The Air That We Breathe: Expressive Individualism, I, and Me

mirrorFew modern theologians have helped me think more clearly about culture than David Wells. His collection of works on modernity and postmodernity (listed below) address the many ways evangelicalism has been bent and broken by chasing the winds of culture. Considering the ways the modern world (with its penchant for technology, urbanization, consumerism, and mass communication) has refocused Christianity, and the way modern philosophies have turned religion towards the subject, he shows why so much modern Christianity mirrors the world, rather than prophetically modeling a different way of life.

For me, his observations have been a helpful corrective against the acids of culture that eat away at our soul. He has given me eyes to be a better cultural exegete, and his Reformed convictions, have pressed me back to the Bible to see what it says about any number of topics. Most recently, I picked up his Losing Our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision to consider in more detail the effects of individualism on the church.

What follows are a few quotes, observations, and insights on the topic of expressive individualism—a poisonous air wafting through so many American churches. 

The Bible Does Not Share Our Hyper-Individualism

Christians are the people who want to do what the word of God says. But one stumbling block to understanding and applying God’s Word is the radical difference between our concept of self, and the biblical ideal. Wells writes,

The Old and New Testaments were born in a world quite unlike our own today. This is true not only in the obvious ways, such as the fact that we are surrounded by the processes and results of modernization and they were not, but it is also true of the ways in which people came to understand themselves. Ours is a highly individualized culture, and theirs was not. We think of our individual consciousness as being unique, as something unlike anyone else’s, and we express this in a multitude of ways: how we dress, what we buy, how we look, and how we make decisions. Whatever sense of identity we have is woven together within our own inner, private sense of reality from whatever materials we choose. The biblical world was very different. (164–65)

This difference between biblical individualism (i.e., responsibility before God) and modern individualism (i.e., self-definition and determination) could not be more profound. And we will not understand Scripture or its application to our lives, if we do not recognize the difference. Highlightling the contrast, Wells, observes,

Then, people thought of themselves, not as free-floating, isolated individuals, but as belongers. . . .We, today, think that the place where people were born and the family in which they were raised probably tell us little about them. Their occupation and affiliations may tell us more. But we also want to think that people cannot be contained within, and are not completely defined by, these associations and connections. In the ancient world, these factors were thought to provide a large sense of who a person was. (165)

When Christians fail to see that expressive individualism is a contraption of the modern age, they seek to employ covenantal realities (i.e., community, fellowship, communion, and membership) in individualistic ways. This affects everything from worship to morality to psychology—to name but a few.

Individualism Pervades Our Hymnody

Another place individualism creeps in is the songs we sing.

Describing the way hymnody has changed under the pressure of postmodern spirituality, Wells writes, “What dominates overwhelmingly is the private, individualized, and interior sense of God.” Lost are songs that express clearly God’s transcendent holiness; in their place are songs that reflect upon the interior love, joy, peace of the individual. What is more, “a large majority of praises songs I analyzed, 58.9 percent, offer no doctrinal grounding or explanation for the praise” (44).

Instead of extolling God for who he is and what he has done (i.e., objective realities), so many songs express feelings or call for emotions. The problem is emotion in worship; the problem is that the emotion is devoid of exalted theology and doctrinal content. As a result, the worshiper is left to supply his or her own meaning to ambiguous spiritual-sounding phrases. Instead of contesting individualism and spiritual syncretism, these songs further cement their hearers in the pattersn of self-expression.

Yesterday’s Individualism Conformed to a Moral Standard, Today’s Does Not

Moving from Scripture and song to society, we should observe the fact that there is a great difference between yesterday’s individualism and todays. And David Wells explains one facet that divides the two. In the last century, individualism was moral. That is the rugged individual subscribed to a moral law outside himself. But in the modern world individualism is therapeutic and self-defined. Hence Wells says,

Last century’s individualism was one in which personal responsibility played a large role. It was the kind in which people thought for themselves, owed nothing, and usually worked out their independence within a community. . . . This person probably admired those who had taken lonely stands and triumphed over adversity by inner fortitude, because he or she thought that this was what life was really about. This . . . is the kind of person who would rather be right than president.

Today’s individualist, by contrast, would rather be president than be right. It is not character defines the way that expressive individualism functions today, but emancipation from values, from community, and from the past in order to be onself, to seek one’s own gain. This attitude is, in consequence, unprincipled in a traditional sense, for its central and only principle is the self. (67)

Modern individualism is best called “expressive individualism” and it has both an historical genesis in Romanticism and a modern commitment self-expression.

