When I started at seminary a few years ago, I noticed a new buzzword–authenticity. Of course, I knew the word, but I wasn’t accustomed to how it got brought into virtually any controversial or even meaningful discussion as if it were the Holy Grail. Authenticity or lack thereof seemed to undergird every problem: “How can we have authentic worship when all our music is geared towards manipulating emotional responses in people?” “How can I preach authentically about Jesus if I’m experiencing doubts?” “How can we welcome Gays and Lesbians and allow them to be their authentic selves while still remaining authentically true to our own interpretations of Scripture?” And the kiss of death when criticizing anyone was to say he or she was “just so inauthentic.” The quest for authenticity continues to be a burning issue, particularly for millennials, who often cite a lack of authenticity as a reason for leaving the church.
So why is authenticity so desirable, yet seemingly so hard to embody? Because we are recipients of so much cultural pressure to be nice, to conform, to subsume our desires to the desires of others, that it becomes second nature (particularly so for women, as Jennifer Lawrence recently pointed out), so that we have no idea any more when we are doing those things in a positive, generous way to our loved ones and our community, or when we’re doing it for our own selfish need to fit in, to play along, to be one of the crowd, perhaps even to manipulate others, as we see blatantly in the retail environment.
It’s virtually impossible to shop in any store anymore without being fussed and cooed over as if you’ve walked into your grandma’s home. Dear reader, I hope you will not be shocked to learn that all this niceness is not bursting from the goodness of these corporations’ (and all their employees’) hearts, but is actually a strategy to increase sales. That may seem like perfectly innocent capitalism. Who wouldn’t fake a smile to make an extra buck or two? But the problem is when you’re faking it to put an extra buck into the corporate pockets, (called emotional labor), it takes a psychological toll on the employees forced into it. And since we now have an economy that is service-based (service jobs outnumber goods-based jobs by 5 to 1) we may be headed for drastic mental health consequences if we don’t culturally address our natural desire for–and natural state of–authenticity with so much economic pressure to be inauthentic.
I don’t have any illusions that this will change in the secular world any time soon. Obviously, corporations have done market research and must have determined that people respond to the fake nice by buying more stuff (although I suspect it has much less to do with being charmed and more with feeling guilted into making extra purchases). But anyone who’s read the Gospels knows that Jesus, far from being fake nice, was quite frequently surly: to his mother, to his friends, and even to an innocent li’l fig tree. (The Son of God apparently got hangry.) This was not because surliness was a value in itself. Jesus used it as a tool because what he was modeling for us was the freedom to question the dominant culture. He wanted us to embrace the truth of being ourselves instead of unconsciously following the messages forced upon us. In other words, he was authentic.
The culture of nice is often presented to us as the best we can hope for, like the very meaning of life can be found in someone smiling at you as they hand you a latte. Being nice should not be an end in itself and it is not what being a Christian is about. In Jesus Christ, we are given the freedom to be fully and completely ourselves, not relying on creating false selves that we use to please and manipulate others. When we focus on what other people are thinking about us, we are unable to know what we think of ourselves, much less what God thinks. There is nothing wrong with being nice, but too often nice becomes the enemy of real, it becomes a way to avoid dealing with the world God gave us. We sweep homeless people off the streets so we can avoid looking at them, we pretend we love crappy jobs because we don’t want to get fired, we pretend everything is happy and good so we can avoid being vulnerable and admitting the truth of the pain and challenges in our lives. God doesn’t want you to be nice. God certainly doesn’t want you to be mean, either. (Sometimes people use authenticity as an excuse for making others uncomfortable. Saying things that are important and true that no one else is saying will often make people uncomfortable, yes, but simply making people uncomfortable by saying embarrassing things is probably less about being authentic and more about getting attention.) God wants you, and all of us, to be ourselves. That’s why we were created, to be fully and completely ourselves. St. Irenaeus, a Third Century bishop in Gaul, wrote, “The glory of God is the human person, fully alive.” Imagine that: the creator of the universe desires us to be more fully ourselves! How much easier that is than the struggle to live up to what we imagine is expected of us. If you crave authenticity in a world where nothing seems real, look for it in yourself. It is there naturally, no emotional labor required, and probably closer to the surface than you even realize.