For the past week my wife and I have been driving through Northern California – after spending a couple of nights in Las Vegas, and a week in a cabin with family in Tennessee. I always love visiting the USA – even as I cannot fathom some of the cultural differences, political polarisation, and so on. One thing that has been rolling around in my head for a little while – linked to some of my bigger concerns/intersts like what it means to be human, identity, sexuality, gender, power and so on – is the question of who gets to define who we are.
I write from a position of what is called privilege. Because we are married, Amy and I can use the same car hire, without having to pay for an additional driver. Because we are from England, people enquire about our accent, and treat us nicely. Because we are white, as I understand it, we don’t have to be afraid of the cops. Because we are relatively young, we got invited to a nightclub in vegas (we didn’t go, and, yes, I’m well aware that we are probably one of millions in that). Some of those things echo elements of our identity that we have chosen, others given, and others cultivated.
The culture we live in – and the particularly American strain of it that has been unsettling me a little as we’ve been driving around this unique country – says that, fundamentally, it is the individual who gets to define who they are, and no-one else can challenge or nay say that. This has always made me uncomfortable. I am both more than and less than the collection of traits, atoms, exerpeicnes, relationships, opinions and so on that people associate with ‘me’. Fundamentally, I think, from a Christian perspective, we need to challenge this idea that the individual gets to define who they are.
Part of that Christian perspective is an acceptance and awareness of limits and boundaries. On the radio whilst driving, I heard again this brilliant Chesterton quote (paraphrased, apparently):
“Don’t take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up”
I was reminded of the significance of names, and the challenge that names can present to some people. I was called Thomas by my parents – and I maintain that name for a whole variety of reasons. Some people change their names – again, for a whole variety of reasons. Names link and locate us – they don’t necessarily have to be set in stone, but changing a name is very often an identifying choice by an individual. Sometimes it is for good, joyful reasons, other times it is for difficult reasons. Rare that the same process (roughly) applies to a newlywed and someone entering witness protection.
One of the Bible verses that has been on my mind in this little journey through the USA has been from 1 Corinthians 6, v19b-20:
“You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies.“
This is a radical challenge to the individualism and other unhealthy aspects of our culture.
“You are not your own” is a powerful counter to a cultural zeitgeist that makes it all about you, your choices and your own self-constructed identity.
“You were bought at a price” is an invaluable reminder to the Christian that our value is not found in ourselves but in the glorious finished work of Jesus on the Cross.
“Therefore honour God with your bodies” is a radical call to a form of discipleship, a form of following Jesus, that takes seriously every part of ourselves, accepting the broken beauty of our limited selves, and seeing even that as an opportunity to worship God.
As I’ve driven around mountain passes, beautiful lakes, through deserts and past endless fields (of beef cattle, mostly), I’ve been reminded again of my place in creation. I am not my own. I am infinitely more valuable than I think because of what Jesus has done and what He invites me into.
This is a theme I think I’ll be revisiting more and more.