“Authenticity” is a valued quality these days. Whether engaged in the conversation among the emerging church or among evangelicals frustrated by the public flaws and failures of highly visible leaders, in recent years it has become increasingly important to “keep it real.” For some, authenticity is liberation from the pressure to put on an air of faux spirituality, the freedom to acknowledge personal brokenness while basking in God’s abundant grace. Another angle: authenticity is the antithesis of hypocrisy. One asks, “Why pretend to be something that you’re not? Why appear holy in front of others when your home life takes on a more disappointing atmosphere?” The greater virtue is to number yourself among the tragically flawed masses, with a nod toward trying to do the best you can, understanding that you may indeed be chief among the sinners. Our media-oriented society highlights this virtue, whether on reality television, Youtube, or on social networks like Facebook and MySpace. People present themselves at extremes which highlight their dysfunction or brokenness. We find it humourous or worthy of applause, perhaps because there is both comfort and short-lived celebrity in these virtual communities. Sometimes we reward these public displays or admissions of authenticity because it discloses the confessors’ willingness to be true to themselves (or to what is “their truth” as Oprah might put it). “To thine own self be true” and “Owning our brokenness” are common themes.
There’s something to this. There are many, especially in the church, who have seen their heroes exposed as flawed, fakes, or failures. The traumatic result is that a vision for upward Christian life is shattered, replaced by the resolute determination to simply be real. You can even open the closet so others can see all the skeletons in their disarray. It beats pleading guilty to the charge of hypocrisy.
We see this in Frank Schaeffer’s Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. An interview with Schaeffer reveals why he wrote the book:
My memoir, Crazy for God, is an attempt to stop lying. I wanted to try and come clean. I wanted to admit my mistakes. I wanted to try to be the same person to everyone I met. You can be the world’s biggest hypocrite and still feel good about yourself. You can believe and wish you didn’t. You can lose your faith and still pretend, because there are bills to be paid, because you are booked up for a year, because this is what you do.
Authenticity on display. Who wants to be a liar, especially if you’ve been disappointed with evangelical elites (Schaeffer’s parents and other notables in the book), if you’ve concluded that putting people on such a pedestal is just not such a good idea? Schaeffer clearly owns his brokenness, and as with others in the fellowship of authenticity he would rather be real than a deceiver. Whatever one concludes about the book (and reviewers are on all sides), his experience raises the question of whether or not we expect too much from our leaders. Is the burden of leadership so great that no one can really take that mantle without a qualifying declaration? “I’m the leader here, but don’t look too closely at my life, because you’ll be deflated if you do. Let’s just do our best together and keep our expectations realistic (low).”
[Schaeffer’s] experience raises the question of whether or not we expect too much from our leaders. Is the burden of leadership so great that no one can really take that mantle without a qualifying declaration?
But is this merely a trap? An excuse? Authenticity can be a kind of cynical faux spirituality that presents “real” people but itself becomes performance art, or cause for abiding in a black hole of moral despair. It’s as if to believe that Luther’s famous phrase, “simultaneously just and sinner,” means to rejoice in being declared righteous while knowing that personal experience is the opposite. Is authenticity an excuse for giving up on sanctification, a trendy fuel for antinomianism?
We shouldn’t abandon authenticity altogether, but we are called to do more than own our particular situations and predicaments. The Gospel is good news because God not only accepts us as we are, but also moves us toward being what we are not yet. Since we are in motion, we should admit to brokenness, but strive toward holiness. We’re not fakes if this becomes our practice. Instead, we are keeping it real as we become who God says we are intended to be.