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A Case of Stolen Identity
A Response to Caleb Morell's article: Stop Finding Your Identity in Christ + A Review of Calvinism for a Secular Age
This week I’m doing something a little different, there is still a book review below this article if you’d like to skip ahead, but first I’d like to respond to another article written by Caleb Morell over at American Reformer, click here if you’d like to go and read that article first.
Secondly, if you missed this week’s episode of Consider the Ravens, you can do that right here:
We talked this week about Hymns of Note, a collection of devotions based on different Hymns from throughout history.
Now without further adieu.
As you are likely well aware the idea of the centrality of one’s Identity has become normative in recent years, so much so that it has even made its way into the Church, some of this has been in opposition to worldly thinking, and unfortunately in places, it has been in order to capitulate and conform to the culture at large. Last month Caleb Morell wrote a piece for American Reformer taking on a particular phrase that he believes represents those in the latter camp, that phrase being, “I find my identity in Christ.” Though I understand the sentiment behind the piece, I believe Morell’s piece misses the mark in some keys ways, which I think requires a second pass. I want to state right here that I believe Morell would belong to the same or similar theological camps, and that this is not an attack on him, I simply think that an issue this prevalent needs to be handled with care.
With that said I’d like to tackle three main points:
Our need to offer a theologically robust response to the idea of Identity
I’ll say from the off that this first section might seem dull, but that there’s actually something really interesting about looking at the development of words and phrases from throughout history. Sold?
Well, essentially, Morell’s argument rests on the idea that “Identity in Christ” is a recent development and therefore the sentiments which are found within it can’t have existed prior to that time.
If you were, for instance, to take a look at this chart, which you can find in his article, it might seem to support that claim, nothing in 450 years! That’s nuts! If so, that’s really bad news.
If that’s the case, fascism didn’t exist until very recently and so up until then there was a golden age of humanity in which Fascism never existed, the same is true of Racism, it existed briefly in the late 1700s, then reappeared early in the last century, but other than that, it didn’t exist. Unfortunately, for both Morell and myself, it also seems that Complementarianism didn’t exist either, both of us would hold to that theological idea, but if it couldn’t be found before that point, we should surely abandon it.
This is not how to use data like this. The appearance of certain words can really help us in some ways, whilst being very deceiving in others. There are many cases in which a phrase, or a word, will be invented in order to describe ideas, or alternatively, words will be adopted from other languages, especially in the English language—think Kindergarten in American English which was taken from the German.
Instead, we should look at trends, which rightly used can help us to explain why or when things came in and out of fashion or use. Morell juxtaposed the idea of Identity in Christ with a better one, Union with Christ. Now I love this, if you’ve listened to me or read much of what I’ve written you’ll know that I love the Puritans and there’s really no one I’d rather read, but if we take the words Identity and Union and look at their usage over time, what we see is this:
For most of the last 500 years, Union was to one degree or another the more common word, but not only has Identity recently surpassed it in commonality, since the 1950s, the word Union has dropped in use exponentially. The rise of the word Identity is by no means the cause of this—or at least we have no evidence of that—but it’s worth mentioning because while Union is seeing a significant drop, Identity has never seen so much use in its life. Why is this important? Well, let’s say for instance I mention the film ‘The Avengers’, what do you think of? Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk? Yeah me too, but if we rewind back to 1998, we might have a very different idea, we might instead be thinking of the American Spy thriller starring Ralph Fiennes, Uma Thurman, and Sean Connery, very different indeed. As time goes on certain films, terms, and philosophies come in and out of fashion and therefore like referring to a film so out of date its name now conveys a totally different meaning, trying to rely on a phrase like Union with Christ, however good that is, simply wont cut it. Congregations are being preached to all week on social media about their identity is, very few are being asked, “who are you united to?”
The evidence provided above, and indeed in the original article, should convince us that a robust response is necessary, but unfortunately, we can often be distracted when other Christians we would otherwise agree with use words and phrases which are either unhelpful or worse still, thoughtless. Here’s where I would agree with Morell, he says:
The category of “identity in Christ” is so ubiquitous that it appears as the catch-all antidote to every Christian struggle. Do you struggle with sexual sin? Identity in Christ is the solution. Are you looking for satisfaction in a spouse? “Find your identity in Christ,” someone will tell you. Are you overly focused on people-pleasing? Your identity in Christ is the solution.
If this is how you are using the phrase, Morell and I wholeheartedly agree, please don’t say this, this isn’t the gospel. That said, I’ve never knowingly met anyone who would say this, (I’m sure they are out there, don’t get me wrong.) Recently I heard someone talk about their frustration with the phrase, “God-willing” which people often use to mean, “hopefully I’ll get what I want.” Though this was meant mostly in jest, the sentiment is correct, there are many elements of Christian Culture that are pretty kitschy (listen to the Pactum for many examples of this, three whole episodes!) and don’t mean anything because of how often we’ve used them. With that said just because it’s commonly misused shouldn’t lead us to abandon it if the sentiment is good.
Is then, like Morell believes, the sentiment behind “finding one’s identity in Christ” bad?
I don’t think so.
Well, first we need to understand what’s being argued against. The phrase is incredibly polemic, even if people don’t realise that when they say it.
“Identity encompasses the memories, experiences, relationships, and values that create one’s sense of self. This amalgamation creates a steady sense of who one is over time, even as new facets are developed and incorporated into one's identity.”
Put more simply, Identity, as it is understood today, is made up of:
And as a result of these, we can receive:
Understanding of self
I would argue that from what we know of the world today, Values belongs in that second list, not the first. It’s hammered into us whenever we log onto social media that “you cannot argue with my truth/my reality/my identity” and so I think the framework looks a bit more like this:
Memories, Experiences, Relationships → Values, Steadiness, Understanding of Self
At least in the western world’s cultural understanding. There are real problems with the makeup of this theory, not least that it simply isn’t working, the world is offering something it can’t possibly follow through on, but the good news is that God can.
Morell would argue that in opposition to the world’s offer of identity as an answer to our problems, we should be offering Union with Christ. I don’t disagree, however, that is only part of what we need to argue for, not the whole.
If someone who lives in our world today walks into church for the very first time or the first time in years, Union with Christ might fit in very well into their Framework of Identity, but only in one place:
Relationships – Union with Christ
If someone comes into the Church having lived their entire life under the understanding that each of these points is of equal value, and that each one should take the same place in determining how they understand themselves, and the values they will live their life by, then if their list looks like this:
Memories – Child of Divorce, Shame
Experiences – Sexual Promiscuity, Church Hurt, Sin
Relationships – Union with Christ, Church Fringe, Broken Family
Then they might end up saying something to the effect of, “I love Jesus, but I hate the Church,” or “I don’t need Church, I just need Jesus.” To be sure, stating, “My identity is in Christ,” won’t solve this, anyone who says that shouldn’t be, but it would be equally untrue to say that in the history of the Church we’ve never dealt with issues like this before. Humans have always been sinful, have always dealt with shame. Both Augustine and Solomon switched into the third person to talk about certain shameful memories because of how hard they were, and the confession booth has lasted so long in certain denominations because the human experience of and propensity to sin has been and will continue to be a normal part of the lives of even those closest to God. Historically with regards to experience, the Church has encouraged mortification of Sin, repentance, and service where the world—and sometimes modern churches—has offered the opposite, giving into one’s proclivities and desires. As to memories, since Genesis, the Lord has encouraged his people to have a memory that stretches further back than just their own lives, for instance, Passover, the Feast of Tabernacles, or Communion. With that said, it does seem even at a glance that we have something to offer to those who currently base their lives on what their identity is.
But there’s more.
My Identity is in Christ
“Then God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night. They will serve as signs for seasons and for days and years. They will be lights in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth.” And it was so. God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night—as well as the stars. God placed them in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth, to rule the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.
Christian Standard Bible, (Holman Bible Publishers, 2020), Genesis 1:14–18
I mentioned before that the phrase this whole article is about is polemic, that it makes a point of distinguishing us as Christians from the rest of the world.
In the passage above we read about God’s creation of celestial bodies—stars, the sun, the moon. This was also polemic, in that most cultures and most religions up until recently revered or deified many or all of these. Whether signs, astrology, or simply the gods of the sun and moon, many cultures could agree with the Bible when it says, “the greater light to rule over the day and the lesser light to rule over the night”, however, that’s not what it says, what it says is that that the authority that the greater and lesser lights have is given to them by God, “God made the two great lights…God placed them in the expanse of the sky to provide light on the earth, to rule the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good.”
It’s true to say that the Sun dictates when the day comes, America has just experienced “daylight saving times” at the behest of the Sun you might say, and in England, we’ll be doing the same in just a couple of weeks (we’ve yet to see the Sun, but we’ve been told that it’s up there somewhere above all the rain.) The Sun isn’t God though, the authority to rule isn’t self-imposed, it’s given unto it by God. We live as Christians in a similar light.
Where the world says that Identity comes from within, and not only that but you can choose the identity that best suits you regardless of what anyone says, not even your own body, we as Christians, believe above all else, that who we are is not up to us. Before we even get to the subject of Christ, “Finding our identity in [outside source]” is a baffling concept all on its own.
With that said, if you are using the phrase to try and conform to culture as best as possible, you’re not doing that. It would be like turning up to work wearing an ornate, jewel-encrusted Crown and asking no one to notice, it ain’t gonna happen. It flies in the face of worldly wisdom and seems foolish.
The World says identity is composed of and leads to:
Memories, Experiences, Relationships → Values, Steadiness, Understanding of Self
Christians say identity is composed of and leads to:
Union with Christ, the Communion Table, God, the Bible, Salvation, Faith, Grace → Ethics, Practical Theology, Security, Understanding of God, Understanding of Self
There is a chasm between those two definitions, just like the definitions of Covenants, Union, Judges, Kings, Marriage, Image, Mission, Service, and Saviour. Though we as Christians don’t need to find our identity in Jesus, there is a whole world out there full of people who are hurting because they’ve been told they must find their identity, and simply saying, “nop, identity isn’t a thing we focus on,” that’s not enough.
