Adolescence and the Pings, Not Pong
Adolescents have been offered a license to post without any accompanying ethical framework. Is it fair to blame teens for misusing tools that didn’t exist in our childhood? If I had been given a phone with an ability to take and post pictures when I was thirteen, I would not have photographed many things to be proud of. What kinds of public mistakes would I have made if emboldened by this new possibility?
We are now all engaged in what sociologist Erving Goffman calls “the arts of impression management.” Thanks to social media, adolescents are often forced to grow up in public at earlier ages and stages. They are embarking upon an ancient challenge, to know thyself, while broadcasting each awkward step along the way. Is it fair to criticize the young for not acting more maturely? Today’s pings are just a more sophisticated version of Pong. As one of the original video games, Pong was slow, methodical, even predictable. And yet we loved it. Pong didn’t require much sophistication.
The speed could be shifted, but the rules remained the same. Hit it back. The game could be locked in place, stuck in an endless loop. One could walk away for a while and nothing would change.
Take an eye off the screen, a hand off the controller, and one may not even lose a point. Today’s teens are playing ping, not Pong. Pings are those beeps and blurps that tell us we have a new message, a new update, a new headline to consider. Pings are the notifications that float across our screen all day long. They are rooted in instant messaging and constant connection.
Behavior vs. Identity
A number of years ago I was discipling a young man who had recently been released from the state’s juvenile detention center. As a teenager he had been hooked on drugs, and he had resorted to stealing to support his habit. His behavior had resulted in a new, unwanted identity. Standing before the judge, he likely heard something like this: “You stole (behavior), you are a thief (identity).” Not only was he declared guilty of law-breaking behavior, he was condemned as a thief.
Parents often follow the same pattern with their children. A young teen comes home from school with another disappointing grade. Perhaps they got a speeding ticket. I’ve talked with countless students whose fathers’ words still haunt and define them: “You failed again (behavior) . . . you really blew it (behavior) . . . you are a failure (identity) . . . you are a disappointment (identity).” They were given identities based on their behavior.
You sin, therefore you are a sinner. For those of us who are believers, is this a true statement? The behavioral part is certainly true: we still sin. A lot. The apostle Paul, writing as a mature believer, laments in Romans 7:19 that “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.” Likewise, the apostle John wrote, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8).
But what about the last part of the statement: you sin, therefore you are a sinner? Is this part true of a follower of Jesus? Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that “what is worse than doing evil is being evil.” Paul openly admitted he still did evil but rejoiced that God did not consider him an evil person. He continues on in Romans 8:1: “There is . . . no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
This is the absurd and exhilarating good news of the gospel: our identity is no longer based on our behavior; it is based on the behavior of Jesus! This is why we are called “saints” (for example, Romans 1:7). Our identity is not that of sinners trying hard to become saints. We are saints (because of Jesus’ behavior) who, like Paul, continue to do things we hate—and sometimes sadly don’t hate.
A Collection of Potential Someones
One of the characters in popular contemporary novelist Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom, Joey Berglund, reflects on life and identity by referring to selfhood as “a collection of contradictory potential someones.”
Adapted by Stuart Strachan Jr., from Jonathan Franzen, Freedom, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
A Dual Identity
Some of my favorite heroes have a dual identity: Clark Kent is Superman; Bruce Wayne is Batman; Peter Parker is Spider-Man. The list goes on and on. You and I also have a dual identity, though, unlike the comic book heroes, our dual identity isn’t secret. It’s plainly revealed in Scripture, beginning in Genesis 2:7.
The first aspect of our dual identity is the earthly, material one. The NRSV says that “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground.” This is an accurate rendering of the Hebrew original, though it misses a crucial play on words. “Man” in Hebrew, is adam (which can mean “humankind,” “male person,” or the name “Adam”). “Ground” is adamah. So God created the man (adam) from the ground (adamah). The earth is not only the place in which we work. It is also a part of us. We belong to the earth. We are made of dust.
