Matthew Roberts, Pride: Identity and the Worship of Self (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2023). 182 pp. £14.99. ISBN: 978-1527109391
I have said more than once that, apart from the Bible, there are no ‘must-read’ books, and that publishers, blurbers, reviewers, and all Author’s friends and relations, should repent of saying that there are. Therefore, in reviewing a book that has the great merit of pursuing its case rigorously, with consistency and integrity, I feel honour-bound to state that this is not a ‘must-read’ book. But I really hope that it finds a wide and attentive readership, not least among pastors, because Matthew Roberts addresses an extremely important—and pastorally urgent—topic. More than that, he has written a book that is clear, fresh and readable, and also rigorous, deep and compelling. I think it’s mostly brilliant, and as far as I know, there’s nothing else like it currently available.
The book’s thesis is easily stated: the ‘underlying driver’ of our contemporary ‘identity-obsession’ (p. 9) is idolatrous worship of the self. In contrast to secular analyses of the current crises and conflicts of identities in the West, Roberts offers a thoroughly biblical analysis, rooted in an understanding that we are what we worship: ‘Since who we are is defined by our duty to worship God, our crisis of identity is at root a crisis of worship. The Christian gospel, being God’s call to worship Him alone, uniquely has the resources to remedy this.’ (p. 16)
The first half of the book unfolds what it means to say that we are ‘Defined by Worship’, with chapters on who we are and who we think we are (ch. 1), the idolatry of self (ch. 2), and the dynamics of desire (chs. 3 and 4). He shows how our idolatrous desires enslave us, and how they are truly sinful to their very roots in our corrupt hearts as sinful children of Adam.
The whole of the first half of the book is superb and presents a far more profound understanding of the roots of sinful identities (including, but not limited to, ‘LGBT+’ identities) than I have come across elsewhere. The chapter on concupiscence (ch. 4) is simply outstanding: if you want to understand what the Protestant understanding of the doctrine is, why it is biblical, and why it matters (as opposed to the Roman Catholic view that is also held by a surprising number of contemporary conservative evangelical leaders), this would be an excellent place to begin.
The second half of the book, ‘Restored to be True Worshippers’ will, I suspect, be far more controversial: loved by some and hated by others. In it, Roberts applies the theological truths of the first half by examining the significance of our creation as male and female, the idolatrous harm of assuming that the contemporary alphabet of sexual identities is valid and inevitable (including the error of Christians identifying themselves as ‘gay’ or ‘same-sex attracted’), and the ‘Redemption of Identity’ in the gospel by which we are re-made as true worshippers of the true God. I have been trying to resist language of sexual orientation and sexual identity for more than a decade, so this was all music to my ears. Others will find it much more uncomfortable reading. But Roberts makes a strong case that sexual desires are not identity-conferring, and that to assume that they are creates significant pastoral problems.
In this half of the book, I was pleased that he was just as critical of the idolatry of ‘heterosexual’ and ‘straight’ identities and orientations. I was glad he exposed the damaging, and sinful, errors of gay ‘cure’ or ‘deliverance’ ministries. I was convicted by the evil uncleanness of my own heart, and the seriousness of my sin primarily because it is an offence against God. And I was moved, delighted and given hope by the grace of God in the gospel, and also by Roberts’s clear explanation that the law of God is good for us: ‘It does not behove Christians to speak or think of what God has called evil as if it were a good thing…Abandoning sin is not part of the cost, but of the blessing, of discipleship…For God’s law is in fact good, and to keep it for His sake is the delight of the Christian’s heart.’ (pp. 159-60)
The whole book takes us deep into the Bible, and models the fidelity, beauty and nourishment of a Reformed confessional approach to Scripture. There are many exegetical highlights, but one unexpected, yet golden, moment, was in his explanation of why the story of Eutychus (Acts 20:7-12) is not a cute illustration of why sermons shouldn’t be boring. I won’t tell you the answer, nor the page number: I want you to read the book and discover it for yourself!
In Part 2, Roberts criticises three ‘false approaches’ to questions of sexual identity: affirming same-sex relationships; ‘healing’/ ‘deliverance’ ministries; and—probably most controversially—the increasingly common idea that while same-sex acts are bad, same-sex identities are neutral or good. In the course of this, he has some very challenging things to say about some conservative evangelical writings on the subject of same-sex sexuality. Nevertheless, he is careful to praise the courage and faithfulness of evangelical brothers with whom he disagrees.
I hope that Pride will not be used simply as a stick with which to beat people and organisations who are criticised within its pages. In these debates, we will need to distinguish carefully whom we are disagreeing with—some are pagans outside the church; some are within the visible church as false teachers and false brothers; some are true brothers and sisters in Christ who are mistaken. We will also need to distinguish the degrees of seriousness of their different errors, and ways in which those we disagree with also disagree with each other.