Certainly, it shouldn’t be our end goal, and I would agree with Morell that it shouldn’t be the key moment in a baptism testimony, but let’s not abandon a phrase that might draw people towards God by challenging what they believe. Those who are lost are still image-bearers, living life as though they are nothing more than what they choose to be. Let’s wear our crowns boldly and surely, not seeking to conform to this world, but rather be an ambassador of Christ to the world.
“But this will take some time to develop.”
These are the final words of Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin’s essay on Kuyper and Art. Not only that, but for me, they summed up the entire book. Whenever I read anything I try and find the one sentence which sums everything up, something I’m able to take away, almost like a key, so that if I ever want to unlock my memories about the book, I can take use it to do so.
In a book so full of rich practical theology, written by a cast of impressive characters, this might seem like an odd choice.
Allow me to explain.
If you’ve listened to our podcast, you’ll likely know that I love the book Humble Calvinism, it’s a book that helps us as Christians to take doctrine to heart, not let it sit in our head gathering dust. In many places, if the two words humility and Calvinism are found together it’s probably at the butt of a joke, but if we truly believe what we say we do, it should lead us to profound and powerful humility, bringing us low, not raising us above our station. We should not be found with the sons of Zebedee asking which of us will take the place at Jesus’ right hand, but we should, with Whitefield, assume that we will be so far away from it as to be unable to see those closest to it.
Saved, Humbled, what’s next? Well, that’s where this book comes in… sort of. A little while ago I talked about waterfall books (you can find that here):
Some books are like streams, some are like rapids. In other words, some nourish us and we can drink from them easily and with the knowledge that the water is trustworthy. Others are fun, if in unpredictable ways, and so keep us on our toes. Then there are waterfalls. Waterfalls are dangerous and not to be taken lightly, they are also magnificent, inspiring, and can be harnessed for power, for growth and the pool which settles beneath them can be incredibly comforting.
These are books that start conversations, get the ball rolling, and other clichés I don’t intend to use, “but this will take some time to develop.”
Just take a quick look at the list of essays found in this book:
Kuyper and Life-Systems
Kuyper and Religion
Kuyper and Politics
Kuyper and Science
Kuyper and Art
Kuyper and the Future
Kuyper and Race
If that’s not a daunting list, I don’t know what is, from subjects we hardly talk about in Church like Art, to some of the most difficult subjects we could choose like Race or the Future. If you’re interested in any of these subjects, or anything remotely related, this is a book to pick up to help us know how to use our hands and skills for the Lord. In other words, Humble Calvinism helps us to look inwards, this book helps us to look outwards.
With that said, as always, I have some pointers for how I think you should go about reading this book in order to get the most out of it.
Read with a Purpose
Whatever you do, don’t read this book in order to exercise the mind. There are plenty of books that will do that, and you could use this book to that end, but it would simply be a waste. I’m not saying that you should put this book down and go and change the world, but please think about how this book will affect your service to the church, how it will affect your workplace, and what you hope to learn.
Recently I was asked, “Adsum, how can I read more books?” to which I replied, “Don’t attempt to read more books, until you’ve learned to read books better.” By that, I didn’t mean that he shouldn’t find the best books to read, but as I went on to explain, if you read 100 books in a year, but don’t take anything away from them, the endeavour is inevitably fruitless.
This book doesn’t give you tips and tricks, or the top tens ways to bring God into your Art, but helps us to understand how to submit each of those things to God, to find him in them, and to glorify Him in the exercise of them.
Get to know Kuyper
You can listen to Kuyper’s stone lectures, even just one or two, which will help you to get to know the man behind the book, but even if you just skim his Wikipedia page, you’ll get a much better idea of the kind of force of nature the writers are talking about when they mention him. Kuyper was an impressive man, with faults, which are not glossed over here—see particularly the essay on Race—but a man who loved God all the same.
Abrahamkuyper.com describes him like this:
Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920) was one of the most extraordinary individuals of his time. A prolific intellectual and theologian, he founded the Free University in Amsterdam and was instrumental in the development of Neo-Calvinism. He was also an active politician, serving as a member of Parliament in the Netherlands beginning in 1874 and serving as Prime Minister from 1901 to 1905.
This book is excellent and if you let it, it will bless you immensely.
I’ll leave you with this:
Kuyper's Calvinist harp is poised to play. And while only God can bring the quickening wind of the Spirit, only we can keep that harp "turned aright," ready to receive God's power when he graces to give it. May we be the people who attend to this harp daily. And may we be those who never tire of pleading with the Lord to send and resend the breeze of the Spirit that this harp might be continually brought to life.
Grace and Peace,
Adsum Try Ravenhill
If you’re interested in the Podcasts I mentioned in this newsletter, you can find them all here: