In interviews, Adele mentions feeling anxious in her marriage, and that, despite the fact that Simon was “a good husband,” her marriage did not live up to her expectations. She felt that she couldn’t truly be herself and could not really love or be loved in her marriage.3 While nothing was “wrong” with the marriage, and Adele claims that neither she or Simon hurt each other, she decided that the marriage wasn’t good enough for her.
In past generations, a person leaving their marriage in the pursuit of their own happiness because they don’t “feel like they can be themselves” in the relationship would widely be considered selfish. Now, however, those reasons are generally considered valid. This can be seen in the public response to Adele’s divorce: she is being praised for “putting herself first.”
Today, many people accept feeling dissatisfied, unfulfilled, or restricted as perfectly legitimate reasons to make any number of decisions that hurt others or go against social norms. The value of things such as responsibility, sacrificial love, and propriety are minimized in relation to a person’s felt identity, felt needs, and their ability to freely express these things. Philosopher Charles Taylor calls this phenomena “expressive individualism.” Expressive individualism effectively elevates an individual’s personal identity and their ability to express that identity above all else. As such, it is not in accord with Christianity. Yet, Taylor makes a claim that might surprise some: we are all expressive individualists.
Expressive Individualism: None of Us are Exempt
Expressive individualism may be one of the most influential ideas in our culture, all the more powerful because people assume the ideas of expressive individualism without realizing it. Expressive individualism is to us like water is to fish: it is all around us, so pervasive that we don’t even notice that it exists.
Charles Taylor makes the case that cultural shifts have brought us to a time in which every person’s beliefs, regardless of what beliefs they hold, are undergirded by expressive individualist assumptions. While most Christians aren’t going to agree with all of the “summary statements” that describe expressive individualism, there is a core sentiment of expressive individualism that most would agree with: individual happiness and individual fulfillment are essential to living a good life. That is to say, our personal happiness and fulfillment should have a large part to play in the decisions we make about how to live our lives. When this assumption is taken to its extreme, individual happiness becomes paramount. This belief, or perhaps more appropriately, this assumption, can crop up in any aspect of our lives.
Adele’s expressive individualism is apparent on 30 and in the way that she talks about the events and relationships that inspired the album. However, Adele is by no means an extreme case of expressive individualism. In fact, my point is just the opposite: Adele is merely exhibiting the patterns of thoughts and behaviors that are normal and accepted in our culture, and thus she is no different than the average person. When contrasted with many other popular musicians, the thirty-three-year-old superstar is something of a beacon of moral integrity and propriety—her music is free of the explicit language and sexual themes so liberally strewn throughout most pop music. Nevertheless, her moral decorum in her music does not mean she has avoided the pull of expressive individualism. Similarly, if Charles Taylor is right, our religious convictions do not make us exempt from living by the values of expressive individualism.
Expressive Individualism and the Pursuit of Happiness
Historian Carl Trueman offers an example of how the key sentiment “individual happiness and individual fulfillment are essential to living a good life” changes the way we think about work and vocation. We think of a “good job” as a job we enjoy, one that gives us a sense of fulfillment and purpose. By contrast, Trueman observes that his grandfather, from an earlier and less expressively individualistic generation, would have judged the value of his job based upon its ability to provide for his family, not whether or not he enjoyed it. Trueman speculates that if his grandfather was asked if he enjoyed his job or found fulfillment in it, he might not even grasp the point of the question.4 Yet the expressive individualist judges the value of a job based on internal judgments about whether it brings happiness or fulfillment, rather than external facts like whether the job provides financially for one’s family.
How we think about work might not seem like a big deal. Expressive individualism, however, does not confine itself to one area of our thinking and acting. It changes how we think about everything. Crucially, expressive individualism changes how we think about religion. When expressive individualism undergirds religious beliefs and practices, Christianity becomes an exercise in finding yourself and expressing yourself.5 Christianity is seen less as a matter of what is true and more as a matter of what is personally fulfilling. So, what happens if Christianity doesn’t help you express yourself? What happens if Chrisitanity doesn’t make you feel fulfilled or happy? According to expressive individualism, that gives a person the right—even the responsibility—to move on from their Christainity in the same way Adele moved on from her husband. Adele did not believe she could be happy with her husband, so she got a divorce. In our cultural climate, Christians can be tempted to get rid of their Christianity in the same manner if it does not make them happy. The danger of expressive individualism to the church is not so much that it will try to erase God or Christian beliefs; the danger is that “God may still be present, but ‘Me’ is on the throne.”6
Adele’s “To Be Loved,” perhaps the most personal and emotionally raw song on 30, is a vivid example of expressive individualism. In the chorus, Adele sings,
Let it be known that I will choose to lose
It’s a sacrifice
But I can’t live that lie
Let it be known, let it be know
That I tried
These lyrics communicate Adele’s need to be herself, most likely in reference to her decision to get a divorce. The “sacrifice” she makes is “being true to herself” by choosing to get a divorce because she “can’t live a lie.” The sacrifice is not, as many might assume, to persevere in her marriage, love her husband, love her son, or to take responsibility for her own life. Her ability to express her individuality by pursuing her happiness and fulfillment is more powerful and important to her than any of these other things. Adele’s emotion on “To Be Loved” is moving, and her sincerity is undeniable when she sings, “let it be known that I tried.” Yet we can see the reason that her trying did not work, why her marriage “didn’t work:” it is simply because it did not make her feel happy. Expressive individualism won out, and she chose to pursue her own happiness above all else.
Expressive individualism runs deep in our culture. Without realizing it, we have agreed with its basic assumptions for our whole lives. The desire for happiness and fulfillment is not in itself wrong, but when it underpins our thinking and acting, Christianity runs the risk of becoming an exercise in self-fulfillments rather than obedience and loyalty to a sovereign God. The central claims of Christianity challenge the assumptions of expressive individualism. As writer Trevin Wax explains, “Expressive individualism would have us look deep into our hearts to discover our inner essence and express that to the world. But the gospel shows how the depths of our hearts are steeped in sin; it claims that what we need most is not expression, but redemption.”7 The lie that we must look into our “inner essence” to find ourselves has been bought by Adele and, to one degree or another, every person in Western culture.
Sometimes, when we recognize a popular idea in culture that does not harmonize with Christianity we should ask ourselves, “How should we respond to this belief?” If Taylor is correct, in the case of expressive individualism it is not just other people who are thinking wrongly about things: we too have been taken in by a way of thinking that is not fully Christian. We too have a tendency to wrongly elevate the importance of personal happiness, fulfillment, and our ability to express our individuality in the choices we make. Therefore, we must ask ourselves, “how do we respond to our beliefs?”
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