Expressive individualism, which grew out of the Romanticism of the late eighteenth century and today has an especial affinity with our therapeutic culture, assumes that all people have a unique core of intuitions and feelings within them that is then coupled with the understanding that they have the inherent right to pursue and express these intuitions and feelings. (66)

Expressive individualism, then, is driven by a deep sense of entitlement to being left alone, to live in a way that is emancipated from the demands and expectations of others, to being able to fashion its own life in the way it wants to, to being able to develop its own values and beliefs in its own way, to resist all authority. To be free in these ways, many have come to think, is indispensable to being a true individual. (67)

Individualism Absolutized Creates an Existential Crisis

In a world where the self has become both the author(ity) and star of the story, Wells observes that a psychological crisis has resulted.

If the natural logic of Enlightenment thinking is the expressive individualism of our time, then that logic has brought us not freedom but a painful captivity to ourselves. And in the end, the collapse of this grand experiment in building a Kingdom of God without God was to be replaced by a new Kingdom, one in which the self has ascended the throne from which first God and then naturalistic reason has been dislodged. (125)

But it is this very crowning of self that has created the crisis, because in placing everything in our self, we soon discover “a terrifying sense that while all we have left is the self, the self unfortunately does not amount to too much.” (125)

Want to know why so many are offended when you question them, their feelings, or their lifestyle? It might be because the imminent self has become transcendent, and thus they are moved to defend themselves with all the force of a nation attacked by an hostile invader. When totalized, the idol of self will judge, condemn, and execute anyone who questions their right to define themselves. But in actuality, this outward rage reveals an inward vacancy—the hollowness left over from God’s eviction.

Individualism Erodes a Healthy Sense of Communal Pride

Finally, an overarching commitment to self results in a form of narcissism which makes individuals “face-blind” (prosopagnosia) to the responsibilities they have to their various communities. Wells explains, “In our highly individualized, narcissistic American culture, the sense of moral responsibility to the groups in which we have connections has now worn thin” (167). Rather than caring for the reputation and good of the group, individuals seek first themselves and their reputations. Trained to put themselves at the center of everything, any healthy sense of pride in the community is lost.

Consider the effect of this on the church: no longer do individuals think first about Christ and his kingdom (cf. Matthew 6:33). Rather, all attention is given to self. Hence, churches with orthodox doctrine become consumeristic in their methodologies. Attenders grade churches based on the services they offer, instead of thinking about how their gifts might strengthen a struggling flock. Pastors are tempted to placate members, instead of correcting error and spurring others on towards love and good deeds. And church discipline (if practiced at all) becomes a tight rope of pleasing individuals, instead of seeking what is best for the whole church.

Beware of the Air You Breathe

All in all, individualism is a dangerous air to breathe. And, if we are alert, all of must admit, we inhale it everyday. For that reason, we need to give all the more attention to the habits and assumptions of our modern age. Expressive individualism is so normal, so prevalent, it becomes odd to question it. And yet, our spiritual health and the health of Christ’s church depends on recognizing it for what it is and turning away from it.

As I mentioned at the outset, David Wells books have served to open my eyes to these habits and the prevalence of my own individualism. So, I commend them to you:

But even more than his books, we need the Spirit of God to give us fresh air to cleanse our lungs and waken our minds. With prayerful hearts, we must to conform our minds to God’s biblical truth, and to ask basic questions about our assumptions about Scripture, worship, church, and culture. For like the generations who have gone before us, it is remarkably easy to conform the Word of God to fit our modern assumptions.

By contrast, we must as Jesus commanded, pick up our cross, deny self, and follow him. Only as we do that will we be able to withstand the onslaught of our culture and lead others to escape it, as well. So, to that end, we must pray and work. May God give us a fresh vision of covenant life in Christ, which is neither individualistic nor self-willed.

Soli Deo Gloria,



7 thoughts on “The Air That We Breathe: Expressive Individualism, I, and Me

  1. Pingback: Exposing Abortion’s Allies (pt. 1): Expressive Individualism (Genesis 4:1–8) | Via Emmaus

  2. Pingback: Learning to See the Beauty of a Gospel-Centered Church | Via Emmaus

  3. Pingback: Learning to See the Beauty of a Gospel-Centered Church - Servants of Grace

  4. You actually make it seem so easy together with your presentation however I to find this topic to be actually something that I think I would by no means understand. It kind of feels too complicated and extremely broad for me. I am taking a look forward for your next submit, I will try to get the hold of it!

  5. Pingback: Talking to Young People about Their Worldviews (Part 1) – Here's the thing…

  6. Pingback: The Enduring Goodness of Marriage: What the Gospel Has to Say to a Culture of Cohabitation | Via Emmaus

  7. Pingback: A Beautiful Household (pt. 2): Brothers Who Lead, Sisters Who Labor, and a Heavenly Father Who Knows Best  | Via Emmaus

Comments are closed.