Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Repenting from Toxic Individualism

Written by: on February 21, 2019

I’m watching with interest the exploration of the identification of ‘toxic-masculinity.’ The term has not yet achieved precise definition, but it has arisen as both an academic and social project aimed at defining traditionally tolerated root beliefs about masculinity that have grown into destructive behavioural patterns. I would argue that a key contributing factor to the emergence of this problem is toxic-individualism. The emergence of individualism, influenced by the commodification of culture and people has played a significant role in both. Miller suggests that “(o)ur very lives become objects of exchange.”[1] Once people are reduced to individual identities forged primarily around their utilitarian contributions, they become commodified in a depersonalised, and dehumanised way. We are disconnected. Just as the the rise of consumerism led to “(t)he commodity appear(ing) naked in the marketplace, shorn of all the communal references that would give it meaning,”[2] so too do bodies lose their communal reference and become consumable. Thus rather than spirit-filled image-bearers, people are reduced to distinct collections of flesh and blood. In order to resist the powerlessness that accompanies existence as a commodity, people are invited to also function as consumer. This creates the illusion of power and offers implied agency. At it’s worst, this redefinition of self, as simultaneously consumer and commodity, results in an internalized drive towards self-improvement in order that one might become a more desirable commodity. “Deprived of communal sources of identity, people were encouraged to invest in commodity-based self-enhancements.”[3] Consuming products, culture and experiences that have been categorised as valuable simultaneously increases the social value of the self. Turner concurs that “(t)he increasing emphasis on fitness, hygiene, thinness and youthfulness are central planks in the maintenance of self-regulation in relation to consumer capitalism.”[4] Thus a destructive pattern emerges where individuals are in competition with one another where consumability, reframed as desirability, is measured by the success in which one is a consumer of desirable commodities. “The various commodities on offer…were offered as solutions to the inadequacies of the self, which had now become the fundamental commodity.”[5] Creating a deeper schism, “(c)onsumer desire is, surprisingly not really about attachment to things, but about the joys of desiring itself.”[6] While capitalist consumerism has led to to toxic-individualism, in an equally unhealthy way, communism has historically resulted in erasure of the individual leaving the collective vulnerable to the tyranny of unchecked power. Could faith practices speak into capitalist culture in a way that might nurture healthy individualism?

Perhaps a first step is to reclaim the body as a site of communion with God—the body as temple of the Holy Spirit[7] . The practices of silence and stillness refocus our attention from external action to internal action. To be still rejects the utilitarian narrative that ‘doing’ defines our value. To do this voluntarily is an exercise of personal agency rather than an enforced act of conformity motivated by fear of punishment. To practice this in community modifies communal values. Seasons of fasting function to reject the definition of our identity as defined by our consumption. Collective prayer reorients the community to a submitted relationship with God, refusing the temptation to live out of a communal authority. To pray from scripture integrates the local community within the broader Christian story which transcends time and place. The body has thus been reclaimed by the individual who then voluntarily submits it as a site for connection with the divine, the church community and the broader Christian narrative.

Scripture reading and speaking testimonies are further practices that will embrace healthy individualism which is tempered by communal identity. Freedom to both choose connection with a sacred story and reengage the creative work of storytelling are important acts of resistance to consumerism. While the commodification of religion would have icons disconnected from their source narratives for more palatable consumption and narratives reattributed to commodities for the purpose of marketing, reading sacred stories with the corresponding images will reclaim the Christian story as a healthy counter-narrative. For example the primary story of a sacrificial God who then invites us to symbolically consume His being becomes the ultimate act of consumption as it serves to satisfy spiritual desire and strengthen relational connection to God. Furthermore, practicing this act in community rejects consumption as an expression of individualism. In the Lord’s Supper then, each chooses to be found in a common grand narrative, and then using the corresponding symbols, individually consumes food for the spirit as a community. In response, a community might then take time for personal testimony. The creative act of story telling re-connects individuals with their identity as Imago Dei. Each becomes a reflection of the creative God who created the world by story telling. Recognizing that no personal story is fully reflective, and that each distinct story enhances God’s revelation to the community celebrates the individual-communal tension. Sacred identity is then bolstered by a communal narrative which counters the consumer/consumable construction. Where “(a)ds directly challenged the communitarian social bonds of local culture by portraying isolated individuals whose status was solely dependent on their individual attributes,”[8] sacred storytelling celebrates the individual while confirming social bonds.

