The Cult of the Individual

There is a certain kind of story that is I have heard again and again in America. I think it is particularly prevalent in our society, if not unique to it.  There are many variations, but in general it goes like this:

A young man is born to a family of adequate means, although they are far from wealthy.  He has a safe, warm home and good food to eat, thanks to his parents’ work and care for him.  As he grows, he attends tax-payer supported public schools that provide him a good foundation.  His parents often have to leave for work early, but he waits with other neighborhood children at the bus stop, and a reliable school bus, paid for with taxes, picks them up.  The bus-driver, whose salary is paid by everyone’s taxes, takes him to school on smooth roads built and paid for by the government.

The boy is a sharp student and a good learner.  Through a state-mandated gifted and talented program that, by law, must be offered to students with his abilities, he gets specialized instruction that challenges him and helps him reach his academic potential.  Even though his parents have no more than a high school education, the (state-mandated, tax-supported) school counselor begins encouraging him to think about college.

Because of his excellent grades, solid SAT scores and modest financial means, he qualifies for a variety of college scholarships, some which ultimately come from government funds, others of which were provided by wealthy benefactors.  Advanced education is made possible for him because of these funds.  He finds a part-time job that covers his living expenses.  It’s manual labor, nothing glamorous, but the federal minimum wage laws ensure that he gets fair compensation for his work, and laws enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration make it very unlikely that he’ll but put in a situation that could cause him physical harm.  What little financial expense isn’t covered through scholarships and work he pays for with student loans, which are automatically granted to any full-time student, and are backed by the guarantee of the federal government.  No payment is expected and no interest accrues on these loans until after he leaves college.

He lives in a modest studio apartment in a fairly run-down neighborhood, but the police drive through frequently, and the one time he was startled by a fight just a few doors down, he called 911 and a patrol car was there within a few minutes to stabilize the situation.

By his junior and senior years the career center at his college has helped connect him with internships in his chosen field, where kind-hearted mentors show him the ropes of day to day life on the job, volunteering their time to encourage his interests, and even taking him to conferences at company expense and helping him to network with potential employers.

He graduates with a good GPA, applies to work for several of the companies where he has made connections, and is hired by one of them at a good starting salary.  Because of the knowledge and skills he has gained, he works his way up the ladder, learning more about his business and how to manage it.  In his mid-30’s he decides to go to work for himself.  He gets a loan at a good interest rate from the Small Business Administration, hires some talented employees, and is soon CEO of his own successful business.

Now he’s 40 and rich.  Frequently in conversation he tells people that he is a “self-made man.”  He believes that all it takes is skill and hard work and you can get anywhere in life.  You just have to “believe in yourself.”  He gives large contributions to politicians who promise to lower his tax rate, even if it means cutting funds to the schools, structures and programs that he depended on to get where he is.  He loves to quote Ronald Reagan’s line that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”  And he has no sympathy for the “lazy bums” he encounters sometimes who grew up in poor neighborhoods with dangerous schools and little access to the programs that he was able to utilize.

Asking an American about individualism is like asking a fish about water.  It’s the environment that we live in, and it’s so pervasive that it’s hard to get perspective on it.  There are hundreds of thousands of people in our society like the entrepreneur above. Their entire life was a gift from others who donated to the cause, but they sincerely think of themselves as strong individuals who made their way to success because of their own determination.  They are literally blind to the fact that their life is only possible because of functional community systems–family, school, government, business networks, protective agencies, and so on.  While no doubt part of the entreprenuer’s success is due to personal characteristics, another man with exactly the same set of gifts and personal traits who was born in Rwanda or Nepal or Peru would have had a very different kind of life.

The American church has been enormously affected by the surrounding culture of individualism.  The scriptures are almost invariably focused on communities–kingdoms, clans, tribes, families, households and churches.  When there is a prolonged focus on an individual, it is usually because that individual has a role to play in blessing the larger community.  Abraham is the archetype in this–chosen by God because through him “all peoples on Earth will be blessed.”  The most famous line in scripture is John 3:16, which tells us that “God so loved the world.”  Scriptural images for believers include the household of faith, the kingdom of priests, the chosen nation, the family of Jesus, the people of God. Ephesians depicts the cross as the instrument that has broken down the dividing wall of hostility between warring ethnic factions (Jew and Gentile in this case) and created one united humanity, which is a witness to the cosmos of the power of Christ.  To be saved, in scriptural perspective, is to become part of a larger community.

But the overwhelming scriptural emphasis on community and the communal work of God doesn’t play very well to individually-minded American audiences.  Rather than standing as a healthier alternative to the typical American viewpoint that has elevated the individual to center place, the church–especially the conservative evangelical church–translates the gospel into me-speak.  The primary evangelistic message is not “come join the community of the saved,” but rather, “Jesus died for you,” and “he has a wonderful plan for your life” and he wants you to accept him as “your personal savior” so you can have a “personal relationship with him.”  You might be able to make a case that “Jesus died for you” is a Biblical message, with the proviso that you are one of billions that he died for, but the other phrases are utterly absent from the New Testament.  There is no promise that he has a wonderful plan for your life, and even if that were true, it would only work for definitions of “wonderful” that include the isolation, poverty, torture and death that have been the fate of many believers across the centuries.  There is no scripture that asks you to form a personal relationship with Jesus, but many that ask you to bless Jesus by blessing others.  See, for example, Isaiah 58:

 1 “Shout it aloud, do not hold back.
Raise your voice like a trumpet.
Declare to my people their rebellion
and to the descendants of Jacob their sins.
2 For day after day they seek me out;
they seem eager to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that does what is right
and has not forsaken the commands of its God.
They ask me for just decisions
and seem eager for God to come near them.
3 ‘Why have we fasted,’ they say,
‘and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?’

“Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers.
4 Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife,
and in striking each other with wicked fists.
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
5 Is this the kind of fast I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
8 Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard.
9 Then you will call, and the LORD will answer;
you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
10 and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.
11 The LORD will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

Much the same sentiment is more famously expressed in Matthew 25:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Asking someone if they have a personal relationship with their personal savior

I own this book. Jesus died just for me. Sorry the rest of you missed out.

Jesus who has a wonderful, personalized plan for their life is a far cry from asking whether they are willing to take up their cross and join the community of self-sacrificing priests who are pouring out their lives for the sake of the world.  And even if the evangelizer truly means to point to the cruciform life of the disciple when asking those questions (which I doubt) the object of the evangelical efforts certainly won’t read all of that subtext into a pitch that seems to promise that Jesus is standing by to make your life an endless procession of puppies and rainbows if only you will let him.

This evangelical me-speak has carried on to such an extent that it often doesn’t just receive more emphasis than communitarian language, it replaces it entirely–sometimes in ways that can’t be reconciled at all with the scriptures.  I once preached at a church that gave every visitor a complimentary copy of Max Lucado’s little book entitled He Did This Just For You.  (There’s also an “He Did This Just For You” New Testament.)  There’s no way to interpret that title that makes sense–a plain text reading of it sounds like I, precious unique individual that I am, happen to be the only person that Jesus died for.  Even if you can squint really hard and turn the book sideways and somehow find a way to make the title a true statement, it is certainly less clearly true and in need of many more caveats than a scriptural title like “God so loved the world.”  By the time we are saying “He Did This Just for You,” we have moved beyond translating communal language into me-speak and crashed wholly into upending the gospel message to make Christianity one sub-sect in the larger religion of Me and My Best Life Now!

The aspect of American life that is often most in need of repentance is the relentless focus on me, and “what’s in it for me?” and “what have you done for me lately, anyway?”  But rather than call people to something better, richer and deeper, we far too often just cower in the shadow of the temple of self.  Christianity can overturn the worship of Jupiter and Roma, but it is helpless to tackle my steadfast devotion to me and my own well-being.

