Who God Says You Are

A Christian Understanding of Identity

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Klyne R. Snodgrass
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , January
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $24.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802875181.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Klyne R. Snodgrass, a New Testament scholar, has written a popular book that addresses itself to the dispiriting decline of mainline Christian denominations, and the assumption that these churches are at least partially responsible for that decline. As Snodgrass observes, self-identified Christians nowadays are increasingly likely to view worship as one life-choice among many, to be chosen—or not—according to one’s personal preferences. This is nothing less than a disaster, in his view: “One of the aches of my life has been watching the failure of Christians to understand their own message, their viewing Christianity as so superficial as to be irrelevant, and their failure to capture the depth of commitment and transformation that faith involves. Christianity is seen as a minor attachment to their well-guarded identities rather than the ground-shaking transformation of identity it really is. No wonder the American church is declining and has less and less influence in people’s lives, especially young people’s lives” (30).

Who God Says You Are is a scholar’s sermon calling Christians to recognize once again that faith and worship cannot possibly be relegated to a compartment in life, because they proclaim who one is and belong at the center of one’s life.

Such an intervention is urgently needed as a response to the soul-splitting effects of liberalism, but it could be made in a number of ways. For example, one might introduce readers once again to the restless pilgrimage of Saint Augustine, who in taking up the Scriptures was both obliged and able to renounce the erotic licentiousness and worldly ambition that had hitherto seemed impossible for him to live without. Indeed, Snodgrass has written a book that could offer a first step towards a serious encounter with Augustine, whom he cites several times

However, in offering A Christian Understanding of Identity (the book’s subtitle), Snodgrass frames his discussion in a way that does not quite translate to Augustine and is even further from scripture: “I am well aware that the word ‘identity’ does not appear in most translations of the Bible and that there is no obvious corresponding Hebrew or Greek word” (2, emphasis added). But even though Snodgrass acknowledges the difference, he denies its importance; the words are new, he says, but the “thinking and theology” behind them are not: “Life is about identity construction,” he declares (3). But if life is about identity construction, why would there be no word in either Greek or Hebrew to express this? The issue seems to me a serious one, but Snodgrass brushes it quickly aside, either because he expects his readers to take identity for granted or because he does so himself.

Snodgrass organizes his book according to a series of “factors” in the process of identity-construction. Humans, he says, acquire distinct identities through a number of things specific to themselves: 1) physiological and psychological characteristics, 2) personal histories, 3) relations with others, 4) (their own) minds, 5) commitments, 6) actions, 7) boundaries, 8) process of change, and 9) the future. Among these, #4 is of central importance as it “incorporates all the others” (14). Accordingly, a brief summary of chapter 4, “You Are Your Mind,” will serve to illustrate the transformation that Snodgrass sees in a Christian understanding of identity. 

For Snodgrass, the mind consists in “the internal self-interpreting, self-directing memory” and manifests itself in a variety of distinct “selves” (110-24). Beyond the “minimal self,” which lives merely to gain the objects of basic desires, there is the “executive self,” which employs the faculties of memory, valuing, and dialogue to organize the world of experience, practice leadership, and gain self-control. But the mind is also aware that the executive self may be misinformed or go astray. Hence there is also the “summoning self,” who beckons towards an “ideal” beyond the objectives of the executive self. This, Snodgrass asserts (with the support of neuroscientist Patrick McNamara), is the role of religion in general: to provide the summoning self with an experience of “‘decentering,’ which periodically takes the self ‘off-line,’ out of working memory temporarily for repair and construction, and then links it back with an ideal possible self for a more effective and mature executive self.” Although Snodgrass admits again that the language of neuroscience is not the language of scripture, he nevertheless insists that McNamara’s account “precisely describes Christian faith and what worship seeks to do” (111).

The best place to reflect on whether this assertion is correct is in the final section of chapter 4, “Scripture’s Treatment of Memory, Valuing, and Dialogue” (125-32). Much of the discussion here is valuable, particularly Snodgrass’s account of how the mind can lapse into flattering self-deception. Despite its ability to construct identity, or rather by that very ability, the mind is apt to produce self-serving, spurious representations, lying to others and also oneself—“putting out our eyes,” in the words of Pascal (129). Hence the need for humility and the kind of self-examination that exposes painful shortcomings. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit, says Snodgrass, that our minds can fulfill this obligation and be led to Jesus Christ, who knows us and summons us to our true selves (130-32). At this peak, Snodgrass might have chosen to relinquish the language of identity-construction. He does not.

Thus Snodgrass urges our modern selves—defensive, stiff-necked, wayward, and divided as we are—into community with God and one another. In my view, his references to guilt and shame, sin and repentance (e.g., 119, 130) still read too much like a psycho-therapeutic self-help book; they lack the tremendous weight of responsibility, the profound depths, the fear and trembling, and the longing for salvation that one finds in David, the desperate women of the gospels, Augustine in the garden, or—I submit—the hearts of readers whom Snodgrass most wants to reach. 

And if identity-construction should prove to be a modern concept that fails to speak frankly about sin and redemption, would it not be best to leave it behind, like a household god, forgotten in the barren sands?

About the Reviewer(s): 

Peter Busch is Assistant Professor in the Augustine and Culture Seminar Program at Villanova University.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Klyne R. Snodgrass is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at North Park Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois. His other books include The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Between Two Truths: Living with Biblical Tensions, and the NIV Application Commentary volume on Ephesians. The first edition of his Stories with Intent won the 2009 Christianity Today Book Award for Biblical Studies.

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