose around the inward focus of self-finding, -healing,-discovering, -actualizing and so on.
There were “four fundamental changes” which Wells explores, forming the heart of this chapter: (1) the change from virtues to values; (2) from character to personality; (3) from nature to self; (4) from guilt to shame.
1. Virtues are moral absolutes, “moral norms that are enduringly right for all people, in all places, and all times” (143). These are based on God and his character, forming the “moral structure of the world God has made” (145). But virtues in the internalized literally self-centered world have been displaced by values. Values are personal preferences, “the moral talk of a relativistic world” (146). The self-appointed values of individuals have (seemingly) toppled the moral world of virtues in our society.
2. Wells explains that the self, as “a kind of internal center into which all our experiences flow and get sorted out”, was only recently abstracted from the idea of character. Character is the moral quality of a person, which could be measured against the moral mandates of a moral world. Until it was displaced by the idea of personality. Personality is the way someone is seen, how he projects himself. This has led to a culture of self-marketing-appearing successful, winning friends and influencing people, being envied and admired. “Character,” Wells says, “is good or bad; personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic” (147).
3. Nature is the imago Dei, the image of God-that all people are fundamentally equal as the crowning achievement of God’s creation. Nature could be (in fact is) fallen and disfigured, but still real. Self, on the other hand, “is our interior world, made up of our own thoughts, private intuitions, desires” and so on (155). The greatest need anyone has, then, is for self-esteem. The better the self, the better the person, because the person is, ultimately, the self.
4. Basically, guilt is objective and shame is subjective. Shame is a sense of “awkwardness” that people feel for anything undesirable, from being wearing a lame shirt, to being caught for tax fraud. Sin, of course, as a category has practically disappeared, even and especially from evangelical churches.
There are, then, three tensions that Wells explores between the culture of self and the kingdom of Christ. First, Christianity views humans are fundamentally sinful and guilty, whereas the self movement “assumes, in a way biblical faith cannot, that human beings are essentially innocent” (166). Secondly, the Christian, biblical view sees God as approachable outside of ourselves, but the self movement “assumes that God is accessed through the self” (168). Third, is the view that the self movement and the Christian faith take of the individual; the self movement sees the self as a king. The kingdom of Christ knows that there is only one King, and he is not our self. Christians are called, in this self-oriented world, to be salt, showing what it looks like to live in a moral, God-oriented, God-directed world.
Wells is right. And I don’t think anyone of us has fully avoided, or escaped from, the cult of the self. We have been marinated in a self-oriented world, even if we have grown up in the church. We must fight self-centeredness, because it is the fundamental inclination of our society (because it is the fundamental inclination of our individual, wicked souls). Self-centeredness is now encouraged and mandated. I work at a company that requires employees to help each other “maintain and enhance other associates’ self-esteem”. Everything is about everyone, individually, as little self-gods, and, like Wells explains, it’s no wonder that in response everything is about nothing and nothing is about everything. Likewise, we must beware of overly intro-specting our own selves, especially those who tend toward the Puritans and biblical counselors (like me). It reminds me of an undergraduate astronomy project I did on the constellation of the Pleiades. The Pleiades can only be seen out of the corner of one’s eye, by looking at it indirectly. So it is, I think, with our own hearts. Look to Christ, and not yourself.
1. Where do you see the culture of the self most at work in the world around you? How should you fight against this in the broader area of society?
2. Where do you see the culture of the self most at work in your local church? In the broader evangelical movement? What can be done about it?
If you tend toward introspection, how will you consciously cast Christ as your reference point, seeing yourself only “out of the corner of your eye” as you look to him?