But I also hope that the arguments of the book will be considered carefully and discussed robustly. And I hope the discussions avoid mischaracterising Roberts as engaging in personal attacks, rather than presenting ideas and arguments for consideration. This is a conversation that needs to happen, not least among British conservative evangelicals. My own view is that, in these pages, Roberts mounts a compelling corrective to some muddled thinking.
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I had originally intended this to be a very short and positive review, because my impressions are overwhelmingly positive. But Pride is a serious book, and so it merits critical engagement. Therefore, I decided that it’s worth registering a worry, an error, and two questions. I’m doing so in smaller print in part because I’m unreconstructedly pretentious and find it fun, but also to register that these worries are minor compared to my enthusiasm and praise.
First, the worry: I worry that some (even fairly conservative) evangelicals will find this a book that is all too easy to dismiss. At times, the tone is rather brisk (‘It is, biblically speaking, nonsense’; p. 105), and Roberts is refreshingly unafraid to say things that readers might find hard to hear, and to say them in a forthright and uncompromising way. Not that he is ever harsh or crass or cruel—far from it. But he is direct. He also chooses to use language that some will find difficult (‘man’ rather than ‘humanity’; ‘he’ in preference to ‘they’ as a singular pronoun; ‘sodomy’ to refer to sexual acts, in preference to identity-conferring adjectives such as ‘homosexual’ or ‘gay’). I should be clear: this is not a criticism of the book. It would not be a mature reaction to dismiss what Roberts writes for this reason, but I can imagine it happening. I also worry because Roberts addresses directly, and repeatedly, some well-known English evangelical pastors and writers about sexuality, and has some weighty criticisms to offer. He is consistently charitable and careful in his engagements, but also pointed in his critiques. I hope that readers of every evangelical tribe and tongue will value honest pursuit of the truth and will suppress the gag reflex that arises from an allergy to criticisms of our favoured friends, popes and tribes. What matters here is dispassionate evaluation of the arguments, not our own views about ourselves, or about particular individuals or organisations.
Secondly, the error: Roberts is correct in his insistence that ‘every pronoun used of God and every name which He is given in the Bible is masculine’, and that in the incarnation the Son reveals the Father (pp. 94-95). It’s a shame that he doesn’t offer an extra line or two to support his assertion that the ‘very occasional…motherhood metaphors’ for God in Scripture ‘are no exceptions to this’. I think he’s right; but this needs to be explained, not merely asserted. Nevertheless, it is a big leap to move from these true observations to saying that ‘In the verse where God establishes our image-of-God identity as male and female, He requires us to think of Him as male.’ (p. 95; my italics). Given Roberts’s theological sophistication, it’s more than possible that underlying this claim is a sufficiently strong doctrine of analogy, and that this is just carelessly expressed (his main point appears to be that God relates to creation as male relates to female within creation). However, the main target readership of this book is not marked by a sophisticated understanding of the absolute disproportion of created and uncreated being, and the consequent analogical nature of language about God! It is therefore, at least potentially, a very misleading sentence. At the very least, some negative qualifications are called for: God is a Spirit; he has no body and is therefore not male in the way a man is male (leaving aside obvious qualifications in relation to the humanity of the Son incarnate and reflection on the fittingness of the Son becoming incarnate as a man). Further, the perfections of man and woman, maleness and femaleness, are all present supereminently in God as first cause of all things in creation. God, in his essence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, therefore utterly exceeds and transcends maleness (and femaleness), even as masculine language for God considered absolutely, and for the divine persons considered relatively, is both appropriate and mandated by Scripture. In a book on idolatry—and which is sensitive to the dangers of transgressing the second commandment—these qualifications seem vital.
Now to my questions, the first of which relates to Roberts’s treatment of marriage for men and women who experience consistent patterns of same-sex attraction. This is an impressive example of his rigour in following the logic of rejecting the category of sexual orientation. Having established this, he insists that Scripture prohibits no one from marriage, and that the absence of lust for women obviously does not disqualify a man from marriage, or, mutatis mutandis, a woman who experiences no lust for men. (The absence, in a man, of lust for women is a good thing, not a problem!) He therefore argues that those who experience same-sex sexual lusts are free to marry. The main point is well-taken—and I agree that it is potentially wonderful news for young men and women struggling with their sexual identity. But I am unsure how far I am willing to go, here. Roberts is an experienced pastor, offers some caveats, and is clear that no one should feel compelled to marry. But I need to think further about the extent to which I think encouragement to marry is wise advice for a young man who experiences a besetting pattern of exclusively same-sex sexual desires. I am not, here, disagreeing with what Roberts writes, simply noting that I am grateful for the provocation to think further.
