“Authenticity Is the New Authority”

“Authenticity Is the New Authority” September 19, 2019

So here I am at the Catholic Imagination Conference, hosted by Loyola University in Chicago, & a woman who works in religious publishing says that the title of this post is a commonplace saying in her business. She asked the panelists to comment. We started off with a bang as Bill Gonch busted out with, “I don’t want to say that I’m against authenticity, but–”

Which was basically my exact reaction. So here, let me suggest some very short cases for and against “authenticity”: some places to begin.

# I first thought about authenticity in fiction. I aim for authentic dialogue and characterization. I want the characters to sound different, and to sound like people rooted in specific communities and experiences. Partly that makes the jokes funnier; recognizable types have recognizable follies. But also, so far both of my novels have taken place in a world where Catholicism is true. And it’s important to say that’s a world with many voices, many different and even seemingly-conflicting ways of life. There’s nothing you bring to the table that you can’t bring to the altar. Everybody commiserating or cajoling or complaining on the 70 bus has a place prepared at the wedding banquet of the Lamb, and when they pray and praise they will sound like who they are.

# And of course I also spent the first third of Gay and Catholic proving my “authenticity,” writing memoir, because when I listen to other Catholics running their mouths on gay stuff I always want to know where they are coming from and, to be crass, what they paid for what they’re saying. The demand for “authenticity,” or the use of authenticity as a proxy for authority, can be understood as a demand for at least some morsel of martyrdom, without which no witness to the Crucified can be complete.

# So that’s two possible cases for authenticity. The obvious case against is that the concept of “authenticity” assumes an unmediated experience, rather than an experience shaped by culture and open to interpretation by an outside authority: for Catholics, interpretation by God through the Church. I have been an opponent of unmediated experience from of old and boy, I haven’t changed my mind on that one. “We are unknown to ourselves, we knowers,” Nietzsche says; we are not our own best readers.

# Brent Little, I think, pointed out that Augustine’s Confessions attract in part because of their vulnerability, their authenticity. And yet he noted that this authenticity points beyond Augustine’s own experiences and is interpreted (even, I would say, interrogated!) by outside authority–God, Scripture, the liturgy and orthodoxy of the Church. Augustine interrogates his experiences, and his prior interpretations of them. The authentic self is precisely the whole self, the self restored by selfless surrender to Christ: Authenticity is revealed only through dying to self and being restored to new life, just as Christ’s glorified Body, even the full meaning of the Wounds, appears only after His death and resurrection.

# Joseph Simmons, SJ, made a couple points: Reading itself is an oddly anti-authentic act, insofar as you’re displacing yourself when you read (and fiction authors, the subjects of this panel, displace themselves also when they write). You’re taking on another person’s voice and living in the world they see or imagine, and through this self-displacement you may discover truths. He also mentioned the unreliable narrator. We love unreliable narrators! I think often we love them most when they believe they’re being utterly authentic. We like to know more than them; we also like to recognize ourselves in them.

# Trevor Williams said some things which I didn’t write down, I admit, but which made me think of the relief that comes from a faith you don’t have to generate or sustain yourself. You don’t have to work it all out! You don’t have to reason through it. You can admit that your own perspective is inadequate.

# How, then, do writers who rely on outside authority indicate the inadequacy of any description, argument, advice, or account of God to capture Him fully? Writing praised as “authentic” often rests too much authority in the individual, when it seems like one strength of very personal writing should be precisely that it’s obvious that one life and perspective can’t express all that we need of God. Maybe part of the issue is that our current culture of “authenticity” keeps the voices too separate–everyone in her own expressive world, each author the god of a tiny planet. Personal authenticity undisciplined by unity will always become a prideful assertion of one’s own sufficiency. (Even) writers who explicitly cite outside authority can gain a certain humility and acknowledge the inadequacy of their accounts simply by remaining in a Church which gives many different accounts, many different spiritualities, within one communion, under one Lord.


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