Aug 18, 2015

Paper Identities and the Image of Christ

By Caitlin Magness

In the new teen movie Paper Towns, based on the novel by John Green, average high school student Quentin Jacobsen attempts to unravel the mystery of his enigmatic childhood friend Margo Roth Spiegelman. Quentin has spent a large portion of his life admiring Margo from across the street, unable to approach her because of the fantastical and larger-than-life identity she's created for herself. She's the most popular girl in school, hangs out with the cool kids, and spontaneously disappears on epic adventures across the country. She's fun, smart, uninhibited, and, according to Quentin, impossibly beautiful. Other characters in the book have similarly idealized images of who she is. However, her constructed identity ultimately leaves her unable to understand herself or form genuine relationships. When she runs away, seemingly for good this time, Quentin must first figure out who he's looking for before he can find her.

Our culture is very concerned with the issue of identity. The issue takes many forms—racial identity, sexual identity, gender identity, cultural, political, religious, national—a veritable laundry list of personal markers that, in the end, tell you nothing about the actual person behind the labels. Not only are they more like the answers to government survey than anything you would talk about when actually getting to know a person, but they also reduce a person to an amalgamation of abstract concepts, a construct. Real people, of course, are far too complicated to be circumscribed within such a list of labels.

Despite our culture's disastrous approach to it, our concern with identity is understandable. After all, it's what distinguishes us from other animals—our ability to know ourselves. Self-awareness is one of God's gifts to man. It allows us to better understand ourselves, empathize with others, and appreciate God's work. It is only when our self-concept becomes distorted and divorced from God that things get ugly.

It's easy for conservative Christians to point the finger at those who adopt modern identity labels. However, no one is immune to false images of self. Whether it's pride, self-hatred, or an obsession with change and self-improvement, we all fall into distorted thinking when it comes to our identity. There's a saying that if you saw yourself in a crowd, you wouldn't recognize yourself. Maybe that's an exaggeration, but it illustrates an important truth: More often than not, we don't know ourselves.

In the absence of true self-awareness, countless false self-images emerge. The advent of social media has allowed us to project these fantasy versions of ourselves, exaggerating what we like about ourselves and erasing what we don't. By showing only what each person wants to be shown, these fabricated digital images blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

In my experience, false identities work as a coping mechanism, a way to deal with some real or imagined inadequacy in ourselves. Ironically, those with low self-esteem may be more likely to obsess over their identity. We think of self-hatred as the opposite of pride, but both cause a person to become preoccupied with herself and her image. If someone is unhappy with how she sees herself, or with how she believes other people see her, she may create a fictional identity in an attempt to be seen differently. Such attempts are destined to fail, once others see through the facade or the person realizes she can no longer maintain it. The constructed identity falls apart, and she is forced to see herself as she really is.

Our culture places an extraordinarily high value on self-esteem. We hear it from self-help books, television hosts, psychologists, even pastors: that people with high self-esteem are happier, have better relationships, and accomplish more in life. While generally true, this message can lay a heavy burden on those with self-esteem issues. When counseling someone who struggles with self-image, one should be careful not to make self-esteem into a work. Rather, focus on God's unconditional love for the person, which is not based on her feelings. Continually reminding herself of His love, rather than trying to create self-esteem on her own, turns a person's attention away from herself, leading her to a more complete understanding of herself and God's work in her life.

True identity is not created by us. You are who you are regardless of how you think of yourself, and you are loved by God whether you believe it or not. To him, you are enough: not some hypothetical perfect version of you, but you just as you are, with all your weaknesses, insecurities, and temptations. In his love he knew you before the foundation of the world, and sent his Son to die for you, that you might be the image of him (Ephesians 1:4, Romans 8:29).

In Paper Towns, Margo talks a lot about paper things—paper towns, paper houses, paper people. In the final scene of the book, she calls herself a paper girl, her identity completely constructed, flimsy, and foldable. Such are the identities we invent for ourselves. Thanks be to God that he sees through our paper disguises, and chooses to love us as we are, no matter how we feel about ourselves.


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Caitlin Magness is the daughter of a family of Lutheran musicians and church workers. She is an aspiring novelist, college student, and thinker of too many thoughts. She lives in Oklahoma with her family.

Image source HERE.

1 comment:

  1. Good observations! I read that book a while back, and I like how you've tied it to a discussion of our society's obsession with "identity."

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