The second question I have relates to Roberts’s own, positive, use of identity language, which occurs throughout the book. I am increasingly sceptical about the value of such language. Recently, for example, I was exhorted to ‘find your identity in Christ, Matthew’. I’m pretty sure I know what was intended by this statement; but I’m still not entirely sure what the statement means! And I’m very confident that the Apostle Paul would never have said it. Nor would Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Owen, Spurgeon, or indeed anyone until about twenty or thirty years ago.
Historically, the English word ‘identity’ was used for a couple of main purposes. The first use was to establish the identity of a particular person or institution over time: how can I know that I am the same man I was ten years ago, that there is a genuine identity between who I was then and who I am now? (Some might be reminded here of the Ship of Theseus; I prefer to think about Trigger’s Broom.) The second use was to establish a point of connection (an identity) between two things: there is an identity between object x and object y, because they are both tennis balls; Benjamin Franklin established the identity of lightning with electricity. It was not, as far as I’m aware, used in its more psychological sense (‘finding my true identity’) until the 1950s. In other words, used in this way, ‘identity’ is as modern a concept as the idea of sexual identity. So, my question is why, if we (rightly) reject language of sexual identity, would we continue to use ‘identity’ language at all?
Now, Roberts rightly insists that my identity is not something socially constructed, nor is it something I curate or discover for myself. Rather, it is something conferred by God, which defines who I am: I am created in his image; I am a man; I am redeemed in Christ; I am a saint; I am God’s son. He also, rightly, notes an important place for secondary, non-sinful, ‘identities’: I am English; I am a son and a husband and a father. All of this is great. And Roberts’s treatment of these ‘identities’ is exceptionally rich and helpful because it is shaped by careful reflection on the ten commandments, understood as an exposition of what it means to be created in God’s image—the biblical understanding of the moral law for the win, here!
Where my worry lies is in sentences like this: ‘Finding our identity in God-given duty not in human desire, we are restored to a true understanding of what it means to be a man or woman in the image of God’ (p. 133; my italics). Or this: ‘we must call people to find their true identity as Christian worshippers’ (p. 135; italics original).
I see various problems. First, identity is an abstract concept, and we are better served by using the far more concrete language of Scripture. Not, ‘call people to find their true identity as Christian worshippers’; more simply, directly, and biblically, ‘call people to worship God’. Not (to use my earlier example), ‘find your identity in Christ’, but: ‘hope in Christ, trust Christ, treasure Christ, follow Christ, love Christ, delight in Christ’. Not, ‘Your identity is in Christ’, but: ‘God is your Father; your Saviour is your brother; you are God’s deeply loved and totally accepted son and heir in Christ’; or: ‘I am in Christ; I am a servant of Christ; I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.’ These seem to me to be much more concrete, powerful and pastoral ways of speaking.
Secondly, I worry that ‘my identity in Christ’ is, in fact, an inadvertent way of holding Christ at a distance: the focus is on the middle term—identity—rather than on him. It is a far richer, more immediate, and more intimate and joyful thing to say, simply, ‘I needn’t worry about x, I needn’t envy y, because I am God’s and He is mine’.
Thirdly, to speak in this more concrete way also avoids slipping into the sense that identity language seems inevitably to carry of making my identity a project that I must carry out: ‘find your identity’.
Fourthly, and, perhaps most importantly of all, I worry because identity, in this psychological sense, is an inherently reflexive notion: ‘find your identity’. To speak in this way risks perpetuating the sinful and damaging self-attention of homo incurvatus in se (man curved in on himself), which Roberts diagnoses so powerfully in the first half of the book. Calling me to find my identity in worshipping God is one thing—which potentially leads to an inherently self-focused project even as it calls me to fix my attention on God. Calling me to worship God is something else entirely, because it immediately directs my attention out of myself to delighted contemplation of the Triune God who alone is worthy of all worship. Yet—wonderfully!—it is in being so directed away from myself that I truly find myself, because I am reoriented towards the one from whom, through whom, and to whom I have my being. I have no doubt at all that Roberts and I are aiming for the same thing. And maybe I’m missing something. But my question is, ‘Why continue to use “identity” language at all?’
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In writing this review, I have again discovered my identity to be ‘the kind of man who goes on rather longer, and rather more critically, than he had originally intended’. But I hope this is taken as a compliment: Pride is not a long book, but it is a rich and thoughtful book, and so it provokes thought and deserves careful attention. Others will have to draw their own conclusions about my worries, criticisms and questions. But whatever you make of what I’ve written, I hope you will read, and be challenged and persuaded by, this terrific book. It’s very nearly a ‘must-read’.