by Greg Spencer
Professor of Communication Studies
For about 15 years, my parents were alcoholics, drinking to drunkenness every night. My mother eventually succumbed to cirrhosis. Over the years, I have had to contend with many consequences of my parents’ choices, but one effect I did not notice for a long time. Throughout my adolescence and early marriage, I did what many do in an alcoholic family: I smiled.
I learned to cope with the outside world through deception, maintaining the façade that everything in our family was “just fine.” As much as anything in my life, this experience moved me to care about authenticity. I lived a lie — and I hated it. And now, more than ever, we Americans seem to have given ourselves over to the plastic, surface-level values of Extreme Makeover and the Las Vegas strip. Despite these seductions — or maybe because of them — I think we end up longing for the real, even though we are not sure what “being real” means.
Our Longing for Sincerity
We are weary of phoniness. It seems that wherever we turn, the counterfeit has taken over. Imitation boulders on the boardwalk. Buildings designed to look old. Silicone implants. We pay more for stonewashed jeans because they have been artificially distressed. All of this gets into our gut and, at times, we feel betrayed.
At first, we believe that a story, a building — a person — is “real,” then we suffer disappointment when we discover how much is contrived. We have “friends” on Facebook but few in our presence. And if we cope by not believing anything we see or read, a cynicism grows that either destroys or grieves us. Occasionally, a genuine human encounter takes place, and we are taken aback by the solid feel of the conversation, by the contrast with our more typical clichéd, shiny niceness. We long for the real, the really real, anything that will make us think meaningfully or act creatively or laugh sincerely.
We struggle with duplicity. Though we may grow so weary of phoniness that we make bold movements toward the genuine, we can also wrestle with its attractions. Those fake plants are just so convenient because we don’t have to water them. In a print ad for jewelry, a topless woman has her arms crossed over her substantial breasts, highlighting the giant stones in her rings and necklace. The copy reads: “Who cares if they aren’t real?” Sometimes we don’t care. And we aren’t sure how it “genuinely” matters.
At other times, we catch ourselves lying to our neighbors so they will think more of us or acting as if we know what we don’t know so that we will look smarter. And we excuse it because everyone else does it. We’re just spinning things positively, right? In a culture of narcissistic exaggeration, we are just trying to compete, to not fall behind. Then we hear a Still Small Voice reminding us of who we really are. We sigh and wonder what would happen if people saw us truly. Thus convicted, we recognize a deep longing to be authentic — and we see our failure of courage.
We are dulled by pre-packaged presentations. When my girls were in high school, my wife and I enjoyed their passion for life (and boys!) and their deep friendships. We also complained about their lack of creative leisure in the summer. We would say, “Why don’t you play a game or go on a hike?” But no, about every other night, they would watch a movie with friends, usually a romantic comedy. I worried they would accept ridiculous expectations that their actual romances would need to follow a pre-packaged storyline, especially the “speed of togetherness” part.
If they chose TV instead, they could find Fear Factor or Dancing with Celebrities who Wear Revealing Clothing, scripted “reality” designed to feel authentic to viewers. We long for reality, even fake reality. Yet our channel surfing shows how bored we are. We want to be startled with something that touches us, that gets into our lives in a meaningful way. Some have said that our attraction to sex and violence in the media stems in part from our desperation to feel fully alive, real, authentic.
A Biblical Primer on Authenticity
Part of what makes Jesus compelling is his straight-shooter genuineness. With consummate courage, Jesus means what he says and says what needs to be heard. When Peter gives him unsolicited advice, Jesus says “Get behind me, Satan” (Matt. 16:23), and when his mental anguish torments him, he cries out, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me” (Matt. 26:39). What words could be more authentic? Here is the Son of God speaking out of his convictions and his emotional state. He does not feel the burden to appear invincible, like some kind of Supernatural Superman.
Not only does Jesus model sincerity, he reserves his harshest criticism for the insincerity of the Pharisees: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” (Matt. 23:25). In Jesus’ vision of the faithful life, the inside and the outside both matter. Not murdering is not enough for holiness; our anger matters. Just when we think we are “nice people,” Jesus takes morality to the level of inner life. Frankly, this scares me, since my authentic faith is so much less impressive than my public presentation.
Authenticity at a Glance
Given our longing and Jesus’ words, I define authenticity as “the courage to love with a rigorous inside-out consistency.” Three aspects of this definition are essential.
Authenticity requires an inside-out consistency. The most straightforward reading is: “Be who we say we are.” We should not be hypocrites. We should not say we are “humbled by your praise” and then puff ourselves up like a mating prairie chicken. Another aspect of the “inside-outness” of authenticity is that not only should we “be who we say we are” but we should “say who we do we are.” We should use words that are consistent with our other actions.
