Book by Brian Rosner
This book starts profoundly with the quote from none other than a cat, a special cat though…
“Be who you are and say what you feel” (Dr Seuss’s Eponymous Cat in the Hat.)
Is there anything more important in Western culture than to be ‘who you are’? To ‘live your self-expression’, ‘be true to yourself’, or ‘be authentic’! This book wonderfully and graciously, without pulling its punches delves into our modern-western identity formation culture, analysising why it appeals, what are its positives, and where it just creates a lot of personal and communal breakdown.
The book is organised in four parts, first “Looking For Yourself”, next “You are a Social Being”, thirdly “You are Your Story” and finally “The New You”. Through these four parts Rosner starts out considering how Western individualism and concepts of freedom and autonomy have pervaded our thoughts and values, and then our identity. We have now found ourselves in the place where identity is defined almost entirely by looking inward (considering only yourself to define you); and pretty much all forms of external authority are to be rejected. Quoting philosopher Andrew Potter “when it comes to personal fulfilment, many of us subscribe to the idea that the self is an act of artistic creation.” It’s down to us, alone, without the shackles of society or traditional forms of stuffy authority. Follow your dreams! Nothing will get in our way! We are told and at times like to believe.
What’s Rosners next move? To note the benefits of looking inward. That might be unexpected for someone expecting another salvo in the culture wars. Rather Rosner writes: “Personal exploration is commendable, and self-reflection acknowledges the gains of living an examined life. The alternative is far from attractive. Indeed, the movement of expressive individualism is, in part, a reaction against a 1950’s culture of conformity…” (p.27)
However, Rosner then goes on to build the simple, understandable and pragmatic case against expressive individualism. The first simple irrefutable point, is that it’s not easy to know ‘who we are’. Humans are good at deceiving ourselves, and what’s been important identity markers actually have changed over time; which indicates society is, as a whole, also influencing us. Another problem with defining ourselves only by reference to ourselves, is have we ever reached our “true self”? And why if that was how we did identity are we also so susceptible to the negative critique of others? Rosner’s point is then we are actually more in an age of the fragile self than the individual self.
One of very useful parts of the book is how Rosner set’s five tests for analysing a particular identity model. These five are:
- Suffering and disappointment
- Pride and envy
- The existence of weak and lowly people
- Enemies and injustice
- Happiness and pleasure
These tests are summarised as the 1) existential, 2) ego, 3) ethics, 4) enemy, and 5) enjoyment tests. The only-looking-inward approach to finding ourselves is assessed through these tests, and it’s no surprise that the approach doesn’t fair very well. While such a negative critique may be a shock to the modern person, how western society does identity isn’t ‘normal’ at all. To finish off the first part of the book Rosner introduces alternative ways of doing identity in broad details.
It is in the second part that the folly of only looking inward when we are social beings, i.e. individuals embedded and connected to many others, is shown and how then in the individualistic paradigm we are missing much of the identity factors that enrich, secure and give meaning to life. In response to the exclusive expressive individualism Rosner leans on the arguments of many others, and comes to five points which counter it:
- You were largely formed by your parents
- Your thoughts are not entirely your own
- Your mind is not exclusively your own
- Your behaviour is shaped by the company you keep
- You don’t know yourself that well
The final key idea in the second part of the book turns self-knowledge on its head, to valuing being known by others and specifically known by God. What makes a tremendous positive difference to human existence is being known, understood, and being listened to by someone else. Being known by another, particularly in all our foibles, is precious to us as it’s securing and assures us someone will be there for us in the ups and downs of life. To be known by eternal God, our creator, takes this assurance to a new level, is a great comfort, and joins us into a story bigger than our individual selves, and beyond the timeframe of our own existence too. Rather a profound addition to any identity that can be constructed only on an individual level.
The third part of the book “You are your story” explores how integrated our identity is to the stories that we inhabit and are telling ourselves and others, over and over again. Rosner identifies two fundamental stories that are embedded narratives of our western culture: 1) The story of Secular Materialism and 2) The story of Social Justice.
These stories are like our bed rock, foundational stories, so obvious and assumed that they provide the structure to which our unquestioned identities exist and are structured. These foundational stories are so transparently true, seeing them is almost like asking a fish ‘what is water?’ However, when they aren’t questioned and analysed the assumptions embedded within send us on a false trail to the question “Who am I?”
The final chapter of Part 3 is a contrast of the story of Jesus gives, to that offered in western cultures by ‘secular materialism’ and ‘social justice’. Jesus’ story postulates a different problem to what the human condition is, and so consequently the ‘Past Turning Points’, the ‘Present Struggle’ and the ‘Future Hope’ are all different too. As Alistair McGrath is quoted “Christianity doesn’t just make sense of things. It changes our stories. It invites us to enter into, and be part of, a new story.” This quote neatly frames the issue of identity as one of stories. We are then in a tussle of stories, which give us meaning, purpose and hope. So, the book concludes aptly with the final part about ‘The New You’ being found in Jesus’ story. The two chapters making up the books final part offer a ying-yang type paradox, as summarised in their titles: ‘Losing yourself’ and ‘Finding yourself’.
Overall the book offers a lucid critique of the current western zeitgeist on identity construction, without becoming arrogant because the critique also finds where the culture has a kernel of truth (i.e. the importance of self-understanding). Rosner however offers a fuller picture of identity formation because how another truth: that human beings are social creatures—is also taken into consideration for how it influences our identity. The way Jesus brings a good news aspect to our personal identity, and also deals with how identity is formed by being individuals who are also part of a larger collective community. I recommend this book to understand yourself better; the ways our western culture is influencing us and our younger ones; and ultimately connect yourself into a better story: Jesus’s story.
Simon Hill - Simon enjoys thinking and writing about theology, particular seeing it become practical. His academic and professional experience has been in engineering, theology and ministry.
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