Yet this is not the whole story. God not only fashioned us from the earth as a potter makes a pot out of clay. Genesis 2:7 also says that God “breathed into [the man’s] nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” The word for breath here (neshamah) is reserved in the Bible for God and human beings. In other words, God breathed into the man, not just any old air, but rather God’s own breath, the breath that gives life. The man, though formed from the dust, is also a receptacle of the divine life.
Thus, human beings have an essential material identity and an essential immaterial identity. We are a combination of dust and God’s breath. We are both natural and, in a sense, supernatural.
Erecting a Life Around Sickness
Re-member Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations? Her entire life was defined by the fact that she was jilted on her wedding day. People can become very attached to their pain and illness. It is possible to so erect a life around sickness and dysfunction that even religion and spirituality are used to keep one in the same stuck place. No wonder that the question “Do you want to get well?” is answered by what you do more than by what you say.
Finding Our True Selves While Battling Depression
In her compelling memoir Still Life, author Gillian Marchenko recounts her struggles with depression. In this excerpt, Marchenko describes one of the many paradoxes that come with depression: how to be yourself.
Be true to yourself—and all those other inspirational memes float around social media every day. But if we are honest, finding our true selves is as difficult as catching a fly with chopsticks. We are many things. At best, we can admit it. With depression, though, fragments of a person no longer exist. Your personality stagnates and fuzzes like a compact disk that skips at the best part of your favorite song and then later lets it vanish altogether. It is a heavy fog that burns off midmorning. People assume depression is about emotions: a person is sad; a person is down.
But I’ve come to realize that depression is about disappearing. You become nothing. Feelings fly away. There is no future. No past. Your body becomes a shell with nothing inside. And the deeper you fall into depression, the more you become a shadow of yourself and the harder it is to pretend that you are still you, that you are okay, because even you forget who you are. One of the biggest tragedies of depression is myopia. You cannot see beyond your own nose. You no longer live. The various yous are snuffed out like candles.
The Gettysburg Address & Identity Formation
Why is it that countless American school-children memorize the Gettysburg Address each year? Is it a simple civics lesson? An opportunity to learn about the Civil War, a turning point in American history? Yes, it is each of those things, but also much more. The memorization of that short (just two-minute) speech is also an act of identity formation. It is a chance for students to connect to both the ideals and the aspirations of the people who founded this country. This is how Lincoln begins his speech:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address provides an opportunity for every American child who remembers its words to internalize the values and aspirations of their country. As they recite the address, it becomes a part of them.
When the church goes through its liturgy each week, whether it be “high” or “low,” its people are engaging in similar identity formation, through a reenactment of the life of Christ and his call to the church. When we perform the sacraments, we also engage in identity formation, from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. We are reminded of our sin, God’s sending of His Son, and the sacrifice that leads to our reconciliation with the Father. All of this done through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
The Heart’s Foundation
At the bottom of every person’s heart there is an uttermost foundation. At the beginning of The Two Towers, the second Lord of the Rings movie, Gandalf battles the Balrog while they plummet down an incredible chasm— down, down, down, into the depths of the earth. The name of that place, in J. R. R. Tolkien’s terminology, is “the uttermost foundations of stone.” The uttermost foundations of stone is the bedrock, the bottom. You can’t go any farther down. Everybody’s heart, everybody’s identity, has an uttermost foundation.
Identity Drives Us
Identity drives motivation, motivation drives action, and action drives results. For example, if someone speeds past me at ninety miles per hour on the highway, odds are I won’t chase them down and issue a ticket. I don’t have an identity that says, “I am a police officer,” so I have no motivation to act. A police officer, on the other hand, does have that identity and therefore has the motivation to take action (chasing down the speeder) and get results (issuing a ticket). Every action we take in life has a sense of identity behind it. How we see ourselves matters.
I Made You
Society still has its share of fifth sparrows: indistinct souls who feel dispensable, disposable, worth less than a penny. They drive carpools and work in cubicles. Some sleep beneath cardboard on the sidewalks and others beneath comforters in the suburbs. What they share is a feeling of smallness. You’ll find a flock of fifth sparrows in a Chinese orphanage for the deaf and mute. China’s one-child policy has a way of weeding out the weak. Males are selected over females. Healthy babies outrank the impaired.
