I’m happy to be participating in an ad hoc blog tour for a new book written by a new friend of mine named Dan White. The book is called Subterranean. My assignment was to engage with Chapter Two… so here goes:
Subterranean Ch. 2: Excessive Personality
Dan begins with a recollection of his third grade teacher asking his class to draw a picture representing what they wanted to be when they grew up. Taking the larger-than-life persona of the religious professionals who surrounded him as his model, Dan drew himself behind a pulpit in a tie, waving his hands at the congregation. Dan says,
“Something very elementary was hidden underneath my hopes of being a minister. I wanted to make a mark on the world, to have an impact. This was the base for my outlook on life. Somewhere I had an emotional wallet that when unfolded held an iconic picture of what “impact” looked like; it was visible, observable, and applaudable.”
His critique resonates with me. In contemporary America, the anxious pursuit of personality swallows up the first half of nearly every life. When personality becomes a performance, our personal significance is surrendered to the masses, and our temperatures rise and fall at the whims of the social media “likes” and “shares.” Narcissism and insecurity run roughshod over our long-term commitment to neighborhood and place, and our ability to simply be present to our family, friends, and neighborhood tends to suffer, and we cease to embody the gospel. He writes:
“The kernel of presence is fragile, easily crushed by the big footprint of our ambitions. The space and stillness required to be present with people is always under duress from our ardent undertakings. When it comes to being the church I find nothing more easily snuffed out than the availability, touchability, vulnerability, and responsibility critical for human presence. Presence in not just a “personal” thing, it is the very way the society of the church is to be identified and constituted. Presence is where the kingdom of God touches human existence.”
What I really like about Dan’s description of excessive personality is that this word “personality” roots the issue in human agency. What does it mean to be human? We really don’t have a clue as to how to answer this question as a society. The best we can muster is a carefully crafted personality.
When talking about the impact of social media on human agency, my friend Cole—the youth pastor at our church—is fond of saying, “It sometimes feels like my life is an accessory to my life.” When this occurs within the life of the church, we grow more and more distant from any sort of coherent folk-theology of human agency. The church is meant to embody a better way, but it doesn’t. We’ve become fully acculturated.
The culture of excessive personality hijacks the maturation process God has in mind for his people. The pursuit of all things bigger, better, higher, stronger, faster can help us climb the corporate ladder, but it cannot help us discover what it means to be a person. A massive platform might help us gain market-share, but it cannot make us good news. Only the gospel can do that, and the gospel way is down. Try selling that one…
What do we have left as Christians—what does the church have left—once we have surrendered the way of the cross in order to try and become a big deal? Ambition. “Ambition without restraint,” Dan writes, “will sever the root of presence.” What remains when presence dissipates is, well, not enough in terms of our ability to embody Jesus to the world.
Dan’s positive vision is something he terms Missional Minimalism. I’m not going to give you the definition & fine points of it because I want you to buy the book and read it for yourself. I will say that a good deal of what I argue in my last book, Shrink, could be subsumed under the label of Missional Minimalism.
I hope Subterranean will catch on and leave its mark on the church, but I have my doubts. How do you market a call to come and die? Think about it. What Dan White is trying to do is actually quite difficult, because the deck is stacked against him. Ambition, personality, and hype live at the leading edge of the contemporary conversation about God and the church.
Seriously. Take a look at what the most influential Christian personalities are churning out day by day. Scrutinize it. Instead of serious theological reflection, instead of sophisticated engagement with scripture, instead of thoughtful ecclesiological engagement, we find sensationalism—self-marketers hawking 6 steps to this or that—and mountains of false outrage or self-righteous snark.
What we need are voices prophetic and wise. What we get instead are the kings and queens of the cult of excessive personality.
For those among us, like Dan White, who are writing in the Missional vein… we can’t play the game like everyone else. Any attempt to keep pace with that particular set of Joneses will negate the very things about which we are writing. Dan is working on the prophetic level in Subterranean, and prophets make for disappointing sales reports.
However, if you care about the church, if you care about the gospel, if you are looking for a more hopeful and counter-cultural way of being the church, then Subterranean is well worth your time. I hope you will give it a read.
For those interested in picking up a copy head here: http://wipfandstock.com/subterranean.html
Use the discount code ROOTED and get 40% off.