The impetus for this essay was a book that a reader asked us to check out, titled Christ Esteem by Don Matzat. As I read it I find something surprising. Matzat takes us on a Biblical journey in which he refutes the modern desire for "self-esteem" and replaces it with "Christ esteem." What is surprising is how much of what Matzat recommends, corresponds to essentially this advice: Become less like a modern Westerner, and more like an ancient person of the sort that lived in Bible times.
The irony of course is that Matzat, for all his erudition, likely is unaware of the work of the Context Group or other contextual scholars who highlight the vast differences between ancient and modern personality. Not that this is to his discredit, especially since he wrote some years ago (1990) when little of this information was readily available. (I wrtote him about this article and was invited on to his radio show as a result.)
But we would like to note some of his comments, and in turn indicate how these correspond with the markers of ancient personality, courtesy of Malina and Neyrey's Portraits of Paul. What we will find is that our modern "problems" lie much in our personal psychology (as we noted as well where discipling was concerned).
Matzat observes that as little as 40 years ago, one never heard the self-identity question so common today: "Who am I?" "How can I develop a positive self-identity?" Matzat replies :
The personal identity of the apostle Paul was completely immersed in the person of Jesus Christ...Should not such glorious identity and victorious life meet the needs of this generation?
Compare Matzat's determination of Paul -- correct in essence, if written in modern terms -- to what is offered by Malina and Neyrey about the concept of "embeddedness" :
...[A]ncient Mediterranean people identified and defined themselves as situated and embedded in various other persons with whom they formed a unity of sorts...the individual person shares a virtual identity with the group as a whole and with other members.
Though he almost certainly did not realize it, Matzat has hit the nail on the head. What we as individuals must be TOLD to do, ancient persons did naturally -- seeking an identity in others; in the case at hand, in Christ.
In this light Matzat's many admonitions to give up self and identify with Jesus are a return to original Christian social orientation. It seems ironic that Matzat has unerringly directed us to a solution that, for the first Christians (and the majority of those living today, in collectivist societies) was simply the natural thing to do.
In light of this also, let's have a look at what the "other side" has to say about the "self-esteem" issue, and how the social science input from Malina and Neyrey affects it.
The Secular Web has an item titled "Self-Esteem and Christian Belief" by one Merle Hertzler. Hertzler does not seem to be aware that concern for "self-esteem" is a thoroughly modern, individualist phenomenon; much is also offered in terms of how humanists "achieve" theirs -- by being proud of being at the end of a long evolutionary struggle, apparently.
While one might take issue with some of Hertzler's generalizations about the goodness of human nature and the emphasis placed on human value from a humanist perspective, our purpose will here merely be to relate what Hertzler offers to what the social science data has to say.
Indeed on that count, Hertzler is doing what the ancients did: Turning to an outside source for information about identity, and using that to assign value to humans. In this case, however, it is the natural order in which Hertzler "embeds" himself.
On the other hand, quoting Biblical passages that give a lesser value to the individual, as Hertzler does, is itself badly misplaced, for a couple of reasons:
- Statements like Job's ("Wherefore I abhor myself,") could thus by no means reflect any sort of anti-"self-esteem" message. The concept would have been unknown and indeed would have been considered abhorrent by any ancient collectivist.
This is also aside from the literary usages of the period, which means that Job did not so much "abhor" himself as he was expressing what we might call disgust with his personal situation. Hopefully not even Hertzler would exclude realistic assessments of one's situation as "damaging" to "self-esteem"; there is a difference between doing damage and engaging delusion.
- Statements like Jesus' ("So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, 'We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do.'") likewise are hardly of any relevance here and it is misguided to ask, "That doesn't do much for our self esteem, does it?"
Jesus' words reflect the ancient mindset in which every person knew and recognized their place in a hierarchy. Such custom was what kept the ancient world from descending into anarchy. Concerns for "self-esteem" and self-fulfillment would have broken the ancient world apart had they been upon everyone's mind.
Nor would anyone have ever thought to little of themselves, to answer Hertzler's questions as to why the Bible contains no warnings against low self-esteem. The interaction of envy, collectivism, and limited good meant that the only danger, ever, was thinking of one's self too much -- not too little.
Moreover as Malina notes in The New Testament World [92-3], persons of honor among people in such a society do everything they can to avoid the appearance of presuming on others, lest such be interpreted as trying to get what the other person has; self-deprecation such as the above is in fact the proper way to receive benefaction in an honor and shame setting.
- Hertzler asks, "Do we really need a book to make us feel guilty?"
More -- we needed years of introspective development and free time afforded by the Industrial Revolution. Let it be kept in mind that "guilt" and conscience as we know it did not exist in the Biblical world -- and that even today in honor-shame societies, persons who do wrong, and do not get caught at it, will not be subject to remorse. (See comments here.)
It is not modern psychology that brought us our concept of self. It is thus misguided to ask, as Hertzler does, why God let us go "centuries" without this message: Even if it were correct in the first place, it has only been "relevant" to any real extent for a century or two, and only in a very small part of the world.
