McGill, Jenny, ed. The Self Examined: Christian Perspectives on Human Identity. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2018; ISBN: 9781684260805; pp. 208, $ 19.99.
[Kindle based review: no page numbers]
For anyone identifying as human this book is a worthwhile read. In this book human identity or rather “Christian identity” within current debates as well as the two Testaments is explored. What makes this book even more special is that the contributors have quite diverse backgrounds (cultural, ministerial, age, etc.). Disciplines represented are e.g.: theology, philosophy, history, psychology, biology etc. Probably the most contested topics of today are touched on: What is a human being? What is gender? Among other topics.
Two Parts: Themes of Identity in Scripture & Christian Identity and Contemporary IssuesThe book is structured in two parts. Part one is Themes of Identity in Scripture with four chapters; one on the Old Testament and three on the New. Part two Christian Identity and Contemporary Issues contains five chapters with such diverse topics as „Identity as Christian and Cultural: A Case Study of India” or “Identity as Christian and Gendered: The Case for Particularity”. These two parts are rounded up by an “Introduction” and an “Epilogue” by the editor Jenny McGill who did a fantastic job of compiling the authors as well as the topics. One wishes this would be a multi-volume project so that more topics could be included (like a full treatment of “being in Christ” language in Paul, though here and there this is mentioned in the different chapters).
Some of the chapters are fairly “light-read” in the sense that you can grab a cup of coffee and a doughnut read the chapter and find that you still have half the doughnut left. Other chapters are denser, and the fear of missing lunch and dinner altogether creeps in.
Here a brief summary of each chapter
Redeemed IdentityIn the “Introduction” McGill gives a brief overview of theories of identity, definitions of key terms (“Christian”, “Identity”, and “Christian Identity”), and a summary of each of the chapters. She holds that “identity formation is a lifelong task that is refashioned and unfolds much like a story” which “fits well with the theological framework of the Story of God”. A Christian identity does not erase but redeem one’s former identity.
Part One Themes of Identity in Scripture starts out with the discussion of “An Identity of Shame in Genesis: The Human Condition” by Jürgen Schulz. Schulz explores “the nature and function of shame for the identity of an individual in the Old Testament, particularly in Genesis”. This thoroughly researched chapter also incorporates personal anecdotes for proper attire in the swimming pool area and parenting issues as well. Schulz demonstrates that in contrast to Western individualism “one of the fundamental and constitutive characteristics of the self in the Old Testament is its relationality and sociality”. Shame in terms of the Old Testament is “caused by a divergence from perceived expectations”. Many implications and applications are given in Schulz’ chapter: shame helps us see that something is mistaken, shields from damaging disturbance, and can “regulate the closeness of human relationship”.
In ch. 2 “An Identity of Gospel Love: The Centrality of the Second Great Commandment for Christian Identity” Rod Reed argues that “Christians’ personal and social identities should prioritize love for others as a primary indicator of spiritual maturity” leaning on Jesus’ teaching in Mark 12.Augustine: ordered loves Thus, instead of seeing a “belief-centered” or “behavior-centered” identity love indicates “a clear center of identity for the Christian life”. This is closely related to Augustine’s view of ordered and disordered love. He cautions, however, and states that “[w]hile human effort is clearly required in pursuing Christlikeness, it is secondary to divine agency in the process of spiritual formation”. Examen and the lectio divina are shortly introduced as well as responsive/situational disciplines.
Célestin Musekura who is involved with “African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries” (ALARM) writes about “An Identity of Forgiveness in Colossians: A New Way of Being” (ch. 3). Writing about Col 3:1-17 Musekura states that Paul reminds Christians that their new identity is sealed by their identification with the death and resurrection of the Messiah. This new identity brings thoughts, minds, aspirations, and conduct unto a new level. He draws in his own experience, a definition of forgiveness, and what it means to live with a new heart, mind and behavior (leaning on Col 3:12-13). Musekura further maintains that pretty much “everything we put into action has been planned and executed in our minds. This is why the renewal of our mind is critical for altering our actions”. This chapter is filled with many personal stories from Africa.
In ch. 4 “Communal Perseverance in Hebrews: Christian Identity as God’s Family” Marc-André Caron shows that “going to church” is indispensable to our Christian identities. He does so by looking at the effects of persecution on the “readership” of Hebrews and how that persecution could be “overcome by its self-identity as God’s family” using a sociology of knowledge approach. Abandoning one’s siblingsAs Jesus the elder brother shows in his pattern of loving, one clings to and perseveres together with one’s siblings (whom one cannot choose). If church is understood as this intimate family-relationship one does not leave the church “but abandons his brothers and sisters”, according to Caron. He sees leaving the church as an issue to be considered like “severing [one’s] relationship with [one’s] parents or divorcing”. We need one another as siblings – if we like it or not.
