by Adam Pittman
Who are you? What constitutes your sense of self? What gives you purpose and meaning?
I have spent this past academic year thinking on these questions, and even before this year these questions were at the heart of seemingly every facet of my life.
We live, above all else, in a culture founded on tastes that define identity — music, fashion, literature, films, hobbies, food. It is as if we can craft people based on their likes and dislikes. The danger of this identity quest is implicated in the way that identity is sold to us. The function of advertisement, after all, is to sell a product. However, in this case, the consumer’s identity, central to an individual, is objectified to meet a business’ bottom-line. The question then becomes, how can a person break free from the cyclic nature of consumerism and a culture obsessed with image?
Awareness is the first step to breaking free from the cycle of seeking identity. Celebrity endorsements, for example, market products such as soft drinks, fast food restaurants, clothing, and auto companies, among other things, with the chief message that buying their product will produce some form of happiness, whether through physical satisfaction or an improved social image. Celebrities offer the average person a connection to the idealized American life, and people place trust in celebrities based on the false vulnerability that social media provides. This allows for a company’s advertising attempts to work seamlessly through celebrity image. People want what celebrities have. The failure to obtain A-list status leads to a pursuit of the image of celebrities — the shoes they wear, the music they listen to, the cars they drive. The cult of personality is alive and well in America, and the marketing of the celebrity image is one of the leading causes.
However, the questions of identity reach further than just marketed images for the consumer. Questions of gender identity, both in personality and sexuality, mark most of the discussions around individual identity.
The problem with gender identity, especially the struggle between masculine and feminine identities, is the relation to power and influence. Under this view, men want to retain the power and influence that they have had in the Western tradition, while women desire to attain the status and influence of men, as shown by the recent women’s marches and equality movements. The desire and attempt for equality is a valid movement for women, but the overall struggle between gender identity and power shows the nature of people to desire power over one’s self. This desire for power is termed subjectivity, or the ability to decide for one’s self, and gender identity is one of the ways in which subjectivity plays out in the modern world.
Yet the desire for subjectivity remains one of the most enduring qualities of humanity. Eve’s sin in the garden was her desire for authority over herself, and the allure of power offers a false sense of stability.
Ernest Becker, in his book “The Denial of Death,” calls this quest for subjectivity “heroic individualism” — that if an individual can truly determine one’s own autonomous identity, then that individual could become master of his or her own fate. One might even be able to conquer the mortality of the human condition. Becker argues that the identity-quest of human culture is an attempt to deny death, or deny the possibility that all of this could end. Growing up in the suburbs offers me a distinct view of this phenomenon.
In the suburbs, individuals attempt to deny any sense of mortality through a false sense of comfort and stability. Not only are neighborhoods an attempt at a suburban utopia, the purchases of an individual, and the blatant materialistic excess, create an allusion of distraction and purpose that hides any sense of mortality or lack of power over one’s own choices. We cannot stand the randomness of the earth, that both the good and the bad have the same earthly fate. Instead of reconciling this issue, the average person will attempt to create distractions — a boat, a new car, a nice house, a well-kept lawn, their children’s activities. All of these things are an attempt to distract the mind from the fact that what comes after death remains a mystery.
Therefore, the problems of identity — cultural, gender, or just public image — are not merely about choosing the right ones among countless, but about finding something that breaks us free from the pattern of identity-seeking within the world. This is the mystery of the cross and it’s earthly implications. Jesus’ death on the cross is not just about the salvation for our sins, but Jesus’ ability to deny his claim to power and any claim to an earthly kingdom provides us an example of what it means to truly sacrifice our claim to identity and power.
We, then, as Christians, should not attempt to create alternate forms of identity that oppose cultural identities, but rather our identities have been taken in under the yoke of Christ so that, as Paul writes in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” This is the beauty of the cross on earth, for we could just as easily say, “There is neither American nor Syrian, neither white nor black, neither Republican nor Democrat, no male and female, for we are all in Christ Jesus.”
Under Christ, we have submitted every claim to identity to Christ, but this is the earth-shaking transformation of the gospel — the first become last, death becomes life, slavery becomes freedom — and we are no longer justified in claims to power, but willingly withdraw from power in order to serve the poor, the sick, and those who have been pushed into the margins by the earthly desire for power.
Adam Pittman is a senior English major and Just Sayin’ Columnist for Cedars. Among other things, he avidly enjoys reading, the outdoors, coffee, and soccer.