Culture At Large

The great American identity crisis

Bethany Keeley-Jonker

On Sunday, my church transitioned from a church plant to an independently organized congregation. As part of this milestone, we remembered how our church was started and the people and events that shaped its character. We told stories about what brought each of us to the church, we worshipped together with our parent church and their council prayed over our newly commissioned one. This personal experience of communal identity colored my reading of an intriguing piece of cultural criticism in the New York Times, which called 2015 “The Year We Obsessed Over Identity.”

The author, Wesley Morris, cleverly weaves together examples from pop culture, arts, politics and current controversies to suggest that identity itself is an unstable concept in American culture at the moment, and that much of our cultural conversations are attempts to either mess with or stabilize what we previously understood as indelible categories, such as gender and race. As he puts it: “Gender roles are merging. Races are being shed. In the last six years or so, but especially in 2015, we’ve been made to see how trans and bi and poly-ambi-omni- we are.” Morris’ conclusion is both hopeful and melancholic: enthusiastic about the possibility of cultural change, especially on tricky topics like racism, yet realistic about the conflict and hurt often involved in cultural change and identity talk.

Morris’ examples and my church experience also reminded me how much our individual identities and community identities are bound up in each other. He mentions the concern about Atticus Finch’s seemingly bigoted character in Go Set a Watchman and the way it distressed those who identified with his idealism in To Kill a Mockingbird (a controversy TC also addressed). Especially in this case, where the identity at stake is that of a fictional character, Atticus himself matters less than what he says about all of us, and what it might be possible for us to be individually and together.

Our fundamental identities as children of God remain constant.

The church complicates that idea even further. While my church’s transition was mostly about our group identity changing from church plant to independence, the stories about our communal and individual pasts got necessarily, beautifully, tangled up. Some folks told stories of a difficult time in their life, such as a divorce or an addiction, as part of their arrival to our community. All of us reflected on the ways we had grown and changed over the years, the relationships we formed and how we became, in real ways, new people.

Sometimes in the Bible God marks individual and communal identity changes as dramatically as our heaving contemporary culture does. God renames Jacob as Israel, not only to mark a change in Jacob’s life, but to identify God’s people in a new way. God works amazing change in Saul, a persecutor of the church who would become Paul, apostle and New Testament author. Changing identities seems to be an important part of God’s work in the world, and Christians nervous about the contemporary flux around identity should be open to that spirit-driven change and the complex relations between individuals and communities.

At the same time, our fundamental identities as children of God remain constant, even if our understanding of what that means for us might shift. Certainly, finding ourselves in Christ must be an important aspect of a Christian’s struggle with identity, even as our transformation through Christ might make that identity more complicated than we initially thought. What Wesley Morris' great American identity crisis reveals is something the church has long known: identity is found both in individuals and communities; it is flexible as we grow, change and adapt to our environments; and it is constant in God’s love for us.

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