The Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We Are in an Age of Self ObsessionThe Vertical Self: How Biblical Faith Can Help Us Discover Who We Are in an Age of Self Obsession
Mark Sayers
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The Bible contains a radically different way of understanding our identity. The path that God has chosen for us to discover who we really are is the path of holiness. The most exciting thing is that this path is not for otherworldy saints, rather it is a path of earthy, gutsy holiness. It's a path that is not about basing your life on this world or of shunning your desires. Instead, it is about bringing your hopes, your dreams, your brokenness, your desires, your humanness under the Lordship of Christ. By doing this we don't just discover a new way of living out our faith, we discover a liberating, revolutionary, life-embracing way of being truly human.

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Q: Do you ever find yourself living out of a horizontal sense of self, or have you reached a monk like level of immunity?

I find myself falling for it all of the time. I think that our culture is so drenched in the world view of the horizontal self that it is almost impossible not to be affected in some way. What I have found though is the more I really put into practice what I was writing about, that slowly, bit by bit, I worry a lot less about what my peers and the public think about me. The only way to get that point is with God’s help and with discipline and people helping me along the way. I have found also a great way to rid yourself of the horizontal self is also not to take yourself too seriously and to always be ready to make a joke at your own expense. If you can mock yourself in front of others you probably are still well entrenched.

Q: So then are you proposing that Christians should avoid fashion, or any sense of trying to make a statement with how we style ourselves?

Not at all. Often people hear me teach about the vertical self and assume that I am then expecting them to go and wear a hessian sack. This could not be further from what I mean. God is the creator and created us as creative beings, every culture throughout history has used styling and fashion as ways to express that creativity. The answer is not to reject fashion and aesthetics but rather to place them under the lordship of Christ. Fashion placed in its correct place in God’s order can be an act of worship. 

Q: Should Christians then avoid being cool altogether?

This is a funny one, what I learnt researching the book is that seemingly the more you try to be cool, the less cool you are. But then the less you worry about being cool and what anyone thinks of you, often people will strangely start to see you as cool. This is what I call the cool paradox. The more whole we become, the more we root our identities in Christ. The more people will be drawn to us.
Having said that, there is almost a mythic belief in some Christian circles that the answer to the churches marginal position in the West is simply to become cool. I have a real issue with this. Yes there is a need for us to be relevant and culturally conversant. But come on, do we really believe that there are millions of people out there who will become Christians when we as believers reach the required level of hipness? There was a survey done, I think it was done here in Australia, which asked people outside the church if they would consider attending if Church became contemporary culturally, only a minimal amount said yes.

I often ask groups when I teach if they thought the movie ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ was cool. Most put their hands up. I then tell the group that the movie was made by Mormons. I then ask them how many of them would consider becoming part of the Church of Latter Day Saints now that they know that a movie that they thought was cool was made by Mormons. No one has ever put their hand up. 

Q: You live in Australia whereas the majority of your readers are here in the United States. Does the horizontal self play out differently in the two cultures and if so how?

In our age of globalization you can encounter the horizontal self all over the place. I saw a documentary about ‘Sexting’ (sending sexual text messages) in Saudi Arabia. In the documentary young women fully covered in veils where sending these suggestive messages to young guys and vice versa via Bluetooth,  it was amazing how underneath this conservative Islamic culture the message of the horizontal self was living out. So you can find this phenomenon all over the globe. 

Australians tend to be a bit less extrovert than Americans so often our horizontal selves tend to be more subtle, but it is still just as prevalent. I also find that it depends where you are and what the culture of your city is. For example Miami and Sydney would have a much more beach orientated ‘body image’ driven expression of the horizontal self. Whereas my home town of Melbourne would be more like a Seattle or Portland in terms of its colder weather and thus more arty, and would have a horizontal self based on wearing black, coffee culture and convincing the world how hip and cosmopolitan we are. 

Q: You write briefly that in the age of the horizontal self Christian leaders are transformed into celebrities. Can you elaborate?

