Just some ideas that have have been going through my head the past few months. I hope that they are informative and interesting.
“It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.” ~ Henley
William Henley, Superman, Nietzsche, and the “man with no name“, what do all of these persons and characters have in common? Individualism. They hold a desire and belief in their ability to conquer no matter the odds, reliant upon none, and answerable to no one. These are the ideals that pervade modern American culture, and while living in a welfare state might seem to contradict the idea of American individualism, the influences of self-sufficiency and the “American cowboy” still hold a grip on the modern American psyche. However, while the concept of the cowboy surviving on his own out on the broad plains of the Wild West may sound appealing, the concepts represented are very dangerous and can be extremely damaging.
While some cultures are very community oriented, like the Japanese, modern American culture is based on the idea of individualism. Rather than thinking of the group, Americans (and therein I include myself) tend to put their own ideas, interests, and desires first with little or no thought of the effects that they will have on the community as a whole. Rather than thinking about what can be said or done to help the community, or more importantly what should not be said or done, Americans seem to be obsessed with personal rights and personal expression. This view is rooted in the teachings of Nietzsche and is tied to the post-modern belief that as long as a person is sincere, it really doesn’t matter what they believe. A good example of this can be found in the movies that Americans flock to the movie theaters to watch. While I do enjoy a good superhero movie (or comic book), “superheroes” are a good example of the United States obsession with individualism. Superheroes, for the most part, are vigilantes who take the law into their own hands, defeat bad guys, and otherwise set down their own rules that often reside outside the bounds of the laws of existing governing authorities.
So why is rugged individualism a problem? The problem is that individualism, at least in the extreme, makes people neither willing to ask for, or accept, help whenever they need it, nor willing to offer it whenever it is required. The isolating of oneself from others in this way leads to a truly lonely existence. Returning to my superhero example, have you ever seen a superhero who was happy? I am reminded of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. For almost three movies Batman is a lonely and hunted man; only whenever he leaves behind his persona that had acted as a wall between himself and other people is he able to find real peace and happiness.
God had designed us to be social: people need other people. He calls us to give up our self to Him, but it doesn’t stop there. We cannot simply accept God and then keep on living the same way as before: isolated and “masters of our fate.” We have to give up the mask of self-sufficiency and individualism – and that is all that it is, a mask –and acknowledge to ourselves and others that we can’t do it on our own. The Bible has multiple commands relating to this problem. In James 5:16, James says to “confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (NASB). Here James implies that it is not sufficient to just confess our sins to God in private, but that to truly be healed and mature in our walk we must confess to, and pray for, one another. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, also displays the church’s need for group support. In Romans 15:30-32, Paul says, “Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me, that I may be rescued from those who are disobedient in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may prove acceptable to the saints; so that I may come to you in joy by the will of God and find refreshing rest in your company” (NASB). What I find striking about this passage is the universal, united effort of prayer that Paul is calling the Roman church to. Paul doesn’t just pray personally for a successful trip to Judea and Jerusalem, but realizes the importance of believers’ prayers, even believers that he has never met, in the bringing about of God’s will in his journey. My pastor said, “We often think that the church is an independent improvement project, that all we need is ‘me and Jesus’, and that is sufficient. If that were so, God would not have put us in the church, God wouldn’t have called us Christ’s body…We are all in this together…We all need one another” (14:-16:08).
Rugged individualism pervades modern American society, filling the music, movies, and books that cover store shelves. Man thinking that he can “do it on his own” is not new, but is still just as dangerous today as it was back at the dawn of the earth when Adam and Eve sought to be wise as gods. However, God in his Word has shown how we must live, and through Christ the Savior’s work on the cross, and the ministering of the Holy Spirit, we can be freed from the chains of our individualistic obsessions and become who we are meant to be. As Paul says in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (NASB).
Bennett, Warren. “The Problem of Phoebe.” Sunday Evening Sermon. Covenant Presbyterian Church, Natchitoches LA. May 5, 2013.
“Bible Gateway.” BibleGateway.com: A Searchable Online Bible in over 100 Versions and 50 Languages. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2013.
Henley, William E. “Invictus.” Poetry Foundation. Poetry Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 May 2013. <http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/182194>.