I wish I could take credit for the following idea, but I heard it today listening to the latest edition of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. The executive director, Ken Myers, is a sharp and broad-reaching cultural critic, and the basic thought on “authentic” faith belongs to him.
He wondered out loud while introducing a segment on the recent surge in Wicca and neo-paganism, about how the word “authentic” has been applied lately to religion and spirituality. It is an idea that is often used (and was one point in the discussion about neo-paganism) to reject historical Christianity, or at the least, to reject institutionalized forms of Christianity. Instead, people who search for “authentic spirituality” usually walk away from historical faiths in favor of newer, more personalized faith practices and beliefs.
One point the interviewee made about her book on Wicca is that its tenants tend to be very person-specific and fairly malleable. Wicca, along with so much of American spirituality, gives its believers the chance to make religion in their own image.
Myers’ comment was on the ironic linguistic twist involved. “Authentic” literally means something that can be authenticated-something that is demonstrably real and objective. We still use “authentic” in this way to describe things like artifacts or art, as in an “authentic Navajo pot” or the “authentic self-portrait by the artist.” The point is, the label “authentic” describes the genuine article.
But now, and this is no less true in evangelical circles, “authentic” means “subjective.” The upshot is that people are ostensibly searching for the real thing when in fact they are looking inward and creating a cheap reproduction of what is truly spiritually authentic.
In the recent evangelical reaction against the church growth movement and the evil specter of Modernism, have we bastardized the term “authentic”? Have we helped lead people out of the church and the embrace of orthodoxy just so they can craft their own faith in search of the supposedly authentic?