Authentic are I

"Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got." ~Janis Joplin

Sitting on my couch yesterday afternoon reading a screenplay that my friend Jeffrey Travis has written, I had a random thought.

The screenplay is an adaptation of my other friend Owen Egerton's novel, Marshall Hollenzer is Driving, which is a kind of magical realist story reminiscient of a Wes Anderson plotline. Towards the end of the script as I stared out my living room window at the tall, green grass that badly needs mowing, my mind wandered to the somewhat random thought: "Isn't it weird that the word 'authentic' has become so hyper popular?"

It's like in the early 1990s when one day I looked around and realized, as if it'd happened over night, that guys everywhere had long hair; not metal-head hair, but cool, grungy, pony-tailed hair--and it was everywhere.

That was certainly true at Chuy's, Austin's tex-mex heaven, where I bussed tables and carried four bags of chips and four bowls of hot sauce up my forearm in a trick that wowed all the hot chicks. And when all those same waiter guys and busser boys cut their hair circa 1997, I discovered three years later that I still had mine long. Ever the late-bloomer, I.

Christians everywhere, it seems, are on the great search for authenticity; or, if we were writing in German and seeing it as eine Idee, Authenticity, capital A. Christians are looking for authentic relationships (Authentic Relationships: Discover the Lost Art of "One Anothering"), authentic experiences (STAUBLOG: Authentic Inauthentic Youth), authentic faith (In Search of Authentic Faith : How Emerging Generations Are Transforming the Church), authentic ethnic food, authentic happiness, authentic style.

I thought, "Why?", as I sipped my homemade, dark chocolate moccha. How has this authentic thing become such a big deal?

I went back in my mind to the early nineties, back to the godfather of real: Douglas Coupland. In 1991 Coupland wrote a novel called Generation X, and mostly people never remember that it had a sub-title: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. And pretty much everybody in my age range, like myself five minutes ago, has no clue that Coupland wrote a little article in a Vancouver magazine in 1987 about a bunch of characters who were born between the years of 1958 and 1966--or in other words, tail-end boomers who are not to be confused with post-boomer teenagers from the 1980s, aka Xers.

In other words, in the original sense of the term "Generation X" referred to folks like my French-horn tooting roommate, Eduard Tschoepe, born 1962, not to folks like me, W. David O. Taylor, born within a ten-year radius of 1974, the year Germany won the World Cup and the Universal Product Code barcodes were introduced.

Anyhoo, long story short, my simple guess was that people, like the Generation Xers of Coupland's novels and its kin throughout the world, are looking for Authenticity because they've been experiencing a world that is largely in-authentic: plastic, over-produced, slick and efficient.

So people, starting back in the Age of Nirvana, rebelled. They bought organic. They joined the Peace Corps. They dressed "granola" and "alternative" and wore long, cool pony-tails. They started churches that prefered people over programs, social action over building campaigns, pastors who studied at the feet of filmmakers and novelists instead of seminary professors and their three-point school of homiletics.

They became ironic and cool. They rejected phony. They stuck it to the Man. They had no patience for "effective business strategies" that sacrificed honest, messy human interactions on the altar of productivity.

And so was born the Emergent Church movement et al.

Cutting my story even shorter, it struck me that we've been using this word authentic so much that it's become NORMAL. Like gravity is NORMAL. It's not an historically conscious action any more, it's now an assumption. Now it's a right.

Now it's a skirmish.

It's us the defenders of Authenticity against all you anti-authentic, un-authentic people--especially you boomer people and any of you people who think the Religion of the 1980s was a great thing (i.e. business models as church models).

Down with your pre-packaged spirituality! Down with your money-driven, image-driven Christians! Down with oppressive institutionalism!

Down with all that icky Father Knows Best meets Ronald Reagan Christianity!

And I sympathize. In the early '90s I attended a bible church that, while I loved in many ways, drove me crazy. It was "big church." It was fiercely loyal to the conservative evangelical tradition of John Nelson Darby. The pastor, like the pastors of many Baptist and Pentecostal churches, was a skilled but emotionally removed executive whose responsibility it was to keep us Christian.