Our culture across the board has been affected by celebrity culture and what I would label the rise of the celebrity self. It just used to be that celebrity was confined to the entertainment industry, sports, politics and the arts. But now celebrity affects every industry and nice. We have superstar cook and gardeners, financial advisors and computer gamers. So it is no wonder that Christian culture is shaped by this trend. Also technology is making it more possible for Christian leaders to appear like celebrities. Things like twitter create a false intimacy. A Christian leader may tweet that they just had an espresso with their wife whilst on vacation. A seemingly harmless thing to do, but it will lead thousands of their followers to feel that they have an intimate connection with that leader when in fact they don’t. This is the essence of porn, which is an illusion of intimacy devoid of relationship. In porn, the viewer turns the subject into an object to be consumed. In our world of over familiarity, leaders can easily turn themselves into images and thus fuel both the worship (note the word) of celebrity and the horizontal self.
We live in a culture of false intimacy and familiarity. Johnny Carson was often criticized by people who met him for being aloof and distant. Carson’s friend comedian Steve Martin countered that Carson was not distant, he simply did not assume that intimacy was there when it was not, he preferred politeness to faux familiarity. It preserved the dignity of both Carson and the people who he encountered. I think Christian leaders can learn a lot from this. We need to remember that the age that we live in means that we can communicate with ease, but let’s remember that we are communicating the gospel not ourselves.  Just look at Jesus, he was God in human form and yet he always points the glory back to his father. He was the Messiah is constantly running away from crowds and their messianic expectations of him, because he understood his mission.  Leaders can learn a lot from his examples. Jesus is the most known person in history yet he was an anti-celebrity, in that he subverts all of our expectations of the famous.

Q: You tend to refer to older stars and celebrities in this book, why not newer celebrities?

Two reasons, firstly things are moving so fast now, it almost seems that bands and celebrities have a much shorter life span. Name a band or an ‘it’ girl and you can be sure by the time that your book comes out they star will be out of the spotlight. Secondly pretty much any band or star today borrows from the older stars so much that I thought I would go back to the sources. Look at any indie band today and you will see elements of Bob Dylan, the Velvet Underground and The Stones. The latest Sex symbol being touted by men’s magazine is just a replica of Bardot, Monroe or early Fonda. The latest Hollywood hunk is almost always a photocopy of Brando or James Dean. The latest art sensation is going to be a mix of Jackson Pollock, Dali or Warhol. There is very little new today.

Q: You must have read a lot of biographies of celebrities for this book,  that must have been interesting.

I read stacks, a lot of celebs I researched did not get into final draft of the book. Even Prince and Michael Jackson got a read; I think my wife thought I was becoming obsessed for a while there. But I really wanted to get my head around this whole idea of the celebrity. One interesting thing was to discover how some stars came close to something like faith at the end of their lives. Beat writer Jack Kerouac at the end of his life, despite living this hedonistic existence and flirting with Buddhism, in his last years started coming to the conclusion that the only true thing was the cross, he spent his last years painting all of these crosses.   Andy Warhol who perhaps more than anyone embodied or expressed the horizontal self, had this hidden vertical self, in which he would take communion daily, go and pray with his elderly mother and would in disguise go and work in soup kitchens. He also like Kerouac painted lots of images of Christ in his later years.

Q: Is the horizontal self primary an issue facing just youth and young adults?

No. The horizontal self affects all age groups. The post World War 2 saw the creation of the first real youth generation, the baby boomers. So anyone under seventy who was raised in the West has grown up with that mentality. If you are twenty now you are the grand children of the youth generation. So the whole vertical self is deeply entrenched in almost all age groups of our culture.

Q: What do you do then if you know someone who is totally caught up in the horizontal self?

Our culture promises us a cavalcade of delights, and although it does not deliver the illusion is pretty strong. So it is hard to convince someone who is caught up a horizontal self that they are heading down a bad path. Firstly we must pray for them. Also what is really key is that you are living out of a vertical self, I really do think that when we do this, people see something in us. So the key to helping someone is modeling a better alternative ourselves.

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