Hello, my name is Ethan, and I am a recovering expressive individualist.
You are familiar with “expressive individualism,” even if the term isn’t familiar. I’ll define and describe it below, but phrases like “be authentic” or “follow your heart” capture the idea to a tee.
I became an Anglican to “be authentic” and “follow my heart.”
This is my story of how I became an Anglican and how being an Anglican is helping me recover from expressive individualism.
I grew up in the non-denominational evangelical church culture of the 1990s and early 2000s. My life was a cocktail of youth group culture, CCM, and the early waves of the emerging church movement. Throw it into a homeschooling mixer, shake with Worldview theory infused by reformed theology, and a substantial dash of six-day Creationism bitters, and you get a strange drink indeed (we also didn’t drink alcohol).
Perhaps the strangeness of my life could be exemplified by two childhood heroes: creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye, the Science Guy.
During high-school and college, I tried to carve out my unique Christian identity in various ways. I discovered Church History, the Church Fathers, sacramental theology. I began to robustly reject much of Western Christianity: good-bye penal substitution, reformational theology, and predestination.
In Middle-America suburbia, I realized that I could be my own kind of Christian by going back to the “tradition” and pridefully reject all the silliness of both reformed and emergent churches. The Great Tradition became fodder to express my unique identity.
Now, I needed to find a church that would let me express my identity. I wanted a Church grounded in the tradition that let me critically shape the tradition to my likeness and image. When I became an Anglican, that is what I thought I was joining.
I became an Anglican after college as I discerned a call to ministry. The Anglicans I hung out with were a mix of Episcopalians, Charismatics, and ex-Catholics. The narrative of the day was “Three-streams,” but it sure felt like a fully customizable Starbucks drink that I could perfectly shape to my particular happy place. As long as I confessed the creeds and prayed prayers in a prayer book (Common Worship, Book of Common Prayer 1979, take your pick), there was a lot of wiggle room. We called it a broad tent; it sounded so grand, so ecumenical, so free. It was the place I was looking for: a few boundaries and a lot of freedom to express myself.
I experimented with expressing my identity with a whole mix of practices: praying with icons, praying to Mary, Ignatian Spiritual practices, praying with prayer beads, and praying in tongues. Conspicuously absent were praying the Prayer Book and reading Scripture.
I judged certain parts of the Christian faith as unnecessary or uncouth. So, I tried omitting the Filioque in the Nicene Creed when I confessed it—I liked aligning with the “pre-schism church.” Any mention of “sinner” in liturgical prayer I left quietly unsaid—I’m united to God; why should I call myself a sinner? It felt too evangelical. Speaking of Evangelical, I became an Anglican to get away from evangelism, outreach, and “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” I wanted to escape anything that felt too much like my youth group.
I was confirmed into The Anglican Church on November 7th, 2011; married in 2012, and off to Trinity School for Ministry in 2013. I went prepared to carve out my expression of Anglicanism and enlighten the Anglican Church with my personal way of being Anglican.
What is at the heart of all of this?
The simple and correct answer is the sins of pride and idolatry. But the way these sins present themselves is through a deep habit of self-creation:
- “expressive individualism,” which involves
- the Psychological Self and
- the truth of taste.
What is Expressive Individualism?
The irony of joining a traditional church to express my unique identity is not lost on me. But it is pretty much in line with the spirit of the age. We join a CrossFit gym to express our unique identity with a collective practice and end goal. We express our unique views with a hashtag that a bunch of other people use on their posts as well. So, it makes sense that I would try to find a community to express my individualism.
The idea of expressive individualism is so common and ubiquitous it is almost hard to identify; perhaps it is most recognizable in phrases like: “You be you;” “define your happiness;” “live your truth.”
Have you ever eaten a Dove chocolate? Every single one of those little sayings inside the wrapper is expressive individualism.
Charles Taylor, in his book The Secular Age, defines it like this:
“I mean the understanding of life which emerges with the Romantic expressivism of the late-eighteenth century, that each one of us has his/her own way of realizing our humanity, and that it is important to find and live out one’s own, as against surrendering to conformity with a model imposed on us from outside, by society, or the previous generation, or religious or political authority” (Taylor, The Secular Age, 475).
Or take Carl Trueman’s blessedly shorter definition: “That each of us finds our meaning by giving expression to our feelings and desires” (Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, 46). And lest you think this is a problem for the “other guy,” Trueman, in his in-depth analysis of the rise of the modern self, concludes that everyone in Western culture is an expressive individualist (384–85).
It is painfully evident from my story that Anglicanism was a way to express my sense of identity and meaning through a whole host of feelings and desires. The very fact that I can tell a story about how and why I chose to become Anglican shows that I am an expressive individualist.
Now, to be clear, the core of expressive individualism isn’t rotten in and of itself. In the context of the Christian faith, its ascendency emphasized the value of individuals and personal dignity. But expressive individualism, detached from a universe providentially ordered by and towards God, establishes the individual and her sense of well-being above and against all else.
Anglicanism appealed to my expressive individualist self because I thought I could join a boutique Anglican expression, with a whole host of expressive practices, and still be a part of the larger whole. I didn’t just choose to become an Anglican; I got to decide what kind of Anglican would make me most happy and fulfilled, which connects to the second idea.
The Psychological Self
I was never happy with the prospect of trying to share the gospel—I’m an introvert. I didn’t like the idea of penal substitution—an angry God sure doesn’t make me happy. But I wasn’t quite ready to redefine Christian sexual ethics—it just didn’t seem right with my understanding of Scripture.
So, I found a church that fit me, made me happy, where I could be personally fulfilled. I was acting in terms of the Psychological Self, which makes the experience of internal happiness, contentment, and fulfillment the measure of all things. It is the “inward quest for personal psychological happiness” (Trueman, Rise and Triumph, 45).
As with expressive individualism, happiness isn’t wrong. But happiness, untethered from the Triune God as our end goal who orients and orders happiness, is a problem.
When happiness is the highest value, anything that makes me unhappy—they don’t use candles and incense; they expect me to share the gospel; they use the word “evangelical”—is an attack on both my happiness and my identity.
The Truth of Taste
Expressive individualism, detached from transcendence, scatters morality and truth to the wind. It leaves only my likes and dislikes to dictate right from wrong. Trueman described this phenomenon: “Taste can drive what we think to be right and wrong. Ethically speaking, taste becomes truth” (Rise and Triumph, 161).
During my journey to Anglicanism, I based many decisions on two taste criteria:
- Whether I found enjoyment and satisfaction in it or not; or
- Whether something reminded me of Evangelicalism—a kind of “Church ick” metric.
So, praying with icons, or praying to Mary, felt good and was aesthetically pleasing to me, so it was right. But talk to me about reading the Bible, praying, or sharing my faith with non-Christians—”ick!” My tastes were my truth, and I just happened to like the taste of Anglicanism, as I defined it.
Looking back, I’m surprised I was ordained at all! But by God’s grace and providence, he used my broken expressive individualism to lead me to Anglicanism, which, to my surprise and joy, is helping me recover from expressive individualism.
Recovering in the Anglican Church
I bled expressive individualism at Trinity School for Ministry:
- liturgical critic—check;
- secret allegiance to Eastern Orthodox Theology—check;
- only say what I agreed within the Prayer Book—check;
- critical of everything “evangelical”—check.
But there came a moment at Trinity, where I realized that all of my praying, preening, and theological particularities were a façade of a quiet rebellion built up to keep God from defining me. The very thing I sought in expressive individualism—a stable identity—I avoided because it meant letting go of myself, dying to myself.
It may sound trite, but in the end, it was a battle between my expressive individualist identity and the identity that the Triune God gives me in baptism.
But God, in His tender mercy, slowly dismantled my expressive individualism through
- submission to authority,
- submission to prayer, and
- submission to Scripture.
Submission to Authority
God broke down my identity in intellectualism through the patient work of studying in a community of Christians. My best thinking only got me to a façade of intellectualism, covering up a whole mess of sinful desires and actions. I needed to stop trusting myself and trust God and his Church.
As God humbled me, my studies shifted from a hermeneutic of suspicion to a hermeneutic of trust. Calvin, Augustine, and Aquinas got some things wrong, but they were more aligned to God and his way of life than I was. I needed to learn from them instead of only criticizing them. But even more, I needed to submit to the God they loved and studied.
