Monday, January 27, 2014

"Authenticity" versus "Holiness"

The Gospel coalition has an article today about the rise of 'Authenticity' in the church.

In general I agree with the overall sentiment. Right now there is a groundswell of people exalting "authentic" and sharing about our "brokenness." Which, overall, is a good thing. Casting Crowns even had a lovely song of critique that Church is just a Stained Glass Masquerade where too often we act like we have it all. So the fact people are finally opening up about their hurts and getting healing from an open community is good.

But at the same time, as this article notes, there's a sweet spot. Share something too small ("I struggle with lying about my age!") and people ignore you. Share too far and too heavy and people buckle ("I have a crack addiction and murder people every night!"). So once again we are playing a social game. Finding the just-right point. People with the biggest hurts or those who "have their life together" get marginalized. It's counter to the whole movement of inclusive community.

On top of that is the downward cyclical cycle it can create. Everyone starts sharing and saying how low they are, and how we are stuck as the scum of the earth, and soon that's your identity. Being scum becomes your identity. We fall into the trap of just co-ruminating about our faults and take on being broken as our identity, just making us depressed and continuing the cycle. [bonus reference, footnote #10 from here] Plus, TGC deftly provides this snippet to illustrate:
"While we think self-deprecation causes us to be more relatable and empathetic to non-Christians, it's ultimately communicating a sense of disappointment, disillusionment, and discontentment," Stephen Mattson wrote for Red Letter Christians. "It thrives on negativity and kills our sense of hope."

TGC claims the answer is to instead pursue "Holiness." Elevate the pursuit of the perfect. Yes, provide room for the broken aspects, but don't stop there. Keep moving towards Holiness.

TGC further claims that true Authenticity is the process of sanctification. The growth towards Holiness. The question is rhetorically posed, "could it be that the most authentic thing any of us can do is faithfully pursue holiness and obediently follow after Christ?"

As I said at the start, overall I agree and it is a good message. It also helps point out some of the traps and flaws I see rising up around me as people single-mindedly pursue "Authenticity" in the church. Airing all your problems. People co-opting the movement to grandstand about their problems and use them for attention. Being stuck just complaining and never doing anything. All great points that people should keep in mind!

But I also perceive that we aren't far enough to have concern. The "Authentic" movement is still relatively young. And it still hasn't addressed some of the more serious underlying problems plaguing people. I previously mentioned that even in "Authentic" circles you aren't allowed to go too far with your sharing. There is the unspoken rule that you don't derail the group with your giant baggage load. That is still something for "behind closed doors." And that is just born from common sense and social contract. But at the same time too many people leave because they feel like there's no way for them to share. We don't have the "behind closed doors" spaces fully open and available. So people who are hurt and marginalized by their sins and past instead turn elsewhere.

What is especially painful is TGC's claim that "We've become too comfortable with our sin, to the point that it's how we identify ourselves and relate to others. But shouldn't we find connection over Christ, rather than over our depravity?" Perhaps. That's quite a laudable goal. But at the same time the human condition is defined by being broken. We all struggle with sin and I find the strongest characteristic about the Church is accepting people who have struggles and walking alongside them. That means that sometimes the best people are those who are broken in the same way! When you are struggling with a secret sin and then find out that someone else struggles or has struggled with it, you have an instant connection. A massive load is released. You realize this person gets you in a way others do not. Ignoring this aspect of the human condition, our ability to have empathy especially with those who have the same wounds as us, would be foolish.

Lastly, what is wrong with an image of a community of broken but struggling individuals? The veneer of happy smiling families with 2.5 children, a dog, and a white picket fence isn't what wins people into the Church. Holier-than-thou and look-what-I-have doesn't bridge the gaps. To me, being vulnerable and being there for people in their hurt does. Saying "I am just like you, but I am empowered to be better" is a much better testimony than "God has blessed me with a perfect life." Because, let's be honest, you don't have a perfect life.

Oh, and the reason there is a sentiment of discontent and disillusionment? It's because we pretended we were perfect and had all the answers too long. It's because we live in a multi-religious Post-christian plurality. It's because the Church mortgaged away people's trust. It's because they decided it was time to die on a hill for things outside their jurisdiction too many times. It's the economy. It's wars. It's the whole broken bloody world. But that's another whole rant.

So my point is yes I have seen these problems. And I agree that just staying in the comforting and accepting rut isn't healthy. And definitely there are some places where this is a seductive niche hole and people should fix it. But I personally don't feel like the church at large is fully servicing the range of brokenness in the community and providing safe places for people to share and receive care yet. So we should focus on doing more of that instead of clucking our tongues. "Authenticity" hasn't supplanted "Holiness." And that's actually a bit of a problem.