It was an upper-middle class, three-piece suit, white-collared, programmatic church with a small but feisty group of closet charismatic women who prayed for the Holy Spirit to break into all that left-brained, corporate-driven leadership. It was a church full of people who genuinely loved God, but in a way I found stiff and routinized.

It'd be completely unfair and uncharitable of me, however, not to acknowledge that there were many people there whom I deeply loved and who encouraged me in the faith; there were many who were for me and wanted me to excel. Many great things of God happened there. My experience with the college ministry in particular holds a hundred happy memories. I'm still good friends with quite a number of them. The strength of my statements above, then, run the usual risk of over-generalization and reflect a healthy dose of subjectivity.

It goes without saying that I was young and immature and probably foolish in a lot of regretable ways.

It's just that in practice and after many years of trying to find my place there, I did not feel "at home." I felt squelched and frustrated. I was looking for Authentic.

But I also remind myself now that nothing comes from nothing.

People in the 1950s, like the folks at my bible church, wanted their white picket fences, their manicured public relations, their orderly church services for a reason. That reason was the hell called WWII. The war crushed and mangled human beings. It ripped communities to shreds. It became, on many fronts, an exercise in irrationality, leaving soldiers benumbed. Of course they wanted white and clean! They needed happy. They needed rationality and order.

People in the 1980s were sick of the excesses of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They wanted to know that you could be productive and achieve goals. They wanted out of floozy hedonism. The '80s were born out of frustration with the '70s: the nightmare of Vietnam, oil embargos that plunged the American economy into the worst recession in 40 years, Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations.

Something comes from something--and that latest something is usually a reaction to the degeneration of a previous something.

Kids in the nineties and now pastors and social activists and artists in the twenty-first century want Authenticity. They don't want what their boomer neighbors wanted in the 1980s or what their grandparents wanted in the 1950s. They want Authentic. They want it TradeMarked--Authentic'TM--so as to never lose it.

But I asked myself, What will elementary kids today want in twenty years? What part of all this search for Authentic will they find reprehensible, or simply irresponsible and soft-spined, or just plain silly because naive?

This highlights naturally the age-old battle between freedom and form; or maybe not so much 100% freedom against 100% form, but the exact concoction of the two. Form releases freedom to be more fully itself, while freedom breathes into form joy and ever-renewed appreciation for that very form. Like jazz music. Like the liturgy.

But it's very difficult to hold them in right tension.

If we marriage the age of the spirit, they tell us, we'll eventually get a divorce in the next. History can helps us. We can learn from those who've gone before us. Traditions can balance us out. But it's not simply a robotic bow to history or tradition that will save us. It's a multi-channeled listening to the voice of the Spirit through the things He has spoken in the past--sound wisdom for the modern man--and things He is speaking now--through store-front orthodox churches or The Devil Wears Prada.

I'm obviously a thousand percent in favor of authentic life. I read the saints and hunger for real. I can't stand phony, formulaic Christianity. God created us to love him and each other with a genuineness that allows for both faith and doubt, laughter and anger.

But when I start sensing that this search for Authenticity is becoming the gospel--that it's being commercialized--that it's losing its meaning through over-use--that it's becoming a driving emotion instead of a tonic for a sickened Body--that it's replacing doctrine and structure in favor of feelings and happenings--that it's prefering experience over theory--well, then, I'm pretty sure my next move will be to reach for John Calvin and a copy of Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't and start preaching the good news of organizational management and institutional hierarchies.

Like those in nature. Like those which have withstood the test of time and common sense.

And I'll wonder once again why it's so dang hard being a Christian in a fallen world.

