Personal Identity 3: The Call to Authenticity

Part three of my musings on identity.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” – John 10:10

I am not a cradle Christian. I’ve been a follower of the way for a little over 15 years since I arrived at university. In those first days at university I made a lot of friends who listened to heavy metal, wore black and drank beer. One of the other things I discovered about a considerable number of them was that they went to church. Come Sunday evening at 6pm (we were all students) they would all pile into church before going to the pub.

This led to some pretty interesting conversations about personal identity. As a nonchurchy Metalhead, I asked the same sorts of questions I outlined in my last blog post: “But you can’t be a Christian because you are a goth”. Christians were supposed to be nice, mild mannered, middle class people with shiny shoes; more Harold Bishop than Ozzy Osbourne. The evidence I discovered at university was to the contrary: goths, metalheads, hippies and freaks, my friends, were Christians and welcomed within their communities. And my Christian journey began. I could have life and have it abundantly.

As I began my journey as a disciple there was a discrepancy between the description of Christianity as I was told it and the practice. “Jesus came for the whole of humanity” is a claim to which most Christians will assent. The reality is that most local churches have a pervading culture within them. The nonconformist church that I attended at university had a distinctive culture, sadly one that I was unable to be part of. For men to fit in to this culture of fifteen years ago, brown shoes, blue jeans and a checked shirt tucked in at the waist and tied off with a brown belt were the order of the day. “I have come that you may have a middle class smart casual life in all its abundance”. The same was true of the Christian Union that met 200 yards from our student flat. To ‘progress in leadership’ you must fit yourself into the cultural mould. Despite being a short walk from a Christian community we soon disappeared from the meetings.

This isn’t really about the specific places I’ve been but the places that we currently shape through our interactions week in, week out. The same types of culture still exist in most churches as people seek out other like minded people. There is a pervading culture that is seen to be the “way to get on” in a church; if it were not so, there would be no jokes about vicars driving Vauxhall Astras with wives in Laura Ashley dresses to be made. For some this culture is the black shiny shoes and suit akin to Fr Ted and for others it is the rugged smart casual of Pastor Mark.

Yesterday I said that it is a difficult task to stand before the world and say that Jesus is God. This is especially true when you begin that journey and set your first foot upon the path. It is a journey that usually comes with a steep learning curve; sixty-six books of ancient wisdom guide us towards the transcendent as we peer through a glass dimly. It is hard enough to make sense of the way God wants us to live our lives without the added complication of the way a pervading church culture wants us to “fit in”.


But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
– 1 Corinthians 12


What does it mean for Jesus to bring life that you may have it abundantly? I don’t believe he meant for you to become a nice middle class clone. He came that you may have your life abundantly, not someone else’s! This means that you are to be the best version of you that you can be. The version of you that God made you to be! You are called to be the authentic version of you.

The all knowing God knows who you are. There is no pretending to be the guy with the acoustic guitar who stands at the front. Don’t go and buy a Laura Ashley dress because it will make you a better Christian! Go and be the very best version of you that there can be! Be the person God originally called to His path, and keep following the way! Sadly that does mean changing. It does mean growing. It means leaving behind the things you do that are not of God and taking up things that are. But that is going to be much more rewarding than giving up things that are not of a particular church’s culture and taking up things that “fit in”.

What is God asking of us as a church? To be an authentic people following in the path of Jesus: Grans and grandads; parents and children; men and women; goths, chavs, punks, jocks, hipsters; the whole plethora of society living together and following in his footsteps. God calls us to be the wonderfully diverse body of Christ.

Ruth and I have some close friends who are in their seventies. We’ve been friends now for more than a decade. We play cards together, eat dinner together, drink wine together, pray together and talk about our spiritual journeys together. Culturally we have very little in common and yet through our friendship and our faith we have so much in common. We are companions on the road. We share our spiritual journey with one another. To Ruth and I they are spiritual grandparents; “Elders” if you like. They have been walking this path for many years longer than we have. They bring great insight having lived through many more experiences than us; sometimes about the hardships and sometimes about the joys. There is something both comforting and challenging for instance about a couple who will tell you they have been married 47 years and it hasn’t always been easy. This is what it means to be the Body of Christ, holding each other on the road as we form diverse communities together.

Ruth has just informed me that she has something to add so you can expect a blog from her later. She’s a psychologist so it will probably be from a slightly different perspective than me. Tomorrow I’m going to look at different Christian identities. I have a Venn diagram or two to share.

8 Responses

  1. Robb:

    Wasn’t it Dom John Chapman who said “Pray as you can, not as you can’t”?

    And Dorothy Sayers and CS Lewis both suggest that your Christian calling, if you are a cabinetmaker, is to make the finest cabinets you can, to the glory of God.

    Great post — thanks!


  2. Like this! Thanks for the thoughts. Love the quip about “I have come that you may have a middle class smart casual life in all its abundance”. It reminds me of something a friend who went to Oxford Uni told me one. He said that at a certain big church at the time of his attendance, its subculture was so conformist that it was basically regulation for men to wear a jumper with a single stripe across it, and you didn’t fit in if you didn’t. He may have been slightly exaggerating but probably not by much. (Then again, this is Oxford, which is generally quite conservative/traditional and you see an impressive number of bow ties/amount of tweed etc. just on a daily basis).
    I feel suitably challenged now to both be myself abundantly and (more difficult) allow/encourage others to be so, and (even more difficult/unnatural) generally have a wider and more diverse sphere of influence/friendship/interaction than just the people I naturally like/get on with/have (class-related?) stuff in common with, a la Jesus.
    So yeah. Vive la difference!

    PS loved your hat at Tim & Ros’ wedding. If that doesn’t sound too weird and out of context…

    • That sounds like exactly the kind of think I’m describing. I suspect that none of these cultural rules conform to the scriptural ones about dress code. I often hear the verses quoted ‘against me’ about tattoos for example. Invariably by someone who doesn’t know where the reference comes from or what it actually says (linked with grief). I rarely hear people quoting scripture about their clipped heads and mixed fibres.

      I’m not sure that the bible has a specific ruling on striped jumpers. I will start searching the scriptures.

      As to the hat, I thank you. I suspect my love of hats like these is where the problem first started in my formative years. Given that I posted a photo of it on the first of this blog series, it is definitely in context ;)

      • Ah. So you did. Miss Unobservant strikes again.

        Yup. I’m fairly sure said jumpers are mixed fabrics not covered by Levitical laws! I don’t think my friend wanted to outlaw them – he has a similar striped jumper, but with multiple stripes (the horror! AND he likes baking and girly things like that. Well outta place), but if you could find a Scriptural(TM) prohibition against salmon pink shirts on clergy (well, I suppose it’s not a linen ephod so that’s easy) I can think of a few transgressive ministers…

      • Salmon pink clerical dress contravenes more laws than purely scriptural ones! Mostly natural law. Probably canon law. Definitely the law of human decency. Probably the UN Convention on Human Rights.

        Clericals come in black. Ask yourself this question: What Would Ozzy Do?

  3. Well quite. Eurgh. Vaughn Roberts & pastor of Shanghai International Church I’m looking at you two.

    Interesting. Tempted to make the obvious lazy bat joke but shall resist. Speak proudly in a West Midlands accent?

  4. […] week, I read a post by Robb Sutherland on authenticity in personal identity. It’s one of a series about personal identity; in church, in Christ, in tribes. In the post […]

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