Friday, May 20, 2011

Why Authenticity Fails as a Virtue

There is a phenomenon in our culture right now that goes by the name of “authenticity.” Authenticity is a new virtue. In fact, it is THE virtue. The virtue that all other virtues are judged by. You can find it and its synonyms everywhere these days, from your teenage kids that tell you that that they just want to be “like, for real,” to authors that will help you find your “authentic self.” You can even hear celebrity athletes that talk about “keeping it real on the field,” whatever that means.

Most commonly the virtue of authenticity is found on television and movies. You can see it in the character who, against the opposition of others and perhaps even the oppression of society, stands up to the world and triumphantly says, “This is who I am, deal with it.” And, of course, the typical foil for this character will be some protagonist who is an absurd religious hypocrite. The contrast is intended to leave the audience thinking, “I’d rather be authentic than a hypocrite…especially a religious hypocrite.”

I admit that until recently I bought into the authenticity hype. In fact, our team listed it as one of our core values before we began our church planting ministry. And I have since noticed it on the websites and newsletters of other new church plants. But I’ve discovered there are some problems with thinking of authenticity as a virtue.

First, a little linguistic side note: Even though people have begun talking about authenticity as a virtue, it really isn’t. Authenticity is a value neutral descriptor. Authenticity says something is really and truly _______. It doesn’t mean anything until you feel in the blank. Authenticity can only be used as a virtue because people are using the word as a stand-in for other words. For example, authenticity is commonly equated with openness, i.e. not wearing a mask or being a hypocrite. So when a person says, “Suzy’s authentic,” what they are really saying is that Suzy displays openness. This is not what authenticity actually means, at least not yet anyway. (But definitions do change with custom, so it might very well come to mean this someday.)

The problem with using this new definition of authenticity as a virtue is that there isn’t much genuine value for mere openness. To see openness as being virtuous, we have to make assumptions about the motives of a person’s openness. Because, after all, a person can be open for different reasons. A person can be open about their many sexual exploits because they are in a therapy group for sexual addictions, or they can be open about them because they are bragging to their friends. In both instances they are open, but in one instance they are contrite about what they’ve done and are seeking help from others, and in the other they are proud of what they’ve done and are seeking recognition from others.

Likewise, lacking in hypocrisy (showiness, mask wearing, etc.), is only a good thing if there is something good underneath. If a nice person doesn’t wear a mask, that is only good because we can see the nice person underneath. But if a jerk doesn’t wear a mask, is his situation really improved? Does being open about his jerkiness make him a better person? Not at all, we just see clearly that he is a jerk.

What I’ve found in the real life application of this virtue-that-isn’t-a-virtue is that authenticity becomes a convenient excuse not to change. “This is just who I am,” is given as the final word about someone’s character. Like the people in the movies they are taking their stand. But they are taking their stand so that they don’t have to do the hard work of changing.

I’ve also found that it becomes a celebration of sinful behavior. “With me, what you see is what you get,” is a common statement on the value of authenticity; and it is most often uttered after someone has just said or done something that is completely inappropriate. Anything can be excused under the excuse of being authentic - a dirty joke, a racist comment, a hateful diatribe, anything. “I’m just being real.” And if you buy into the authenticity-as-virtue line of thinking, what can you say to that?

So therein lies the problem with authenticity: it is a value neutral descriptor, improperly used as a virtue, vaguely understood as openness, and more often than not applied to motives that are downright sinful. And, unfortunately, even if being authentic keeps you from being a hypocrite, it doesn’t really make you a better person – which is the goal of a true virtue.

But we need not be discouraged by this, because there is already a virtue that both eliminates hypocrisy and makes you a better person, and that is the Christian virtue of being confessional. The major difference between confession and authenticity is that confession leads to repentance and accountability. Confession isn’t mere openness, confession is brokenness. It is admitting one’s faults, and admitting the need for help. Confession takes place in the context of a community committed to the Lordship of Christ and the fellowship of the saints. Confession is tears and prayers and thanksgiving. There’s no such thing as a hypocrite in confession, just flawed people, admitting their flaws, and striving for an authentic goal – being made into the image of Christ. Genuine change – nothing superficial.

In retrospect, I’m amazed that confession wasn’t listed as one of our values. Sometimes we get too clever for our own good. An “authentic” new church? What about confession?! What were we thinking? Ah, the lessons we learn in life…


Post Script: Ok, so here’s your homework, the next time you hear someone talk about being authentic, ask them, “Authentic what?”


  1. Awesome post, Corey! I really liked your last one, too, on stinky reasoning vs. gut.

  2. Good thoughts. Someone called me authentic recently. I think it was a compliment but I did not ask them authentic what.

  3. Justin, knowing you, I'm sure it was a compliment. Although, some people might use it in an ambiguous way by saying something like, "you are an authentic Cubs fan." Which, depending on the person, may or may not be a compliment.

  4. Great post. I am an atheist who thinks what you wrote above is very accurate. I also think that confession with a goal of living a life with Christian ideals in mind is an excellent virtue.