Individualism, Image and Faith

Continued from SPECTACLE II: I Did It My Way

Have you ever been to a church service where the sound technicians aren’t skilled enough? It’s painful! We’ve all been there. When an instrument is too loud, even one that sounds good on its own, it quickly becomes a distraction for the listener and throws everything off balance. It detracts from the experience of the music for the listener and performer alike. So I begin today with a caveat: as I try to talk about how individualism effects us, I am not advocating that ‘individuality’ be muted completely but rather set in balance. As I pointed out in my previous post, there is a marked difference between affirming ‘individuality’ and blindly accepting ‘individualism’. Just like finding the correct mix of instruments and singers, even good ideas are much more beautiful when the parts that play together, play together well, and at a volume that best serves the whole. And frankly, it seems to me that when it comes to our present form of Protestant Evangelical Christianity, ‘individuality’ is getting awfully close to something like a bad and blaring 80’s guitar solo.

A few years ago a video made the rounds with churches positioning scripture as God’s personal love letter to each of us. Did you see it? As nice as it seems, something about it rubs me the wrong way. It’s not that I don’t believe God loves each and every one of us – I definitely do – but it seems incomplete and misguided. First, I should point out that it’s quite a different message from that of the Bible itself. Paul sure talks about a letter, and it’s a love letter from God too, but there’s a pretty major difference: this letter is for the world and it comes in the shape of us.

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.

– 2 Cor 3:2-3

A love letter is unique in that the subject is also the recipient, it is both to you and about you. Reading the Bible with even a hint of this could lead you down the road of believing that you alone are the end-point of the Christian faith and that the Bible is God’s chosen medium to reach you. Once you’ve personally received your love letter, the task of Christ is finished. I believe this is rooted in the false assumption that The Bible is written from the same individualistic outlook that our culture promotes. It seems to me that while God is for you, he isn’t just for you. The Bible, too, while for you in a way, isn’t just for you – it’s the story of God’s faithfulness to us, His people, the Church. In Paul’s ‘letter’: the subject is God, we are the medium. The recipient: all the world. We, the Church, are to be known and read as the letter. The emphasis is on pointing the world to Christ. 

On the other hand, the assumptions of individualism treat spirituality as something that is added to our lives – a means for personal fulfillment and self-improvement, a way to improve our own self-image. Instead of Jesus saving us as persons into his Body, He becomes our ‘personal savior’, certainly, but perhaps in the way that a wealthy person might have a personal chef or a personal assistant: a friendly and personal cosmic chauffeur to heaven. Discipleship is similarly reduced to practices of self-improvement instead of Spirit-driven disciplines into Christ-likeness. Suffice it to say that our culture’s preoccupation with self-image is, for the Christian, potentially idolatrous. When serving our ‘healthy’ self-image trumps our role as image-bearers we are usurpers to the throne.

Let us make mankind in our image

– Genesis 1:26

Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.

– 1 Cor 15:49

We were made not to be endlessly self-aware and self-conscious — preoccupied with self-image — but to be bearers of the image of Christ — self-aware and Christ-conscious. This is represented in the two-fold nature to being made in the image of God: It is both descriptive and prescriptive. It is descriptive in that we are intrinsically and individually valuable to God. We are each loved by God (and hopefully each other) as persons. But it is also prescriptive in that the intent for humanity was for us to be image-bearers: we were to function as the image of God within the Created order. Like Paul suggests in 1 Cor, Jesus is called the ‘Second Adam’ for precisely this reason. He has restored us from our fallen nature and, by the power of His spirit, enabled us to live out this intended vision for humanity. 

Our lives aren’t simply canvases for self-expression but beautiful works of art in God’s lovingly designed mosaic.

If God is Trinitarian (three-in-one) then God is in perpetual plural/singular relationship with Himself. The relationship of self to community within the Godhead is a both/and relationship. It then stands to reason that to know God fully requires community – something our individualistic, ‘personal Lord and Savior’ Evangelicalism has quieted to a whisper.

Growing up I was often left with the impression that if I had been the only person ever born, Christ would have done this for me just the same. But this is based on a false presupposition: Biblically, fallen humans were never alone. Even before sin entered the world God could see that we needed companionship and community. To be in right relationship with a Trinitarian God required both self and plurality. C.S. Lewis offers a beautiful illustration of this in discussing the death of a friend: 

“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”

– C.S. Lewis

This hit home for me recently as I had the pleasure of attending a retreat for Worship leaders with some folks from WorshipTogether. On the first morning we shared in a beautiful time of quiet and singing together, simply singing ‘shalom (peace)’ in rising harmonic crescendo and calming unison. Within the exercise we were encouraged to remember that we don’t live alone in our heads but are embodied – that Christianity is a faith of incarnation, not transcendent escape. It struck me as our voices united in harmony that throughout the New Testament this language of ‘body’ is used in the same both/and way – I am a body (and more) and I belong to The Body, the Church, as a nose belongs to a face.

To bear the image of Christ is both to be and to belong. And it stands to reason that we ought to do with our bodies and the Body just the same as Christ did with his earthly one: spend it on others. Neighbour and enemy alike.  

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