Individualism

Frank-SinatraFor what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way!
– “My Way” – As Performed By Frank Sinatra

Have you ever taken a look at the words of “My Way”? Maybe it’s just the sense of striving bred by a rising 6th progression, maybe it’s Frank’s velvety voice … I don’t know.

But it’s magical.
It’s moving.
It’s beautiful music and a captivating speech.
But, let’s face it, it’s a terrible way to live.

I was curious about what Sinatra himself thought about the song given that it became something of a philosophical pièce de résistance for the 20th century worldview. As it turns out, in a 2000 interview with the BBC, Tina Sinatra (Ol’ Blue Eyes’ daughter) said, “He always thought that song was self-serving and self-indulgent. He didn’t like it. That song stuck and he couldn’t get it off his shoe.” The poor guy was ‘stuck’ being the poster-child for a worldview he wasn’t comfortable with himself, mind you, a fair bit richer as a result. So, what about the lyricist, Paul Anka?

“At one o’clock in the morning, I sat down at an old IBM electric typewriter and said, ‘If Frank were writing this, what would he say?’ And I started, metaphorically, ‘And now the end is near.’ I read a lot of periodicals, and I noticed everything was ‘my this’ and ‘my that’. We were in the ‘me generation’ and Frank became the guy for me to use to say that. I used words I would never use: ‘I ate it up and spit it out.’ But that’s the way he talked. I used to be around steam rooms with the Rat Pack guys – they liked to talk like Mob guys, even though they would have been scared of their own shadows.” – Paul Anka,

Sinatra became, at least for Anka, a caricature of a man, a creation of Anka’s imagination and the embodiment of Western bravado. I wonder if this isn’t what happens to all of us when we put ourselves in God’s shoes… pale, broken caricatures of the Christ-image-bearing people we’re meant to be. We might be made in the image of God but all-too-often prefer to remake God after our own poor reflection. So as I sit to write this section of my series on Worship & Worldview, attempting to take a look at the the ideas built into the world we live in, I’m forced to first take a good look at myself. Ironic, right?

Why does this song still manage to tug at my heart strings?

Why do I find this kind of heroic bravado appealing, even if I know better?

I don’t know that I have all of the answers but the feeling suggests to me that as I write these articles I’m sure to have blind spots. After all, I live in this world too and for all my talk about how these ideas shape our faith, I can’t help but start by admitting that they’ve undoubtedly shaped mine. So with that said let’s take a look at our collective ‘individualism’:

in•di•vid•u•al•ism \ˌin-də-ˈvij-wə-ˌli-zəm, -ˈvi-jə-wə-, -ˈvi-jə-ˌli-\ noun

1a    (1) : a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount

(2) : the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals

b : a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests also : conduct or practice guided by such a theory

If you were born and raised in the West, like I was, this means that you were born into a worldview driven by a philosophical tradition deeply rooted in individualism. Our philosophy, politics, economic theory, and Hollywood stories all point to the same thing: the world revolves around me. And if you’re you, which you undoubtedly are, the world revolves around you, too. And your individual rights. And mine. And our individual liberties … and so on.

Now, each person has value independent of other persons and the right to exist. So therein lies one of the truths of individuality: each and every person is made in the image of God and is intrinsically valuable to Him. But there’s a difference between each person having value, and believing that all values originate with singular persons. This is quite the leap of logic and for the Christian, dangerous territory. Like he often does, C.S. Lewis explains this well with the familiar backdrop of 1 Corinthians 12:

The idea that the whole human race is, in a sense, one thing —one huge organism, like a tree—must not be confused with the idea that individual differences do not matter or that real people, Tom and Nobby and Kate, are somehow less important than collective things like classes, races, and so forth.

Indeed the two ideas are opposites. Things which are parts of a single organism may be very different from one another: things which are not, may be very alike. Six pennies are quite separate and very alike: my nose and my lungs are very different but they are only alive at all because they are parts of my body and share its common life. Christianity thinks of human individuals not as mere members of a group or items in a list, but as organs in a body—different from one another and each contributing what no other could. When you find yourself wanting to turn your children, or pupils, or even your neighbours, into people exactly like yourself, remember that God probably never meant them to be that. You and they are different organs, intended to do different things.

On the other hand, when you are tempted not to bother about someone else’s troubles because they are ”no business of yours,” remember that though he is different from you he is part of the same organism as you. If you forget that he belongs to the same organism as yourself you will become an Individualist. If you forget that he is a different organ from you, if you want to suppress differences and make people all alike, you will become a Totalitarian. But a Christian must not be either a Totalitarian or an Individualist.

-C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

As Lewis mentions, Paul paints for us a beautiful picture of a body with many parts. And here’s part of why this such a beautiful metaphor – the parts of a body can’t live alone or at least not serve its purpose. And as we, the Church, are a body – the ‘body of Christ’ on earth no less and enabled by the Holy Spirit – it seems as though we are encouraged to foster mutual interdependence, to function – oddly enough given the meaning it has taken on – more like a corporation than sole proprietors of the faith.

This, of course, does not subtract from our individual personhood but rather suggests that our individual personalities can only be rightly understood, and grown like healthy branches of a vine (John 15)… attached at the root.

If we read The Bible as if every verse is written just to ourselves, or view worship only in light of our own personal expression, it’s not only dangerous but dehumanizing and potentially idolatrous. God noticed pretty early on that for we humans, it just isn’t right to be alone. We need help. We need to belong to something bigger than ourselves. So, if you wish, you can do it your way… even if Sinatra and Anka themselves couldn’t handle the idea. Instead I hope to stand side-by-side with brothers and sisters – on the shoulders of giants – and together we’ll try do it His way. I don’t have a clue what I’m doing on my own.

NEXT – SPECTACLE III: Why The Bible Isn’t Your Love Letter

 

0