WHO GOD SAYS YOU ARE: A Christian Understanding of Identity. By Klyne R. Snodgrass. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018. X + 246 pages.
The biblical story begins with God creating the earth and all that it contains. God begins by separating light from darkness, earth and sea, and then one by one the elements of the created order are added, culminating in the creation of humanity in the image of God—as male and female. With each act of creation God pronounced it good. That includes the creation of humanity, who are charged with being stewards of creation (Gen. 1). That God created humanity in God’s image is a reminder that we are who we are because of God’s actions (this is a theological statement not a scientific one). The two creation stories (Genesis 1 and 2) speak to the question of identity, a question that most of us ask regularly. Who am I? What is my purpose? What makes me who I am?
Klyne Snodgrass takes up these questions, suggesting that our identity is defined by God, who declares who we are. Snodgrass is not a psychologist or sociologist. He is a New Testament scholar teaching at North Park Theological Seminary. It is from that vantage point that he makes "the Bible is about identity." While the Bible addresses the identity and nature of God, it does so to help humans know what it means to be created in the image of God. Following John Calvin, Snodgrass writes that “you cannot know yourself without knowing the One in whose image you were created” (p. 2). In other words, Scripture helps us understand who we are. Who we are is different from vocation. It may include vocation, but it is much more than that. Now, one might respond that the Bible is about God not humanity. Barth, for instance, believed that Bultmann was too focused on anthropology and not enough about God. So, that is a question that must be wrestled with.
But, that question need not keep us from asking the anthropological question of identity. Snodgrass admits that the English word identity is not found in the Bible—there isn’t an exact equivalent in Greek or Hebrew—but the concept is present, because “life is about identity construction (p. 3). Snodgrass takes up this question of identity as an evangelical Christian and does so in conversation with the Bible. He believes that while we make choices about aspects of our identity, it is our God defined characteristics that represent who we are. Race, ethnicity, gender, etc. are of less importance than God's input. Now, I agree to a point, but at the same time, something was missing in the conversation -- that was recognition of white male privilege. It is easy for a white male (like me) to place gender and ethnicity in a secondary place, as I have lived with the privileges my gender and ethnicity provide. On the other hand, I agree that identity is not wrapped up in possessions, status, clothes, honors.
Leaving those issues aside, we turn to the main point of the book, and that is the exploration of what Snodgrass are the nine factors of identity that "are true of all persons, regardless of their religion or lack thereof." (p. 10). While these factors cross religious lines, whether we believe or not in God, he looks at them from a Christian perspective. The nine factors start with the body (reminding us that we are bodies, dispelling the idea we are enfleshed souls). We are our history (the past: our past and that of family, etc. influence our lives). We are our relations (yes, we are formed by who we are in relation to). The same goes for commitments, actions, boundaries, the reality of change, and the future. Each of these factors contribute to our identity. We may choose elements, but some elements are not chosen (you can choose your friends, but generally not your family).
I found much of the book to be helpful. He is committed to engaging with seriousness the biblical story. He doesn't pretend to be a psychologist. He is what he is, and he brings that to bear to the question of identity, helping us come to grips with who we are in God's eye. I appreciated the reminder that we are our actions. He doesn't counsel perfection, but if you don't act like a Christian, you aren't a Christian. Saying you believe in Jesus is not a sufficient mark.
When one discusses identity race/ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation are bound to come into the conversation. What straight males tend to ignore such questions, assuming (wrongly) that our experiences are normative. When it comes to reading scripture, we tend to use what we believe to be normative as our lens by which we read scripture and do our theology. In recent years the question of sexual orientation has come to the fore. For many in the church this is a difficult conversation. Evangelicals have, generally, taken a more conservative position, embracing what is understood to be traditional mores. Snodgrass is no different. For the most part he skirts the questions of sexual orientation and gender identity. Of course, many of us understand that we can no longer set aside the discussion. The cat is out of the bag. While he seems reticent to deal with sexual orientation directly, we see hints as to where comes out. One of the places we see this is in his translation of a passage from 1 Corinthians that scholars find unclear. Yet, he translates the passage as a condemnation of "a man having sex with a man." As the pastor of an open and affirming church with a brother who is gay, I must say that I disagree strongly with his reading of Scripture on this issue (and I hate to use that word since we’re talking about real people). While I find much of the book helpful, I believe his perspective on sexual orientation will limit his reach.
So, I found the book useful at many points. I'm not sure I agree that the Bible is preeminently about identity, but identity is one of the key issues of the faith. With the caveats mentioned above, I can recommend this for further conversation.