In order to minister well within consumer culture, the church must engage practices that disarm toxic individualism through a balance by communalism. This is a delicate task as hints of communist philosophy will be met with full rejection. However if we can protect the body as a sacred space where the personal spirit and the Holy Spirit commune; if we can affirm the dignity and worth of each individual as an image bearer of the Divine; if we can lean into a collective identity that protects the dignity of all, then perhaps the church can shine as an example of love across diversity.

1. Vincent Jude Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2003), 37.
2. Ibid., 37.
3. Ibid., 54.
4. Anthony Elliott. Contemporary Social Theory: An Introduction. (New York: Routledge, 2009), GooglePlay, 112.
5. Miller, 44.
6. Miller, 7.
7. 1 Corinthians 6:19, NIV.
8. Ibid., 44.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

9 responses to “Repenting from Toxic Individualism”

  1. Brilliant Jenn! I love how you pointed us to the redemption of consumption from its misdirection to its ultimate and proper end — that is Christ.

    Your post reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from John Piper, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”

  2. Rhonda Davis says:

    Thank you for your post, Jenn. I especially enjoyed the portion on the individual-communal tension and the use of storytelling. Thank you for reminding us that the greatest reflection of ourselves can be found in our position in a much greater narrative. I appreciate you!

  3. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Ironically all this toxicity has been commodified and consumed for a brief identity experience. LGBTQI, Transgenderism, Environmentalist, left and right wing Politics. They all require allegiances, commitments, financial obligations and political legitimisation to the extent that people gain personal meaning from the movements. There is money to be made, power to be had and a voice to be heard. At least until the next movement comes round. It’s so much fun. So, is Christianity just another political voice in the same vein, requiring a transactional relationship with personal meaning as the quid pro quo? See my comment to Sean.

  4. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    I loved your post, Jenn. And I also appreciated your statement that ‘the church must engage practices that disarm toxic individualism through a balance by communalism.’ I agree, as the church should be a communal environment ~ led by the power of the Holy Spirit and guided through the love of Christ.

  5. Thank you Jennifer for the way you have brought out the issue of indidualism and the commodification of self but also pointing out how the individual can avoid this trap. It reminds me that our greatest value is in giving ourselves to God’s purposes as stated in Romans 12:1; that we should give our bodies as a living sacrifice to God.

  6. Mary Mims says:

    Great post, Jenn. I like the idea of combating consumerism and commodification by communal Scriptural readings and testimonies. When I read this it reminded me of the verse in Revelation 12:11, And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. Testimonies are powerful because they point to all God has done for us and shows that we did not get anything on our own. I think if we are going to overcome the world, we need to do it through Jesus Christ and His Word. Thank you for the reminder.

  7. Digby Wilkinson says:

    Response to your query from Seans Post. Putting my neck on the block here:
    The substitutionary understanding of Jesus’ death “was not central in the first thousand years of Christianity.” In fact the first systematic articulation of the cross as “payment for sin” happened just over nine hundred years ago in 1098 in St. Anselm’s treatise Cur Deus Homo? [Why Did God Become Human?] Anselm’s intent was to provide a rational argument for the necessity of the incarnation and death of Jesus.
    So, he did, with a cultural model drawn from his time and place: the relationship of a medieval lord to his peasants. If a peasant disobeyed the lord, could the lord simply forgive if he wanted to? No. Because that might suggest disobedience was of no consequence. Instead, a payment must be made because the the honor and orders of the lord were at stake.
    Anselm applied that social concept to our relationship with God. We have been disobedient and require punishment. Though God loves us and desires to forgive us, the restitution for sin must be made. Jesus, being human and fabulous paid for that sin in his death.
    A thousand years later, this remains the way most western Christians view the scriptures. though not all. The substitutionary atonement “theory” (and that’s all it is) implies that the Christ’s appearance in Jesus was a hashed together backup plan when the first option didn’t pan out.
    Certainly animals were sacrificed in the Judaic temple, but it was most likely about making something sacred by giving it as a gift to God; sacrifices were about thanksgiving, petition, purification, and reconciliation, not substitution. The temple metaphors of atonement, satisfaction, ransom, paying the price, and opening the gates, are just that—metaphors of transformation and movement. I think they were intended to be transformational not transactional. Is God that needy, unloving, rule-bound, and unforgiving? if so, did Jesus really mean it when he said, “Blessed are the gentle, the merciful, the peacemakers.”?
    The Franciscans and Dominicans took divergen paths on this. If you like, the Franciscans held what is really the alternate orthodoxy. Paraphrased, John Duns Scotus (13-14 Cent) said that Jesus wasn’t trying to solve any human problems through the incarnation and crucifixion; God didn’t need Jesus to die on the cross to decide to love humanity. “God’s love was infinite from the first moment of creation; the cross was Love’s dramatic portrayal in space and time.” In simple terms, that was the Franciscan nonviolent at-one-ment theory.
    The point of the cross is to transform humanity, it’s not a transaction to transform God. We change our minds about God, not God changing God’s mind about us. The cross is untainted gift, it is God’s dramatic outpouring of love.
    In worshipping Jesus the scapegoat, we were supposed to learn that scapegoating was lie – Looking at the life of Jesus, the great sin of the world was and remains, ignorant hatred, fear, and legitimated violence.

    • Jenn Burnett says:

      Digby this would be so much more fun in person as this is genuinely a key area of interest for me. Here’s what I chew on. As Jesus and subsequently Paul and company work to share about the kingdom of God (heaven) they are drawing on existing spheres of discourse in order to create a Christian discourse. For example there is agricultural discourse, judicial discourse, market discourse, household discourse, temple discourse etc. I often wonder about the impact the original context has on how we understand the concept of the cross and other teachings. It is also obvious to me that we severely over emphasize market/economic discourse in a free market, capitalist system. I also fully acknowledge that historical interpretations of the already derivative discourse can also make certain concepts seem more certain than others—such as a solely transactional understanding of the cross, when there are lots of different metaphors that offer a much fuller, more complex picture. I also agree that we can over emphasize the cross and miss the both the significance of the incarnation and the resurrection—ie Suggesting that believing in the cross saves us and the incarnation and resurrection ets. are some nice bonus ideas. At any rate, I somewhat appreciate the throwback to Anselm from my undergrad philosophy—that was a stretch and now I’ll need to go and learn about John Duns Scotus who apparently did not make my Philosophy profs reading list. Also, Leviticus 4 seems to me to suggest substitionary sacrifice to sin. No? Thanks for being willing to engage. There will be no chopping off heads today. The whole point of being in this program was to find the handful of people in this world keen on examining these ideas from these angles—for a bit of fun.

  8. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Jenn, Brilliant grasp of the material and effective presentation of your thoughts. I loved your statement of “the illusion of power and implied agency.” Perhaps not only due to toxic individualism but also as sinful individuals, we are constantly striving to cast ourselves in preferred illusionary positions. There is not doubt the Western church needs to recapture its roots as a corporate community, not merely a community of individuals. I loved your suggestions and look forward to how your research will, “affirm the dignity and worth of each individual as an image bearer of the Divine and lean into a collective identity that protects the dignity of all.” Many blessings and I look forward to see how the Lord will utilize your leadership in his church.

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