My personal and academic relationships shifted from judgment and superiority to submission and apprenticeship. I found pastors, friends, and professors I could submit to and follow. I asked questions not to prove myself astute but to learn. These relationships took me outside of myself, pointing me to God and his Gospel.
These relationships with friends, living and dead, helped me learn to submit to the Lord as he lovingly declared my identity over me: beloved.
Submission to Prayer
During seminary and into ministry, prayer shifted from self-expression and matters of taste to submission to the Prayer Book and letting go of personal preferences.
The submission process started with a few mentoring relationships that taught me that my tastes could not be the thing that drives my ministry. As I realized that my judgment was grounded in my happiness and taste, I slowly surrendered my inner liturgical critic. I began to submit to the pattern of prayer in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer. I might not like this prayer or that word, but that is beside the point.
The Prayer Book isn’t about me; it is about the body of Christ, praying together to the Lord of Life. It has taken a long time for me to come around to submitting my personal prayer preferences to the way of prayer in the Book of Common Prayer. Still, as I’ve done it, I have discovered that my identity is not in the prayers I pray, but in the One to whom I pray.
As I experienced different aspects of Anglican worship and submitted to the authorities over me, I’ve discovered that I can and should learn to worship the Lord in every kind of way: from High Church to praise and worship music—all within the context of the Prayer Book.
As Scripture arranged for worship, the Prayer Book orients my tastes towards the perfect and beautiful One: The Triune God of Scripture. As I submit to this order, I find variety, beauty, and truth. I have my preferences, but I cannot let my expressive individualism control worship or define my identity. My tastes are not the truth. God is the truth we praise in prayer.
Submission to Scripture
I came to Anglicanism hoping to find another authority: liturgy, Church, the Church Fathers, theologians—anyone who might relieve me of the “burden” of submitting to the Word of God.
But as I studied the Church Fathers—like Gregory of Nazianzus and Augustine of Hippo—I discovered that their authority was the Holy Scriptures. Like John the Baptist in Matthias Grüenwald’s famous painting, they pointed away from themselves to Christ.
If those I held in such high regard regarded Scripture so highly, what should I do but submit to the same Scriptures?
I became an Anglican to shirk off the responsibility and demands of the Bible, and it is here in this Church that the God of Scripture captured me to himself. When I submitted to God’s Word written, the rest of what I loved about Church, liturgy, and theology began to make sense. It isn’t liturgy versus Scripture, or prayer versus Scripture, or Scripture versus theology. Instead, Scripture orients and directs all of these because of the One who inspires them: the Triune God.
My submission to Scripture became real in a more profound way when I entered my first parish. I discovered that ministry only made sense as “one under authority” (see Matthew 8:8-10) and that authority is the Triune God’s written Word. I had to submit to Scripture in preaching and practice. So, I slowly took up and read Scripture in the Daily Office. I began submitting to the Word of God as I called others to do the same.
Submission to Scripture slowly reoriented and revitalized much of what I had turned my back on from my early days of Christian formation: a love of Scripture, evangelism, repentance, and the continual preaching of the gospel.
We are all expressive individualists; it is the water in which we swim. As a fledgling Anglican, I tried to baptize the Church in my private pool of personal preferences. But, to my surprise, God immersed me in His infinite life as he gently humbled me through the very things I tried to challenge: authority, prayer, and Scripture.
I’m not suggesting that you need to be ordained to become a “real” Anglican. But, in my own journey, I became an Anglican twice: once at my confirmation, but more truly at my ordination on November 19th, 2017, where I submitted to the yoke of ministry for the love of Jesus Christ in His Church.
I will never fully be free of expressive individualism in this life. Yet, because God has guided me to submit to his way of life in the Anglican Church, I see more clearly the difference between my expressive individualistic identity and my God-given identity in Christ. By God’s grace, I will continue to put to death expressive individualism as God raises my identity in the Son of God through the ordinary means of grace: Word and Sacrament, prayer, and fellowship.
Hello, my name is Ethan, and I am not my own. I am God’s.