In part two of this book we come to Christian Identity and Contemporary Issues. Jenny McGill starts out this part with “A Theology of Identity: Christian Identity as Migrant” in examining Christian identity “as migrational in terms of the nature of its departure, belonging, and displacement”: departure being a departure of allegiance; belonging being “in Christ” thus reunited with God (“who I am is defined by whose I am”); and displacement in the sense of “an increased capacity to give of oneself and a new openness in oneself that allow the other a presence”. In the section on “belonging” McGill states that the sacrament of baptism portrays “the Christian pilgrimage involves a daily journey of reconciliation with the triune God”. Though baptism might portray that, I wonder if the sacrament of Communion would be more appropriate here (of this I am no sure).
Andrew B. Spurgeon tackles the question if a person can both be an “Indian” and a “Christian” in ch. 6 “Identity as Christian and Cultural: A Case Study of India”. To be able to answer that he first explains “what makes a person an Indian”. Then he proceeds showing how one can live as an Indian Christian. Five features are chosen as an intersection between “Indian-ness” and Christian theology: India’s caste system, belief in polytheism, treatment of women, belief in reincarnation, and prasada (“gift of God”).
“Christian Identity and Embodied Being: Toward Valuing Our Bodies” is the title of Lisa Igram’s chapter (ch. 7). The concern voiced at the beginning is “an overly spiritualized faith that has divorced our spirituality from our very real existence as physical, embodied beings”. She surveys contemporary and historical discussion of the body/mind divide (including the perception of biblical authors) between the two extremes of “reductive physical monism” and “Cartesian substance dualism”. A primary function of our embodiment is relationality The three “in-betweens” are: “nonreductive physicalism”, “emergent dualism”, and “substance dualism”. After the survey she argues that it might be time to “overemphasize the value of the body” as a reaction to the soul/mind and body divide. To do so she finds help with Paul and his usage of σάρξ and σῶμα. Igram argues that “Pauline theology […] uses σῶμα relationally—that is, our embodiment’s primary function is for relationship with God, others, and the world”. Paul’s understanding and empirically driven studies show that “a primary function of our embodiment is relationality”. This then has implications on epistemology as well as Christian spirituality.
In ch. 8 Andi Thacker writes on “Identity of Attachment: How God Shapes Our Neurobiology”. She states that one’s main attachment relationships influence one’s identity: “One’s attachment relationships influence one’s relationship with God and, in turn, one’s identity”. Her purpose is to “integrate attachment research, identity formation, and neural functioning, viewed through the lens of theology”. How one relates to God the Father is deeply influenced by a person’s attachment style.
Maybe one of the “hottest topics” in our generation is that of gender. Nate Collins tackles this issue in “Identity as Christian and Gendered: The Case for Particularity” (ch. 9) – though this discussion has been going on for a bit more than 100 years. Collins purpose is to reflect “on a few preliminary theological and philosophical perspectives that might support the development of a contemporary doctrine of gender” and suggests that a “critical realist approach to gender theory can be compatible with a biblical anthropology of personhood in general and Christian identity in particular”.
The book is closed by an “Epilogue” by the editor Jenny McGill which summarizes and bundles the different chapters into a coherent thought.
Further Thoughts/Minor Quibbles
Some minor quibbles – which do not detract from the overall blessing this book brings – are some typos (e.g. in the kindle edition one reads at the beginning of chapter 2 “Ehen students” instead of “When”), probable mis-referencing of biblical passages (in chapter 2 footnote 14 has “2 Corinthians 13” when this should probably read “1 Corinthians 13” as the topic is “love”), unprecise quotation of at least one book (in chapter 3 we have in footnote 5 a reference to “David E. Garland, The NIV Application Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998], 215”. The issue is that NIVAC has over 40 volumes and Garland has two; one on “Mark” and one on “Colossians and Philemon”. As the discussion is on a passage within Colossians this seems to be the reference.), and McGill has an interesting clause in her chapter (A Theology of Identity: Christian identity as Migrant) where she relates dependency of the Christian self on a “divine God” (what other than divine should a god be?).
But as already states these do not detract at all from the books value. I recommend this book to anyone who is involved in Christian ministry or is interested in what it means to be human.
 And myself being a NT guy, I am thrilled to see that even N.T. Wright makes it into the reference section of my friend Jürgen.