Last Thursday, Adam Holz published a great blog (“It’s an I, I, I, I, I World?“) about society’s growing embrace of individualism. In it, he wrote about recent reports that Millennials are less prone to belong to a political party or join a religion.
It turns out that they’re suspicious of ideologies and wait longer to get married. They mold their lives to fit them, and them alone. It’s “The Age of Individualism,” a New York Times writer declares, and Adam suggests that all of us—not just Millennials—are prone to want life, and everything in it, “our way.” He writes:
What’s striking to me is that in our age of unprecedented choice, we naturally tend to cater to what we like and want. And in the process, we seem to detach (perhaps almost unconsciously) from the political, religious and familial institutions that have formed the primary bedrock of society—and our shared values—for generations.
You can see this inclination to detach and distrust, everywhere—even in our entertainment. Just look at the movies we’ve reviewed lately: In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap’s finding it hard to trust the organization he’s working for. Divergent‘s Tris struggles against societal pressures to “fit.” The titular character in Cesar Chavez rebels against government, business and the status quo to find more workplace equity. And even Noah, in a way, is the story of a guy radically breaking away from societal norms.
We see it again and again. On the surface, the drumbeat is I know better than the system. I know what’s right. I. I. I. Now, I’m an institutional guy at heart. I’m married. I belong to a church. And I understand that the whole idea of faith is to sublimate some of your own selfish desires—the I—in favor of something greater. The Thy, if you will. And living in community means buying into the give and take that genuine community life requires. There’s no I in team, goes the old cliché. We’re stronger together. Etc.
But to step beyond Adam’s blog a bit, let’s be honest: We’ve all been given good reason to distrust some of our most hallowed institutions. We’ve seen politicians indicted and preachers disgraced. Maybe there’s some merit in being a little wary. Maybe something even a little godly.
Certainly, Jesus dealt with a lot of institutions that weren’t worthy of His trust. And by overthrowing the moneychangers in the temple, he put vivid action to his opinions. He saw what was going on for what it was, a human endeavor—prone to failure and corruption and even flat-out stupidity. The Bible is filled with flawed governments and false prophets, and our biblical heroes often do their best work by going around such institutions, not through them. So I think the Bible often reinforces a healthy skepticism of the man-made institutions we build with the best of intentions.
But that very healthy skepticism can leave us vulnerable to that unbridled individualism Adam mentioned that runs off the rails, too.
So where does that leave us?
The movies, perhaps surprisingly, offer a hint.
Captain America believes his employers have fallen away from their true purpose. Chavez believes that workers have a right to better working conditions. In Noah, the titular character (while bearing very little resemblance to his biblical inspiration) turns away from the world and submits himself to a higher voice.
In each case, these characters question the powers that be. But instead of embracing the I, they turned toward something else. Something better. Cap believes we have a purpose beyond what an institution says. Chavez believes that we have rights beyond those given by men. And Noah ultimately believes that God calls the shots.
Individualism can be great: God made us all gloriously different, after all. Many of our institutions can be great, too: They give us opportunities to join with one another and, in some cases, make the world a better place.
But both should be tools to help us fix our eyes and minds and hearts on what’s even greater. And when they don’t, we’re right to be wary.