Chinese children who cannot speak or hear stand little chance of a healthy, productive life. Every message tells them, “You don’t matter.” So when someone says otherwise, they melt. Chinese missionary John Bentley describes such a moment.
Deaf orphans in Henan province were given a Mandarin translation of a children’s book I wrote entitled You Are Special. The story describes Punchinello, a wooden person in a village of wooden people. The villagers had a practice of sticking stars on the achievers and dots on the strugglers.
Punchinello had so many dots that people gave him more dots for no reason at all. But then he met Eli, his maker. Eli affirmed him, telling him to disregard the opinion of others. “I made you,” he explained. “I don’t make mistakes.” Punchinello had never heard such words. When he did, his dots began to fall off. And when the children in the Chinese orphanage heard such words, their worlds began to change. I’ll let John describe the moment.
When they first distributed these books to the children and staff of the deaf school, the most bizarre thing happened. At a certain point everyone started crying. I could not understand this reaction. . . . Americans are somewhat used to the idea of positive reinforcement. . . . Not so in China and particularly not for these children who are virtually abandoned and considered valueless by their natural parents because they were born “broken.” When the idea came through in the reading that they are special simply because they were made by a loving creator . . . everyone started crying—including their teachers! It was wild.
Look at Me!
Children have a tendency to say, “Look at me!” On the tricycle: “Look at me go!” On the trampoline: “Look at me bounce!” On the swing set: “Look at me swing!” Such behavior is acceptable for children. Yet many adults spend their grown-up years saying the same. “Look at me drive this fancy car!” “Look at me make money!” “Look at me wear provocative clothes, use big words, or flex my muscles. Look at me!” Isn’t it time we grew up? We were made to live a life that says, “Look at God!” People are to look at us and see not us but the image of our Maker. This is God’s plan. This is God’s promise. And he will fulfill it! He will make us into his image.
My Chicken Brother
A man goes to see a psychiatrist. He says, “Doctor, my brother’s crazy—he thinks he’s a chicken.” The psychiatrist says, “Well, why don’t you bring him in?” And the fellow replies, “Oh, I would, but we need him out there laying the eggs.”
My Job= My Identity
On an episode of Mad Men, Don Draper is forced to fire an employee for drinking too much on the job. (Oh, the irony.) However, he wants the employee to sober up and return to the agency, so he gives the man a year’s severance pay and tells him to get clean and come back in a year. The conversation takes place in an alley during a rainstorm. And as Draper climbs into a cab, the former employee looks at him desperately and pleads, “If I don’t show up to that office on Monday morning, I don’t know who I am.”
Our Manicured Personas
The rise of both video spectacles and marketed consumables is no accidental marriage. Images capture our attention and lure us because they implicitly ask us to try on various costumes of identity, to envision how a product will craft our appearance in the eyes of others. And this manicured persona goes far deeper than cosmetics and clothing; it’s the drive behind much of our consumable goods.
In his book Flesh: Bringing the Incarnation Down to Earth, Hugh Halter opens with an unlikely scenario: taking his teenage daughter to get her first tattoo.
While watching his daughter get “inked,” Halter asked the tattoo artist (named Sean) a very interesting question.
“So why do you think people tend to get so many tattoos Sean? And why is the art of tattooing growing exponentially around the world?” Sean responds with significant insight:
“Because it’s something permanent etched on someone’s flesh that can’t be stolen, taken away, or corrupted. It’s unique to them, deeply irrevocably theirs, and represents a story that has formed them or at least means something to them. When someone lets me etch something meaningful on their dermis, that means a lot to me and should mean even more to them. Skin matters a lot.
The Two Sailors
Two Australian sailors staggered out of a London pub into a dense fog and looked around for help. As they steadied themselves, they saw a man coming into the pub but evidently missed the military medals flashing on his dress uniform. One sailor blurted out, “Say, bloke, do you know where we are?” The officer, thoroughly offended, snarled in response, “Do you men know who I am?” The sailors looked at each other, and one said to the other, “We’re really in a mess now. We don’t know where we are, and he don’t know who he is.”
