Telling your own story is at the heart of expressive individualism. We might even say that our day is characterized by “incessant autobiography,” a term coined by C. S. Lewis in his little book An Introduction to Paradise Lost.1 I hesitate to use the term, given that Lewis coined it to describe the self-absorbed narcissism of the character of Satan in Milton’s masterpiece, Paradise Lost! But “incessant autobiography” is a fitting way of describing how everyone seems to be feverishly telling their life stories on the various platforms of social media. It is possible today to document your life story in considerable detail and publish it widely on a daily basis. Where you are, what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how you’re feeling, what you’re eating, how it’s all affecting you, and on it goes. Not everyone is obsessed with telling their stories in this way, but the possibilities for doing so seem to multiply, and the potential for constantly narrating our lives out loud underscores the role of our stories in each of our personal identities.
Along with looking around to others, we look backward and forward at our life stories in order to find ourselves.2 We all know this. When we first meet someone, along with noticing their gender and race, guessing their age and learning their name, we might ask about their cultural background, occupation, significant relationships, and where they live. Going deeper, a more penetrating question is to ask them about their story: “What is your family background? What in your past has made you who you are today? Where are you heading in life? What defines you?” Human beings tell stories about themselves that matter.
This book challenges the popular idea that expressive individualism—looking inward—is the sole basis of one’s identity. Brian Rosner provides an approach to identity formation that looks outward to others and upward to God, which leads to a more stable and satisfying sense of self.
The expressive-individualism approach to narrative identity is entirely predictable. Each of us chooses the stories that define us (or at least we think we do). And, in our stories, we take the starring role, as well as act as director, producer, script writer, illustrator, narrator, and marketing director.
What is your story? How would you answer the following questions?
What in your past has made you who you are today?
What events have defined you?
Where are you heading in life?
What are your aspirations, hopes, and dreams?
Have there been any times when you’ve lost the plot or gone off script? Stories have “sculpting power.”3 And this is certainly the case with the stories we tell about ourselves. Alistair McGrath is right: “The story we believe we are in determines what we think about ourselves and consequently how we live.”4 There is no doubt that a key dimension of personal identity is the story you inhabit. According to Gottschall,
Story teaches us facts about the world; influences our moral logic; and marks us with fears, hopes, and anxieties that alter our behaviour. . . . Research shows that story is constantly nibbling and kneading us, shaping our mind without our knowledge or consent. The more deeply we are cast under story’s spell, the more potent its influence.5
One of my favorite radio programs is called “The Year That Made Me.” It’s an interview show with famous guests talking about themselves and their life stories, specifically the year that was most formative for them. Here’s a sample of how five celebrities answered the question, What was the year that made you?
Footballer Chris Judd: 2004, his first Brownlow medal
Actress Lisa McCune: 2001, the birth of her first child
Novelist Tim Winton: 1978, a terrible car accident
Children’s book author Alison Lester: 2006, pneumonia and a
Comedian Akmal Saleh: 1978, the sudden death of his father6
Now you might expect the defining moments of famous people to be something they achieved, some triumph for which they are famous. And, on that score, the sportsman Chris Judd doesn’t disappoint; note that it wasn’t just his Brownlow medal, but his first one, that made him—he won two!7 The actress Lisa McCune highlights a genuinely identity-changing event—namely, becoming a mother. But, intriguingly, the other three point to negative experiences as the defining events of their lives: Tim Winton, a car crash; Alison Lester, a coma; and Akmal Saleh, a death. And note that in the case of comedian Akmal Saleh, the event was not one that happened to him, at least directly—namely, the death of his father. Indeed, a defining event can be an achievement or a failure, something you do, or something done to or for you. It can also be something that happened before you were born, such as some national event or family experience.
A person’s story begins before that person was born. My father was born in Vienna, Austria, in a Jewish family. He was an only child, and as a young teenager, he and his parents fled Europe soon after Hitler took over Austria in 1938. They headed for Shanghai in China where there was an international settlement that accepted stateless refugees. They spent ten years there, in “the Waiting Room,” as the settlement has since been called. All three became Christians soon after their arrival. In 1949, after the war was over, they immigrated to Australia. My father met my mother, an Australian, in Sydney, and they married in 1953. Seeing as I didn’t come along until 1959, how can that be a part of my own life story?