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13 Comments

Filed under Church Culture, Evangelism, Ministry, Theology

13 responses to “The Cult of the Individual

  1. Have you read Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins? He makes a good case that a lot of the modern descent into me-think came about as a result of breakdowns of trust in authority during the fiasco that was World War I. Obviously hedonism predates that, but the pervasive sense that institutions may not have our best interests at heart might well be traced to a cataclysmic event that proved it.

  2. Very insightful, Kirk… And I think the same “phenomenon” bleeds over into many political attitudes, too… I’m not at all saying anything against democracy or the “American way of life,” but I do find it ironic that very often those who are so sure that God has uniquely blessed America and that our democracy has God’s divine stamp of approval, with its emphasis on individual rights, also proclaim that they can’t wait to transition to the ultimate monarcy/theocracy in the hereafter…

  3. Well said. Even though I find my salvation to be a deeply personal experience, the true message of the gospel and the church is one of God loving the world and Christians going out into the world. I find that the freedom I have in Christ moves me outside of self to reach out to others. Thank you for your insight and ability to put it so eloquently.

  4. Charlie Untz

    Kirk, I love how you reminded us that Jesus didn’t die just for me or you…He died for the World, so that anyone can chose to make the most radical change in their lives if they will allow God to do so…We Americans tend to forget that Jesus died not just for America or Americans personally but He died for all of Humanity…God took human form so He could endure the punishment that we were cursed with..death…not just physical death, but spiritual death, separation from God….Thank you my friend for your reminders that I need to be a part of that community that goes out into the world sharing the Testimony of Jesus in both action and with Words. Thank You my brother!

  5. Pingback: Rebutting the Charge that Individualism is a “Cult” « Rogue Operator

    • Up until now, it’s been my policy to approve all comments that are not profane or abusive, although I am sorely tempted to start deleting all essay-length comments that completely miss the point, but yours is the only one I’ve seen so far. Since you posted the whole thing to your blog first and then cut and pasted it here, maybe next time you can just leave us a link to your blog and anyone interested can read your thoughts there.

      • Oh, wait–I just saw the comment you left on your blog that says:

        Thanks, Bob. I’ve been going around on the lefty blogs and baiting them to come here for so debate. So stick around! Things could get a bit more exciting.

        Cheers, RO

        That’s sufficient evidence of bad faith. I’ll delete the comment but leave this pingback just for kicks.

  6. Your policy is fair, Kirk. As for “baiting” liberals, I find they rarely, if ever, argue about points. I am trying to get some to engage, for heaven’s sake, and act like they care about the truth. Perhaps you do. I give you the benefit of the doubt. Take care, RO

  7. M082844

    The first part of your article attempts to create a false dichotomy between individualism and society.   Individualism is not  apart from or does not compete with society; it’s a political theory for society, which assumes that each (individual) man has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness within a social context.  You also appear to be negating the fact that the individual in your example had to earn his values (education, job, money, ect.)–values are not achieved by osmosis.  His individual achievements within a social context do not undermine the fact that they are his achievements.  Replace the subject in your example with a rock and this principle should become clear.

    • I’m not talking about individualism as a political theory, I’m talking about individualism as a character trait–a focus on one’s self and one’s actions that obscures the role of community. You write that “values are not achieved by osmosis.” Of course not–but where do you think they come from? I think it’s odd to say that he “earned” them. Values aren’t earned, they are taught, explicitly or implicitly, by family, friends, community and society.

      And, frankly, I have no idea where you are going with this last sentence, unless you just mean that rocks can’t achieve things, only humans can, so his own motivation and abilities played a part in his success. If that’s what you mean, of course I agree. I said as much in this post. But he’s not having difficulty seeing the part he played in his life. He’s having difficultly seeing the part that everyone around him played as well.

  8. Keith

    Great post. I found this via a search for “cult of individuality” while researching the debate between Obama and Romney (2012.07.18) http://tinyurl.com/7ta92pf. It is interesting to me that so people realize that in order to protect the rights of individuals to strive for the “American Dream” we must protect the community values that are the context in which that dream becomes possible.

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