Though the phrase “actions speak louder than words” is often true, it misses the point that, at times, the thing most necessary is the “action” of speech. If “in my heart” I love you, does it really matter that I say it aloud? Yes! If the thing that would most help is encouragement or admonishment or problem-solving, I should speak in a way that is consistent with my inner motivations. The church has problems with this kind of authenticity. Why is it that saying something “in a pastory voice” means saying it “in a syrupy, phony voice”? To be nice, we say “I’ll pray for you,” and then don’t.
Authenticity requires a rigorous commitment. The word “rigorous” adds to the definition because, without it, a response might be: “How obvious! Who doesn’t know that we shouldn’t be hypocrites?” And I suppose there is some “how obvious” in every definition of virtue — because the difficulty is much more in the living than in the knowing. In our attempts to live authentically, the word “rigorous” heightens the sense of scrutiny; it tells us that authenticity is hard work. For one thing, we must be tough-minded as we compare our attempts at authenticity with the realities of the situation. We are not being authentic when we act out insecurities based on inaccurate conclusions of what others think of us. Our perceptions are just muddle-headed.
Plato puts it this way: “Let the inner and the outer man meet.” I love this idea, this challenge. When someone listens to us or sees our outward actions, they should know that these choices are sincere, that they truly represent who we are, that our evaluation testifies accurately to inner conclusions — unless, of course, we are teasing in a playfully acceptable way.
Part of the rigor of authenticity can be seen in Jesus’ variation on Plato’s theme. When discussing insincere oath-making, Jesus said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’.” (Matt. 5:37a). We don’t need to add flashy assurances to our statements if we truly mean what we say. If you want to be authentic, be dependable, be morally predictable. One irony in our culture is that, for all of our praise for “spontaneity” and “radical free choice,” we are remarkably conformist. In a way, we are conformist in practice (all wearing jeans) while being nonconformist in principles (believing widely contrary ideas about honesty). Yet we should be personally flexible but morally predictable. We should agree on important values and then apply them in wide-ranging, freedom-inspired ways.
Authenticity requires courageous love. Courage could be called the “parent” virtue of authenticity. It takes courage to tell the truth, to be genuine, to resist the falsifications that our culture encourages. To be sincere when others are being wickedly sarcastic takes bravery. And love must inform our actions. Authenticity can easily be misunderstood, misapplied, or used to justify all manner of interpersonal violence. Like all virtue, authenticity cannot be made a god unto itself. We need to assess our intentions and the fullness of our thoughts and feelings and beliefs, and seek to make the best choices we can. Like artists, we grow in skill with good mentoring and sensitive practice.
Three cautions show the importance of adding “courage to love” to the definition. First, authenticity is not “cruel honesty,” as if we are justified saying whatever is on our minds. Authenticity practices a gracious honesty, and it takes wisdom to know when is the best time to say the fullness of what we think and feel.
Second, authenticity is not “indulgent transparency,” as if we are noble for divulging our darkest secrets. A young woman came into my office years ago and told me her story of sexual abuse and suicidal thoughts. I felt honored that she trusted me — until I learned that she had been “revealing all” to everyone in the building, one person after another. She was compulsively transparent. But authenticity is not an excuse for undisciplined speech.
Third, authenticity doesn’t mean we never act insincerely. This sounds rather odd, but “pretending” is, at times, essential, inevitable, and ethical. In “Faking It,” William Ian Miller acknowledges that although insincerity conjures up many negative connotations, “I am not a hypocrite … for pretending to find interesting what is dull, … [n]or am I a hypocrite for putting on a somber face at the news of the untimely death of a person I didn’t especially care for.”
Rather than characterizing these choices as “faking it,” I prefer C.S. Lewis’s idea: “Let us pretend in order to make the pretense into a reality.”
Suppose, for example, that my neighbor Joan thinks she is the only one who should be permitted to park in front of her house — on the street, the public street. When she sees a visitor of mine parking there, Joan pounds on my front door. I open it and she releases her expletive-laced threats about the police and my insensitivities. On one hand, I authentically want to smack her all the way back to her own yard. On the other hand, I authentically want to keep my anger from getting the best of me. My goal is sincere, even though in the moment I struggle to fulfill it.
Lewis says I should act lovingly toward Joan. In doing so, not only will I build community in the short run, but, over time, I will actually grow into the love that I’m pretending to have. This possible transformation shows that genuineness is not just a goal. Making a sincere effort is also a process, a tool that moves the nuts and bolts of human character.
Authenticity is the courage to love with a rigorous inside-out consistency. Despite pop culture’s preference for surface-level glitz, I believe we long for sincerity. We want to be able to trust that others are who they appear to be. And we desire to have our inner and outer persons meet such that we can be known deeply by others and by God.
Greg Spencer has taught communication studies at Westmont since 1987. The author of two novels, “The Welkening” and “Guardian of the Veil,” he earned his doctorate at the University of Oregon.