Culture At Large

Identity is the New Guilt

Paul Vander Klay

For western Christianity the question for which Jesus is the answer was guilt. A much deserved hell was a clear and present danger for the general population and the church offered forgiveness and release from that threat. Money poured into the church through the sale of indulgences. Luther transformed the church when he discovered that our release had already been purchased. The audience glued to Jonathan Edward's sermons saw themselves as that spider dangling above the pit of hell suspended only by God's grace-filled self-restraining effort to not react to its rebellious loathsome appearance. Much has changed.

Harold Bloom quite correctly assesses that contemporary American culture bequeaths an instinctive assumption that God finds us amazing as we are and is dying to get close to us. We've all heard about helicopter parents also called "lawnmower parents" who mow down, smooth and remove all obstacles out of our paths. This is the God most people I meet are looking for. With such a God his children can do no wrong. Ron Nydam who teaches at Calvin Seminary says that for most adults today guilt is an achievement.

This change has become a challenge for conservative Christians. The 20th century staples of evangelical evangelism no longer grip. No one imagines God would ask anyone to justify why He should let them into his heaven. "Just as I am" is a birthright, no plea is needed.

Mark Noll  has noted that one distinctly American contribution to the history of the Christian church is the entrepreneurial pastor. American pastors adapt quickly and some have simply embraced the lawnmower God. John 10:10's offer of abundant life seemed to become the vision text for every new suburban church hoping to be the next evangelical big box. They might be a bit chagrined if they realized that this can be eerily similar to what new age guru Wayne Dyer offers when admonishes that we "reconnect with the source".

More conservative pastors discovered that when this guilt eliminating hammer was the only tool in their box given by their European forefathers they were quickly left having to hand out nails. If people don't have an instinctive visceral fear of hell given by their culture, they'd have to offer this themselves through scary signs and scary plays. Before you can convince the public of the good news you first have to convince them of the bad news.

Even though release from guilt is not the cultural felt need it once was, westerners are still looking for something, their selves. In February 2009 Miroslav Volf, professor at the Yale Divinity School preached at Bob Schuller's glass house in Southern California not about guilt, but about identity. Tim Keller, the senior pastor of Redeemer Pres in NYC likewise find that identity issues connect with his audience in ways that guilt issues don't and makes our new identity in Christ as key element of his theological narrative. We can also note the rise in popularity of Orthodox denominations in the West for whom understanding salvation through identity transformation has been a key theological contribution.

Seculars struggle less with guilt than with their place in the universe. When identity is no longer received by one's village, family or god but has to be constructed from the pastiche of cultural artifacts, the unbearable lightness of being can be acutely felt. For those finding their poorly self-sown identity wearing thin, identity in Christ can be a tremendous relief. Identity is the new guilt.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith