Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Academic Success or God? Who and what defines my Identity as a Christian?

I can't remember ever reading such an honest, vulnerable, self-revealing book by an established biblical scholar as this one: Brian S Rosner, Known by God. A Biblical Theology of Personal Identity (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2017). Such books don't appear often. Biblical scholars tend to keep their private lives hidden from the outside world. This book should be compulsory reading for evangelical students pursuing post-graduate study. Brian had a premier pedigree: a PhD in biblical studies from Cambridge, a monograph published in a top rated European monograph series, a senior teaching post at a well respected university. You could almost say, he had the modern day equivalent of what Paul describes in Philippians 3:4-7. But the book doesn't start with a list of achievements. Rather, it starts with tragic events that changed his life dramatically. Reflecting on some of these, Rosner states:

"My hopes and aspirations evaporated. Looking forward became a luxury I couldn't afford. With damaged memories, an uncertain destiny, and a troubled present, I had lost my sense of self and was forced to revisit the question that you're supposed to settle for good in your childhood and adolescence. That most personal question of all: Who am I?" (p. 23).

In the midst of his existential crisis, Brian turned to God and the Bible for answers:

"What I found (in the Bible) has made an enormous difference to me personally. It doused a destructive pessimism that threatened to engulf me, instilled in me a sense of value when I felt worthless, and steadied my course when I went close to coming off the rails" (p. 23).

But was this not just a phase in which a person discovered some short-term crutch, useful for but one season in life?  No. Brian reflects back over twenty years, revealing how the Bible continues to supply him with a "stable and satisfying sense of self, along with the blessings of significance, comfort, humility, and direction for living" (p. 24).

Brian engages masterfully and sensitively with popular contemporary ideas about personal identity as background for mature and accessible evangelical alternatives offered in the Old and New Testament. There is so much gold here, it would take several pages to unpack them.

And yes, Brian tackles the contemporary fixation on and deconstruction of gender, including in the discussion an excerpt from a February 14, 2014 Facebook announcement: "today, we're proud to offer a new custom gender option to help you better express your own identity on Facebook".

Acknowledging that there is no space for detailed discussion, Brian briefly explores insights from Galatians 3:28, Matthew 19:12; 22:30 concluding as follows:

"In the Bible's view, you are not your sexuality. There is something more fundamental to your identity".

Being a theologians in my mid forties, the chapter on humility is particularly arresting. Brian's not afraid to say things the way they really are:

"I am frequently struck by how often 'successful' people attribute their success to hard work, when the truth is that luck and timing (providentially governed), both fully outside of our control, play a major part in most successful ventures. If your plans succeed, do you take full credit and think how hard-working or shrewd you have been? Or do you say, along with Paul, what do we have that we did not receive (1 Cor 4:7)?" (p. 214).

Bitter competition, rivalry, backstabbing and arrogance in some biblical studies circles is an unfortunate reality.  I can recall numerous conversation at conferences confirming this. Brian's advice on these matters is exactly what I need right now:

"finding your identity in your achievements is unwise. Having your name known to God and inscribed permanently in heaven represents genuine and lasting significance and should lead to a healthy and realistic humility, enabling you to put the interests of others ahead of yourself and to serve them in love" (p. 216).

For me, this book will be my Christian identity companion, placed next to my Bible on the side of my bed for a long time. It is beautifully written, accessible, arresting and provides a welcome daily identity challenge for a Christian like me. If you have £12.99, invest in this book, you won't regret it ...

Brian is principal of Ridley College in Melbourne, Australia. Previously he taught at the University of Aberdeen and Moore Theological College. Brian is the author or editor of over a dozen books, including Greed as Idolatry, Paul and the Law, the Pillar commentary on 1 Corinthians, The Consolations of Theology, and the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology.