A Casual no to authenticity

Although most of the people I know who enjoyed Harry P were adults, J.K. Rowling’s book “The Casual Vacancy” bears all the marks of Harry Potter that we loved without the magic and with more grit. It’s definitely not for children. For those who found her love of magic at odds with her claims to Christianity, you may feel the same about her stark portrayal of the dark side of life, using the same pantomimey characterisation you’ll find in Harry Potter.  I liked it, all the more that the people’s desires, machinations, jockeyings for desire and pleasure happen not in a mafia gang or a prison wing, but on a parish council of a successful market town, driven by the desire to lose responsibility for a local housing estate. This is middle class darkness, identifying the unclean-ness that lies in everyone. In that sense it’s very Christian.

But the reason I really enjoyed this piece of writing was because of what she is saying about authenticity. Authenticity is a twenty first century moral virtue. Birthed by the twentieth century movements that rejected the idea that our purpose  could be dictated from outside ourselves, authenticity was some people’s answer to how we should measure a successful life. There is no external purpose to conform to, one can only be true to oneself. So it was Sartre who wrote that we are, in reality, absolutely free but allow ourselves to become an object for others. I could be anything, do anything, but allow what I be and do to be changed by how others view me. It was those who followed him who said that the successful life was to be authentic, to live life free of the limits placed on us by the objectifying of others. It’s still a popular idea: as I quoted in a sermon a few weeks ago, I found this quote online:

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” It had been liked four hundred thousand times.

In fact, authenticity is an hideously immoral ethic if you think, as I do, that we should consider the effects of our actions on other people as part of living a successful life. Truly there are better accomplishments than being true to yourself; how much better to give yourself for others. Our choices to be authentic are always at the cost of someone else’s giving something up.  Although, apparently, no one’s told the Girl Guides.

That’s why I loved J.K. Rowling’s take on authenticity, because the character in her book who is obsessed with being authentic, who lives as if being true to himself matters is the one who destroys all he touches. It’s about time someone in pop culture had a proper good go at authenticity as the self obsessed, inward looking, stomach churning nonsense it is, and Rowling does that with epic plotting and vigorous demonising.

We are not pure selves, ruined by relating to other people. We are formed by our relationships. We are made in the image of a God who serves, a purpose given from outside ourselves. We should stop worrying about how other people are oppressing our true self and get on with that.

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