A Feature Review of
You Are Not Your Own: Belonging to God in an Inhuman World
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
“In some ways, history is the story of civilizations misunderstanding anthropology in one way or another, leading to terrible results. So my argument is not that the modern world has done something new by misinterpreting human nature. Instead, I’m asking how modern society has misinterpreted humans, and what are the implications of that false anthropology” (11).
So writes Alan Noble in the opening pages of his perceptive and deftly-written You Are Not Your Own. A central premise of Noble’s argument is that we live in a social setting that profoundly misunderstands the deepest and truest aspect of being human, namely that we belong to God and bear God’s divine image without condition, rather than bearing the fraught and heavy responsibility of constructing our own image and worth to display to the world. Like the captive zoo animal who exhibits signs of zoochosis as a result of living in an environment that is simply not where they are supposed to be, we in the West are deeply ensconced in an ill-fitting environment, and also displaying our own signs of collective unease and poor health. “As Kierkegaard understood, the deepest despair occurs when we are unconscious of being in despair” (2). But is Noble’s argument convincing?
In a word, yes, due in part to the deep substance and wide-ranging intellectual influences he brings to bear (ranging from Jacques Ellul to Charles Taylor to Nietzche to Steven Pinker), but also to the humor and light touch Noble brings to what could otherwise be a dour and depressing work of cultural critique. Though I might emphasize some theological content differently, I found his keen analysis of modernity to be clear, even-handed and intellectually robust, without becoming bogged down in obtuse language or endless theory.
As someone who particularly enjoys studying works of cultural critique, both Christian and secular, something I read carefully for is a sense that the author has developed a fluency in the material he or she engages with. It’s quite unfortunate (and more frequent than I wish) to encounter a writer who quotes Charles Taylor, for example, but in a way that suggests they haven’t actually read the entirety of A Secular Age. Thankfully, this is not remotely the case with Noble’s work, and I am delighted to say that he is a trustworthy guide through some complex and thorny work from the writers alluded to above, integrating their insights seamlessly into his own argument, and pushing back when necessary.
(Incidentally, as a fellow video game enthusiast, I was even more assured upon finding an endnote that correctly defined the term “fetch quest,” but your mileage with that particular detail may vary.)
In terms of page count, the majority of You Are Not Your Own is devoted to unpacking the various ways we have internalized the lie that “I Am My Own and Belong to Myself” (the title of an opening chapter) and how society not only provides numerous avenues for us to pursue that lie, but also actively encourages the pursuit, particularly through technological means (hence the influence of Ellul), and how this Sisyphean task drives the despair fueled by the lie ever deeper. “Resignation has the greater pull on us because the anthropology that shapes our society presents no actual ends for human existence, no purpose, only an increasing number of means” (83). The ubiquitous availability of these “means” constantly turns us towards a new pursuit when one inevitably fails to fulfill, thus the treadmill that leads to despair.
Personally and pastorally, especially as someone who served for 8 years in college campus ministry, arguably the season of life in which some of the cultural pressures to “define yourself” are felt most acutely, I felt deep resonance with Noble’s arguments in this section. Rather than decrying the individual evils or shortcomings of various “means,” (such as pornography), what is needed is a deeper, more radical critique of the very idea of what these “means” are attempting to accomplish in our lives, as well as a positive vision of what the good life can be built on, if not the endless quest to construct one’s own identity.
In my experience, Christian cultural commentators frequently succeed when leveraging cultural critique, but stumble when turning towards a positive theological vision to replace what has been deconstructed. I’ve seen many writers volley biblical proof texts, without taking into account cultural skepticism towards the relevance of the Bible, or simplistically regurgitate shallow Sunday School lessons about sin, atonement or God’s love, without working to interpret and contextualize these ideas in ways that might catch the attention of a secular reader.
Noble largely avoids this trap, posing a counter-truth to the modern world’s lie in ways that are thoughtful and stirring,
“If you are not your own and belong to Christ, then your personhood is a real creation, objectively sustained by God. And as a creation of God, you have no obligation to create your self . . . All your efforts to craft a perfect, marketable image add nothing to your personhood. The reason the opinions of others don’t define you isn’t because your opinion is the only one that counts, but because you are not reducible to any human efforts of definition. The only being who can fully know you and understand you without reducing you to a stereotype of an idol is God ” (139, emphasis added).
While I might not foreground God’s sovereignty quite as strongly as Noble (he is operating in an unabashed Reformed theological framework; the title of the book is itself an allusion to the Heidelberg Catechism, after all), these types of theological nuances and quibbles largely fade away in the context of the overall argument he is putting forward, which I whole-heartedly, fundamentally and absolutely agree with. If we, as the body of Christ in the midst of late modernity, are to make any headway in meaningfully separating ourselves from the lies we unthinkingly imbibe, then we do well to pay attention to winsome, thoughtful, informed and culturally aware books like You Are Not Your Own. Not only our spiritual and emotional health is at risk, but also our witness to a world that achingly needs to hear that they belong to Christ, and that no amount of anxious striving, platform-building or influence-chasing is necessary to experience such Good News.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com