My friend Ben suggested that 9Marks should devote a Journal to Carl Trueman’s book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and the topic of expressive individualism. The elders of Ben’s church, Capitol Hill Baptist in Washington, DC, had all just read it together and benefited from it immensely. I loved the book, too, and had told dozens of people to read it. I even emailed a friend at Crossway and told him they had to produce a teenager’s version. Teenagers need to understand expressive individualism now, today, immediately, even more than adults, as they grow into a world suffuse with it. Still, a Journal on it? Nah, that couldn’t work. Too philosophical, right?
Then Ben sent me a proposed table of contents. I thought, goodness, yes, we have something here. This Journal idea really could help pastors and churches. So I got on board, and we commissioned a number of articles.
Weeks passed. I began to wonder again, is this going to work? Isn’t it all a bit abstract and academic? A topic like “expressive individualism” is just a mouthful to say, much less understand. It’s not concrete like “Deacons” or “Doctrine” or “Church Discipline,” which have immediate application to pastors.
Yet then the articles began to come in: Justin Harris on why pastors need to understand it, Michael Lawrence on how to apply sermons in light of it, Ben Wright on how it shows up in churches that love the nine marks, Walt Mueller on youth ministry, Samuel James on the Internet, and on and on. Goodness, yes, these are excellent. Pastor, not only will you enjoy these pieces, so will your elders, small group leaders, and anyone in your church who wants to better understand the culture we live inside, and that too often lives inside of us.
Think of Elsa’s song “Let it Go” from Frozen that all four of my daughters probably know by heart: “It’s time to see what I can do / To test the limits and break through / No right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free!” Tim Keller helps define expressive individualism by pointing to these lyrics as
a good example of expressive individualism. Identity is not realized, as in traditional societies, by sublimating our individual desires for the good of our family and people. Instead, we become ourselves only by asserting our individual desires against society, by expressing our feelings and fulfilling our dreams regardless of what anyone says. (Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism, 134)
So what exactly is expressive individualism? It’s a worldview, says Brian Rosner in a book he has just written on it (see the Journal Table of Contents for an excerpt), that he summarizes in seven tenets:
- The best way to find yourself is to look inward.
- The highest goal in life is happiness.
- All moral judgments are merely expressions of feeling or personal preference.
- Forms of external authority are to be rejected.
- The world will improve dramatically as the scope of individual freedom grows.
- Everyone’s quest for self-expression should be celebrated.
Certain aspects of a person’s identity—such as their gender, ethnicity, or sexuality—are of paramount importance. (Page 24)
Based on those tenets, my guess is, you know exactly what Rosner (and Trueman) are talking about. You see it all around you, too.
Understanding expressive individualism, therefore, is crucial for your pastoral ministry, just like pastors in the Roman world needed to understand paganism, pastors in the early twentieth-century needed to understand scientific materialism and rationalism, pastors in a Muslim world need to understand Islam, or pastors in East Asia need to understand Confucianism. The predominant religion in the West and many parts of the world today is expressive individualism. It shapes the religious intuitions of our non-Christian neighbors, our children, even ourselves.
The Lord’s Prayer doesn’t come instinctively to our lips. What Brian Rosner calls “The Prayer of the Authentic Self” does. Here is Rosner’s rendition, which matches line by line to Jesus’s prayer:
My essence within,
help me to find my authentic self,
my kingdom come,
my will be done,
from birth to seventh heaven.
Give me today my daily spread.
Forgive not my enemies
as I suppress those who sin against me.
Lead me not into self-doubt
but deliver me from all external
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are mine
now and forever.
Amen. (p. 209)
Pastor, this is how people in our world and too often in our churches instinctively, inarticulately pray. We hope this Journal will help you teach them to pray not to their essence within, but to “Our Father, who is in heaven.”
And one more thing. We’ve decided to add a new feature to every Journal: to pick one elder qualification as listed by Paul in the Pastorals, and to ask several pastors to meditate on that qualification for all our benefit. For this issue, we decided to focus on what it means to be quarrelsome. In this social media moment, quarrelsome tempts all of us. Let’s pick a fight with quarreling through prayer and meditating on God’s Word.