"No matter what your work, let it be your own. No matter what your occupation, let what you are doing be organic. Let it be in your bones. In this way, you will open the door by which the affluence of heaven and earth shall stream into you." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

(PHOTO: Nicholas Wolterstorff at the Image Journal conference in Houston, TX, November 2005.)


s. e. wedelich said…
timely and well spoken as usual. russ and i have found ourselves using the term 'authentic' a lot, especially in searching for a church here in miami.

it's scary to think that being authentic has become an identity for some or almost a cause in itself. i guess it's just always hard to walk the line.

i was trying to explain to someone here why i loved hope chapel so much and i think it has something to do with what you were saying at the end there... about following the Spirit and connection to tradition... there was always a maturity about hope and a Spirit-intuition that made it authentic without trying. i loved it because it was people who loved Jesus and who made mistakes and were learning from them and who did all these things together, not because it was the 'authentic' thing to do, but because Jesus told them to and it gave them great joy to do it.

i guess i feel like it's a little bit of 'to thine own self be true' but with the awareness that for the Christian, that means the Spirit inside will be flowing out of such true living, both for the individual as well as for the community.

thanks for the encouraging writings...
p.s. we've gotten involved with IAM here in Miami and are so excited. i think our chapter leader may have run into you in NYC, but anyhow, i thought it was a cool connection.
ellen said…
authentic is the new community. is the new broken is the new saved.

seems that people like buzzwords.
they like saying "isn't that postmodern" in mid flirt.

Buzzwords are upsetting because they are self-defining words. If I say "I'm transparent and authentic and that I hunger for rich community," what I'm really saying is that I'm trying to be happy and I don't know how.
Sørina Higgins said…
One sub-cultural reason for the drive towards the authentic, I think, has something to do with current theories in academia. These are the remnants of deconstruction, the thoughts that have tried [desperately, and to some extent succeeded in] taking away an absolute, solid, stable, authentic text. In other words, the Bible (so the arguements go) must have been transmitted through lots of mediators, changing at every hand, being muddled in transmission and translation, until what we read now has little if any relationship to an original (authentic) document, if any such document ever existed. So goes literary criticism in institutions of higher learning. I'd be surprised if those ideas did not permeated even the seminary and the Bible study to some degree.

This is a challenge that needs to be faced. Certainly the Bible is culturally referable, but not culturally constructed. Do you know of any scholars working on these ideas right now?
Ryan said…
Thanks for the post. I, too, think the term needs some thought. 'Authentic' is almost always used as a dividing term, really to say that Other thing is not real, true, honest, etc. People looking for an 'authentic' experience are really saying that whatever they have right now isn't good enough for them, isn't the 'right thing yet.'

For creative people I think the term authentic can be used to defend a stauch individualism against the world. A beginning artist decides not to take an art class in order to keep her indiviuduality. But, in my experience, this kind of 'authenticity' only ends in poor, underdeveloped work. We still have this Romantic idealism about authenticity (seen in the Romantic poets, but surely it was all a bag of tricks)--but 'authenticity' often just means not listening, not being open, not expanding, not making connections.
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Samantha, thanks for your encouragement. I love the way you put things. I'm very excited about your involvement with IAM. Please keep me posted.

Ellen, your comment about buzzwords makes me think of the term shibboleth and the way it describes group behavior or group think.

Iambic, the best person I know who's done work in the area you've described is Kevin Vanhoozer, in particular his book, "Is There Meaning in this Text"? Pretty much anything he's written is worth reading and meaty defense against po-mo squirrelybraindom.

Ryan, I like your comment because it makes me think about the process of identity formation. What part of it is personal, what part corporate, and how do the two constantly intertwine and mutually inform each other.

I was thinking yesterday that it's not that I don't like the term--I've used it often to describe the kind of community I wish to see at Hope Chapel--it's that I don't know what to do with the, what to call it, commodification of the term? Or is its popularity? That through massive use the term runs the usual risk of wear and tear, thinning out and meaning everything and therefore nothing?

Or maybe it's just that I've been in a community so long that values that reality that I've lost my bearings. I used to feel it intensely, now I don't feel it at all, we just mostly do it, or at least stumble in its general direction. I feel no need to use the term, maybe I don't know how to respond to people--laods of people--who feel the need very strongly. I don't know.

Popular Posts