In real life, authenticity is an important component of mental health. It means behaving in ways that comport with our opinions, values, and feelings. When we can’t behave authentically, it messes us up. We feel like fakes. We want to tear off our masks and reveal ourselves for who we really are.
So much of our media involves tropes around authenticity. In many ways, Christianity—especially the hardline, extremist flavors that dominate the news of late—destroys authenticity. And yet these exact Christians push their tribe as the one place that really practices it.
Today, we’re going to look at how Christians market themselves as the only place to find authenticity, and then we’ll see how their tribe tramples it to the ground.
(Links to some of the stuff I talked about in the introduction: “Warning” by Jenny Joseph; Red Hat Society info; Wee People soft sculpture; Bible story of Esau selling his birthright; Subsequent meaning of ‘mess of pottage‘; The story of Esau.)
(This post appeared on Patreon on 10/11/2022. If you’d like early access, please consider becoming a patron! Thank you for whatever you decide to do.)
In the wild: Obviously, TRUE CHRISTIANS™ are all about dat authenticity!
One of my ongoing projects behind the scenes is checking out how individual Christians and church leaders keep trying to define what a TRUE CHRISTIAN™ must do and believe. It’s absolutely hilarious to see how hard Christians try to draw clear lines around something that, at its heart, is purely imaginary. Recently, I showed you some of that mess.
But lately, I’m noticing how authenticity factors in to these attempts.
For instance, let’s consider “6 signs you are a genuine Christian” by Janet Denison. She’s a true-blue, dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist. She’s riffing on a listicle about authenticity she spotted on Huffington Post (HuffPo). In her response post, she tries to shoehorn Bible verses and boundary-violations into real authenticity of character, all so she can then claim that TRUE CHRISTIANS™ practice authenticity.
It’s beyond cringey. She quotes the HuffPo ideal, then tries to claim that her flavor of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ fosters and nurtures Christians into meeting that ideal.
In reality, the opposite happens.
The song and dance around authenticity
I guarantee you that if Janet Denison ever met me, she’d immediately tell me I wasn’t a TRUE CHRISTIAN™, if only because her exact brand of evangelicalism left me with post-traumatic stress disorder, made me feel like I was worthless, made it difficult for me to trust others with my true opinions, and made me hypervigilant about my surroundings and who was watching me. Her exact brand of evangelicalism led to me becoming supremely inauthentic in character.
In fact, accepting more and more literal/inerrant beliefs only made my inauthenticity worse. I didn’t regain my authenticity until I deconverted. Even my own parents remarked on it a few years later. They told me that they finally felt like they had their daughter back again. I’d become a literal stranger to them, one wearing an obvious mask.
But if I’d stayed Pentecostal into 2022 and met Denison like that, I can also guarantee you that she’d consider me a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. There was nothing about my presentation that would have made her question my bona fides. I could perfectly act the part—almost as if the part was designed to be acted in the first place!
I’m not uncommon there, either. I’ve never met an evangelical who was anything close to Denison’s listed ideals. Almost all of them have serious problems with anger, boundaries, pettiness, and control-lust. Many abuse substances and have poorly- or untreated mental health needs. They all act like they’re aching to rip off their masks.
For some, maybe it’s better that they don’t. But for many others, it’s a tragedy that they’re wasting their limited, finite lifetimes just to be inauthentic.
And now, the fundagelicals who don’t like the idea of authenticity at all
Of course, plenty of fundagelicals (that obscene fusion of chirpy, apologetics-driven evangelicalism with hardline, ossified, willfully-ignorant fundamentalism, which occurred somewhere around the 1990s) don’t like authenticity at all. They view it as a modern, newfangled idea that fundagelicals shouldn’t truck with.
For every Christian who insists on authenticity as a sign of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ (and one odd duck who thinks the entire idea of authenticity wouldn’t exist without TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ having paved the way), there’s another giving the idea huge side-eye.
Often, the side-eyers conflate personal authenticity with practicing TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, as Desiring God writer Todd Wilson does in a 2014 post:
Nobody likes a fake. Even in our airbrush culture, we despise counterfeits and crave authenticity. Everyone wants to be real.
But what does it mean to be real? No one really knows. Or so it seems.
When he uses the term “real,” he means “a real TRUE CHRISTIAN™.” That’s what his post is about. In a way, it’s about authenticity in that it advises Christians to behave more in line with their stated beliefs. However, he’s not concerned with personal authenticity as a psychological good, but rather with fundagelicals’ rampant hypocrisy driving away potential recruits.
We can see similar attitudes in this gal’s post and in the comments on this psychologist’s blog. At the latter link, commenter “Jara (not verified)” left an essay on authenticity in Jesus-ing that easily eclipses the actual blog post’s length. It’s really impressive. Even another Christian replying to her admits she didn’t read all of it, and why should she have? It’s just meaningless Jesus-blather, meant more to make its creator feel more dominant in a challenging situation than to be a substantive reply to the actual blog post.
Be authentic, fundagelicals, in this one specific way that your leaders demand
It’s mind-blowing that fundagelicals don’t realize exactly what kind of bait-and-switch is going on here.
To a large extent, this bait and switch depends on selling a redefinition of authenticity that completely warps it. We can see this redefinition on display in women’s blogs, in particular. Here’s Robin Revis Pyke’s redefinition:
Some of you may be thinking at this point that authenticity sounds similar to how the world defines “being yourself.” But there’s a fine line here, so let’s clarify a few things.
As we’ve already established, being yourself according to the way of the world means holding nothing back. According to society, it doesn’t matter if you hurt someone as long as you are being your true self.
On the other hand, when we are living out our biblical identity, our behavior will reflect Christ—not the world. Why? Because we will know and believe that we are a new creation made in His image. The old us is gone.
But this is completely absurd. That’s not what authenticity means at all. It doesn’t mean being rude and hurtful to other people. Normies have known for years that “jus’ callin’ like I sees it” is code for being an unmitigated asshole in a way that hopes for no pushback or consequences.
We see the exact same redefinition here, in a blog post from Today’s Christian Woman. After asking a hotel clerk how she was doing and getting a super-rude response, Juli Slattery reasons:
I asked the question, but certainly wasn’t expecting that [very rude] answer. I guess she was just being authentic.
What would your life look like if you were absolutely honest with everyone? . . .
The qualification that we are being honest or authentic doesn’t give us license to say whatever comes to mind.
And again, that’s absolutely not what authenticity means. But it does let the writer chide her fellow Christian women for failing to simper and support others at their own expense. So I reckon she’s happy with her post.
My experience puts the lie to all of it
As I mentioned, TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ made me a hugely inauthentic person. It wasn’t just that I was, like almost all fundagelicals, a hypocrite to the bone. Nor that it made me dishonest about evangelism, since despite my best efforts not to lie, I still had to hide or downplay a lot of my experiences in fundagelicalism.
No, it was because I never felt free to respond to anything or behave with anyone as I really felt. Whether I was talking to normies or tribemates, whether I was selling my only product (membership in my own church) or just hanging out with other Pentecostals, I always felt like I was living in a fishbowl and under a magnifying glass, all at the same time.
Fundagelicals get taught to despise and trample any personal boundaries they encounter, treating each other like DIY projects. They also get taught to judge each other like whoa under the guise of not condoning sin.
There’s only one result that comes of such teachings: conditioning a tribe’s flock to march in lockstep and attack anyone who dares step one foot out of sync.
On the few occasions when I did respond to anything naturally, like mentioning I didn’t want kids, my tribe made sure to jump on me with both feet. You only have to go through one intervention at top speed on a Houston highway with a fake friend screeching in each ear to learn that lesson. Yeah, I’ve never wondered why so many fundagelical women keep telling fundagelical survey makers that they’d never in a million years consider talking to their churchmates or pastors about any off-limits sex they’re having, nor about any unwanted pregnancies they conceive. They already know how that’ll go over.
Real authenticity cannot be found in toxic groups
One trembles to imagine how these women learned that lesson, too.
Hopefully, they merely observed what happened to other people committing similar offenses. There’s a reason why fundagelical retaliation is so over-the-top, you know. It’s 100% intended to be a warning to any sheep who might be tempted to do anything similar to the scapegoat of the moment. Very quickly, everyone in the tribe knows better than to make a single squeak that might attract unwanted attention.
(That’s why it’s so important for everyone who can defy fundagelical overreach to do so. When there are so many moving targets, fundagelicals can only concentrate their vicious rebukes on a few, high-profile dissenters for brief periods of time.)
Needless to say, this enforced tribalism has the secondary effect of quelling real authenticity in the flock as a whole.
That’s why we’re seeing headlines lately like: “‘wild card’ Duggar family member is in ‘truth telling mode‘.” That astrology writer is on safe ground there. Derick Dillard has been leaking family secrets for years, and Jim Bob’s nastiness, hypocrisy, and control-lust is common knowledge around reality-TV fan circles. Only the most die-hard Duggar clown car fans—and fundagelicals, not that there isn’t an overlap there—still think that show looks anything like the Duggars’ real family.
Redefining authenticity out of existence
Authenticity isn’t about abusing other people, though I can completely understand why fundagelicals keep trying to push that notion. They need the flocks to fear the very idea of authenticity, or at least to redefine it as complete obedience to their Dear Leaders.
But in Reality-Land, it’s really about living in a way that fits with our ideals and personality, and not pretending to be something we’re not just to make other people happy.
Since both of those ideals run completely counter to toxic Christianity as a whole, especially for women it seems, then it makes sense that leaders in these groups need to redefine the entire idea.
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Janet Denison also did a seminar about “being a holy people” according to the Epistle to the Romans. It really does look like an absolute hoot of an extended exercise in apologetics, logical fallacies, and general chirpy manipulation. She’s big mad that fundagelicals don’t act at all like they believe their own stated claims. Obviously, the solution is to stuff them all over again with her brand of apologetics!
Seriously, the faulty logic of feelings-leading-to-obedience strikes again. But I see why fundagelicals keep going there. They can’t force the flocks to obey. It’s clearly much easier to induce greater faith. At least for a little while.
This gal feels more and more like the gift that keeps on giving—to heretics and apostates, at least.