We Are What We Love
Identities—what makes us who we are, the kind of people we are—is what we love. More specifically, our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love or what we love as ultimate—what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world. What we desire or love ultimately is a (largely implicit) vision of what we hope for, what we think the good life looks like.
This vision of the good life shapes all kinds of actions and decisions and habits that we undertake, often without our thinking about it. So when I say that love defines us, I don’t mean our love for the Chicago Cubs or chocolate chip scones, but rather our desire for a way of life. This element of ultimacy, I’ll suggest, is fundamentally religious. But religion here refers primarily not to a set of beliefs or doctrines but rather to a way of life. What’s at stake is not primarily ideas but love, which functions on a different register. Our ultimate love/desire is shaped by practices, not ideas that are merely communicated to us.
This is why I describe the formative “civic pedagogies” of both the church and the mall as liturgies. This is a way of raising the stakes of what’s happening in both. Thinking about such formative pedagogies as liturgies will help us appreciate that these constitute an education that is primarily formative rather than merely informative, and that such formation is about matters of ultimate concern.
W.E.B. Du Bois and Double Consciousness: Being Black in America
In his seminal work, the Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois describes the unique challenge to identity one faces being both Black and American.
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife,—this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.
We Need to Hear Our Names
In his excellent book Run with Horses, Eugene Peterson reminds us of many of the ways in which modern life de-personalizes and degrades us. We become a number and not a name. We are valued for what we do not who we are. This little excerpt is a powerful reminder that our worth and value come from God’s children, given names of significance that, in part, shape our identities.
If I am frequently and authoritatively treated impersonally, I begin to think of myself the same way. I consider myself in terms of how I fit into the statistical norms; I evaluate myself in terms of my usefulness; I assess my worth in response to how much others want me or don’t want me. In the process of going along with such procedures I find myself defined by a label, squeezed into a role, functioning at the level of my social security number. It requires assertive, lifelong effort to keep our names in front…
No one can assess my significance by looking at the work that I do. No one can determine my worth by deciding the salary they will pay me. No one can know what is going on in my mind by examining my school transcripts. No one can know me by measuring me or weighing me or analyzing me. Call my name.
What We Must Go Through
Before God can divulge our God-given identities in our desert-of-the soul wilderness experiences, there is something we need to know: he requires that we be brutally honest with ourselves and with him—just as Jacob was. If we desire to find out who we are, we have to confess who we have been. What is our name? Who are we right now? That is, what defines us, what condition are we in, what has been our bent? Are we lust-filled, greedy, or self-righteous?
Are we blind to our own sin, deceptive, full of pride, or adulterous? Do we exhibit laziness, a weak will, or fear? Are we manipulators and opportunists, materialistic or addicted? Are we living independently of God? It seems that I’ve been most of those at one time or another. Thomas Merton reminds us that “we are not very good at recognizing illusions, least of all the ones we cherish about ourselves.” Yet God is keenly aware of our tendency to cherish self-illusions.
Which Comes First, Identity or Behavior?
I am not perfect, and I will struggle with the “old Jim,” who was and is influenced by American culture, narratives and values. But the key is that identity comes before behavior. We almost always do the reverse: we define identity on the basis of behavior; we tell people what they must do (imperative) to find out who they are (indicative).
Paul does the opposite: he tells them who they are and then how they should live. The more we grow into the story [of God in Jesus], the more the story grows into us.
Stanley Hauerwas, who is a Christian pacifist … explains it well: “The question ‘What ought I to be?’ precedes the question ‘What ought I to do?’” The order is crucial. The indicative (who we are) must precede the imperative (how we should live). To understand who we are, we have to realize that we are a people whose roots are from another world. That is precisely why we are so peculiar.
Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Why We Fight For Some Causes & Not Others
When an issue is less central to one’s identity it’s possible to feel, for example, “I really should do more to help those in need, but it’s just too hard’ or ‘I just can’t find the time.’ But when the issue lies at the very heart of who one is, it becomes unthinkable to turn away.