It is in fact quite common for family histories to have an impact on a person’s identity. In my case, my father’s history affects a number of things about me, including my attitude to education (which my father missed out on), to refugees, to Jews and Judaism, to European history and culture, playing chess, food, music, and so on. Of course, my life has had many other influences. But my experience is not unusual. Such “second hand” memories, in which you are not present or the primary actor, are testimony to the formative power of larger narratives for personal identity, stories of which we find ourselves a part and which we share with others.
Your story is fundamental to your personal identity, but it’s not an individual story. Being social animals, we live in shared stories.
Another such shared story shaping personal identity is your national identity—in my case, an Australian nationality. National identity is all about past events that shape national character in the present. A nonindigenous Australian character, for example, cherishes the values of mateship, classlessness, and the “fair go.” This is in part due to the convict origins of my country’s first settlement in the eighteenth century. Other nation-defining events also contribute to the national character, such as the heroism of the failed Gallipoli campaign of 1915 in World War I, which is commemorated on Anzac Day each year on April 25. Such events had a levelling effect on society as the struggles of ordinary people became chiseled into the nation’s memory. Why do I barrack for the “underdog” in most sporting events when my team is not involved? Why do I think it fair enough when “tall poppies,” prominent people in society, get cut down to size? Because such sentiments are part of the Australian narrative identity.
Your story is fundamental to your personal identity, but it’s not an individual story. Being social animals, we live in shared stories. It is a mistake to think that our life stories are simply our own making and played out in isolation from others. The metanarrative, or big story, in which each of us lives is a combination of defining moments and goals and expectations of life related to stories handed to us by our families and related to the stories of our nations, ethnicities, social classes, and religious faiths.
And this is true even in our day. One of the ironies of expressive individualism is the fact that in many cases it leads to conformity. Trevin Wax observes, “A restless, individualistic pursuit of happiness evolves into a strange conformist impulse. We think we’re blazing our own path, but the paths we take look strangely like everyone else’s.”8 We are inescapably social creatures.
In my view, there are two big stories to which the vast majority of people in the West subscribe today, and these are playing a big role in forming people’s identities. They are the story of secular materialism and the story of social justice.9 Both are fueled by the movement of expressive individualism. Like any good story, they each have a basic plot and setting, key turning points, central themes, stock characters, conflicts to be resolved, and an anticipated climax. While they are understandably attractive in various ways, both are seriously flawed. As life stories go, they are ultimately unsatisfying because both have a truncated view of human nature and a distorted view of reality.
Ending up in the wrong story for your narrative identity can have disastrous consequences. In connection with the increase in mental health issues for adolescents across Western countries, psychologist Michael Crossley argues that “depression frequently stems from an incoherent story, an inadequate narrative account of oneself, or a life-story gone awry.”10 Do you have an adequate narrative account of yourself? What is your narrative identity? What life story are you living?
- C. S. Lewis, An Introduction to Paradise Lost(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961), 102.
- Richard Bauckham, The Bible in the Contemporary World: Hermenuetical Virtues(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015), 138–39, observes that “the human self has no timeless existence outside of the temporal reality that we can only describe in narrative.”
- Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal, 152.
- Alister McGrath, Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice: How Reading C. S. Lewis Can Change Your Life (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 2014), 47.
- Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal, 148.
- The Year that Made Me, ABC Sunday Extra with Julian Morrow, accessed October 26, 2021, https:// www .abc .net .au/.
- The Brownlow Medal is awarded to the “best and fairest” player in the Australian Football League during the home-and-away season.
- Trevin Wax, “The Faithful Church in an Age of Expressive Individualism,” Kingdom People (blog), The Gospel Coalition (website), October 22, 2018, https:// www .the gospel coalition .org/.
- See McGrath, Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice, 70, who lists the stories of progress and victimhood as the two big identity formation stories of our time: “Some live under the story of individual progress of the sort peddled on daytime talk shows, that the self is the most important thing there is and that more or better information will organically produce better selves. Still others subscribe to the victim metanarrative, that their personal choices have little impact on the world they live in.”
- Reported in Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal, 175.
This article is adapted from How to Find Yourself: Why Looking Inward Is Not the Answer by Brian S. Rosner.
We need to know that we are not in charge and we need to know how to submit to God as the one who is in charge.
But if every revelation of God is a revelation of myself in relation to God, then all of Scripture is continually in the business of rewiring our self-understanding.
The gospel changes not only the way God deals with us, but the way we deal with each other.
Carl Trueman explores the history of Western thought with the view of answering two simple questions: How did we get here? How should the church respond?