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Redefining Identity and Today’s Culture

*This post is just me thinking out loud. Likely no moral to the story to be found.*

Doing some research I came across a NYU academic journal article from preeminent social theorist Zygmunt Bauman. Bauman specializes in issues such as modernity, morality, and consumerism. His words on identity struck me. The globally-recognized scholar wrote:

Indeed, if the modern ‘problem of identity’ was how to construct an identity and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern ‘problem of identity’ is primarily how to avoid fixation and keep the options open.[ref], 18, accessed May 2016.[/ref]

In other words, the modern idea of identity is attempting to define oneself in order that one might truly know who they are – and to derive stability in that definition. Conversely, the postmodern idea of identity is to flee from any sense of definition. It wants fluidity and, in Bauman’s words, “commitment-avoidance.” The traditional sense of identity is viewed by postmoderns as too durable, too permanent, and too restrictive. This contrast leads Bauman to summarize, “Modernity built in steel and concrete; postmodernity, in bio-degradable plastic.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref]

We see an example of this shift toward disconnected, amorphous identity with society’s current argument about gender, specifically whether biological males can use the public restrooms of biological females. The very argument exists because of the postmodern idea that one’s identity can change simply because of how one feels about his or her own personhood. Don’t let your anatomy determine identity. That’s too fixed, too “steel and concrete.” Indeed, you may feel differently in the future. Keep your options open. That’s why popular culture doesn’t even blink when a celebrity declares he or she has freely moved from heterosexuality to homosexuality to bisexuality then back again (or that he is now a she, or vise versa). Where moderns think that person confused, postmoderns wonder why all the hubbub. Why commit to even a sexual orientation if you don’t have to – you might feel differently later?

Bauman calls the idea of free-floating identity a recent invention, and if being encumbered or tied down by identity is a problem, it’s been one literally from our births. No one comes into this world unencumbered or disembedded. You are born with a gender, a family, a skin color, in a town, a state, a country; you will have a childhood, an education, friends, etc. Factors such as these “embed” identity into us. They “encumber” us to the world in an inalienable way. I am male, white, an Arrington, son of Gene and Betty, brother to Jodey and Kally, a West Texan, Plainview Bulldog, Baylor Bear, etc.[ref]I recognize my chief identity-marker is rooted to the Person and Work of Christ. I am listing factors that any American can identify with: skin color, place of origin, educational background, etc.[/ref] No matter how I feel about them, these things tie me to the world I live in – they are the “steel and concrete” I cannot avoid.

I’m with my Polish sociologist friend, identity-in-flux-due-to-feeling is not only a modern-day invention, it’s a myth. I can change my personhood as much as I can change my gender, my race, or my history. The irony is that postmoderns, for whom seeking some kind of stability in life is a high value, by re-defining identity are actually running from the very thing they want. Even in Christian circles, studies show that millennials want a church experience tied to history, creeds, and older elements that give the sense of permanence and fixity. They are seeking something which defines them more than their immediate experiences.

It makes me wonder if many of our current struggles and heated conversations between moderns and postmoderns are rooted in a genuine disagreement with how we define identity, and who’s right?[ref]And no, this isn’t a place where both sides can be right. ;)[/ref]

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

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