- On the other hand, the alleged Christian hubris Hertzler sees -- which he attributes to Christian belief that Christ is in them and can do all things -- is itself a modern manifestation that arose from individualism. It could not have emerged in a hierarchical and collectivist society. It is this modernist value -- and the overliteralism of Western fundamentalism -- which created the health and wealth "gospels" which take "all things are yours" to be a blank check -- rather than the comforting assurances laid down in the context of one humbly obedient to God's will that the ancient Judean would have understood.
- Hertzler also has an erroneous view of Romans 7.
- Hertzler makes much of the practice of Christian psychologists like James Dobson who are on about low self-esteem. By the data above, self-esteem as a concept has only existed for a very few years and would never have been conceived of by 99.9% of people who have ever lived. A better question than any Hertzler asks is, "Is this really such an essential thing to have, since 99.9% of all people in history lived without it?"
Is it better to ask whether self-esteem in just a myth and an individualist neurosis -- a "need" created by demand, after the manner of advertising in its beginnings?
"Wouldn't it be better simply to change your church doctrine?", Hertzler asks. No -- it would be better to change our mindset. For all of us.
Next, a brief, third aspect to this essay. A reader alerted us to some quotes from a book titled "The Culture of Narcissism" by one Christopher Lasch. I do not have this book, but from what I have found, getting it might prove most profitable. What I do have are some selected quotes from the book, used in another context by another site in a matter of no specific relevance to this essay.
In this book Lasch apparently decried the mutation of America into a culture of narcissists -- caused by the overhauling of the socialization process as Americans pursued individual fulfillment. Rather than being reared by family, for example, children were being reared by more impersonal institutions: schools, the media. He is quoted as saying:
The nature of work takes the father (and today the mother) out of much of childrearing, which falls to schools and day care. (One way narcissism is created is via an upbringing rich in material goods and instant gratification, but with little emotional attachment given by the parents.)
The "reign of childrearing experts" renders the care the parents do give rather neurotic and timid, and deprives it of control and discipline. Parents become terrified that any failure to give in to the child, any reason for the child to be frustrated with them, will somehow ruin the child -- when in fact such frustration is a vital part of maturation and socialization, of learning that the world doesn't owe you, that life is more than making demands, that sometimes we all fail, yet life goes on. Their fear of ruining the child thus ruins the child.
Lasch finds his own solution, apparently, in anti-capitalism; in light of what we have seen, however, capitalism and the rise of the Industrial Revolution was but a piece of ground upon which individualism planted and took root -- the real culprit lies in how the plant has been tended since then.
A couple more comments of relevance here:
- On the "cult of the celebrity": "The media ... intensify narcissistic dreams of fame and glory, encouraging the common man to identify himself with the stars and to hate the 'herd,' and make it more and more difficult for him to accept the comparative banality of everyday existence."
Ironically the media would here be encouraging us to trade in collectivist thinking for connection with a remote celebrity whose "ingroup" we can never be a part of.
- "The collapse of personal life originates, not in the spiritual torments of affluence, but in the war of all against all, which is now spreading from the lower class, where it has raged without interruption, to the rest of society."
Note how this varies from the ancient perception of each person as having a proper place within a stratified society. On the one hand, we have destroyed the idea that we each have a place and that social mobility is rare if it happens at all; but this has become an extreme caricature of the dream of social equity.
Once again, the irony emerges that certain of modern mindsets appear to be a result of "what's missing" that persons of the Biblical culture would never have had a problem with.
Finally some relevant insight gleaned from a book by Nancy Pearcey, titled Total Truth, which we are told is about the need for apologetics and developing a Christian worldview, especially in light of post-modern refusal to deal with facts in a consistent way and recognize objective truth. A reader tells us that Chapter 10, "When America Met Christianity, Guess Who Won?", explains the American individualism which I have in many articles contrasted with biblical culture, and traces it back to Jeffersonian as opposed to biblical roots. More shockingly for Christians, Pearcey relates the origins of the "celebrity model" not to Hollywoord (which merely perpetuates what originated elsewhere) but to American revival leaders. As Pearcey says:
Most of all, evangelicalism still produced a celebrity model of leadership —- men who are entrepreneurial and pragmatic, who deliberately manipulate their listerners' emotions, who subtly enhance their own image through self-serving personal anecdotes, whose leadership style within their own congregation or parachurch ministry tends to be imperious and domineering, who calculate success in terms of results, and who are willing to employ the latest secular techniques to boost numbers. ...
Only by recognizing the source of various trends can we craft the tools to correct them. We need to diagnose the way historical patterns continue to shape the way we operate our churches and ministries. History holds up a mirror to the way we think and act today.
In light if this it is little wonder that super-individualized programs like Rick Warren's Purpose-Driven Life are today's church staples, while programs for the corporate good as unknown. Our reader, who is involved in an overseas ministry, notes differences in approach that bear out these observations: American ministries prefer large seminars as opposed to "church-by-church" approaches popular elsewhere.