Posted On October 21, 2019

You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal with It — Rachel Jankovic (book review)

by | Oct 21, 2019 | Theology

Note (May 20th, 2020): My previous endorsement of You Who is under reconsideration after my having done much more study into Federal Vision theology. I have left the below review just as it was before for the time being. —GPO


In You Who: Why You Matter and How to Deal with It, author Rachel Jankovic writes against the rise of secular philosophies of identity and calls women to return to scripture and everyday, faithful obedience. At 235 pages and relatively large font, it was short enough for me to read in a one-night cram session, though you need not do the same. It’s an overall solid work and recommended for every “average” Christian woman.

You Are What You Do?

Jean-Paul Sartre with his longtime, open-relationship partner Simone de Beauvoir in 1955. Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain.

Jean-Paul Sartre with his longtime, open-relationship partner Simone de Beauvoir in 1955. Wikimedia Commons: Public Domain.

Much of the problem with how we identify, according to Jankovic, is how secular philosophy has encroached upon how we view ourselves. In a brilliant illustration, Jankovic likens this encroachment to the work of the fashion industry. High-profile designers regularly trot out “unbelievably stupid outfits for unbelievably tall and harsh looking people with show-poodle hair, wearing cinder-block shoes and pants made out of an inner tube.” We laugh now, but these things mainstream themselves and become embraced by the public. In the same way, our culture has done the same with secular philosophies.

One such example is the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre (d. 1980), defined by Sartre as the following:

What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world—and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist conceives him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. he will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself.

In other (Jankovic’s) words: “You only ‘mean’ anything, you only develop an essence, through your own exertion. You make our own meaning. You must take responsibility—and your action drives your meaning.” Narrowing down a bit more, “he was calling people to the great ‘moral duty’ of doing whatever you want.”

It doesn’t take much to find this manifest on nearly any social media feed. And you might even find it on your own. We identify with what we accomplish. You can accomplish whatever you set your mind to.  And we’ve adopted this from Sartre, a self-consumed serial adulterer.

Another philosopher to whom Jankovic introduces us early on is Abraham Maslow (d. 1970), known for his “Hierarchy of Needs.” This one I actually remember from the eighth grade. This hierarchy has five levels going from basic physiological needs such as food and water, going through psychological needs such as intimate relationships, and then peaking with self-actualization.

Both of these philosophies have led our culture towards focusing upon our identity of self and basing our value upon our accomplishments.

But the truth is, the reason this approach appeals to everyone is because it flatters us. We are the makers of our own essences! If we want to be outdoorsy, we shall be so! It is only a trip to Cabela’s away! If we want to care a lot about charity, we need only to take some action in that direction and slap it our our personal narrative like a bumper sticker on an old car. We drive through our lives pasting things onto the back windshield of our selves. Maybe we have a child, so we get a vinyl stick figure to put next to the dog. Then maybe we feel crafty, or we do some training and run a marathon, and so we add a couple more. It’s all in pursuit of that identity of the self that we think we are creating. [emphasis added]

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Wikimedia Commons: Chiquo (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The impact of these philosophies is especially manifest now. Euthanasia is seen as right and humane because its — ahem,  “patients” — aren’t useful to society and clearly are not capable of climbing Maslow’s hierarchy. Abortion is okay because the child might get in the way of one’s self-actualization. Motherhood is a second-class calling compared to a career. More recently:

Men might decide to have green hair, tattoos of monkeys on their faces, implant horns or huge breasts, or even castrate themselves and take hormones because they have decided that they are no longer men and will now be women. […] Today, this is a far more protected right than the right to life. What we Christians need to see is that this is completely consistent with the existential viewpoint. We are having this trouble because we believed that lie.

How We’ve Responded

In a chapter entitled “Halfsies,” Jankovic seeks to show how these philosophies have made their way into our thinking inside the church. On a shallow level, we might put a Christian bumper sticker on our car, even one with some theological depth such as “Depraved Wretch.” There’s nothing wrong with the sticker itself, but this could also be driven by the same identity philosophy described above. If you’re in Christ, “He is not here to look good next to your brand. He bought your life, and you are His.” But purchasing a bumper sticker is way easier.

More seriously than just a bumper sticker, we might even try to arrange ourselves or fellow believers so that we can keep parts of our old identity while tacking Christ on. In a portion that should remind us of such efforts as Revoice, Jankovic writes:

Christians who are struggling deeply with identity issues are getting so little help from other believers. We don’t really know where to begin, so we try to help them arrange their life and identity so they can still have whatever closely held things they have found in themselves (such as being same-sex attracted) and Jesus, too. We have no practical understanding of what it means to have a Christian identity.

How We Should Respond

Jankovic’s proposed response is perhaps best summarized in two words: death and obedience.

Death

The first word is death because “Jesus Christ died so that you might die, and He lives so that you might live. Your life in Christ is what happens after your death in Him.” Because of this death, “Your need to be unique is dead. Your envy, greed, obsessions, guilts—they are all dead. Dead and gone in Christ. Stop trying to tidy them up and make them mean something, because they never will.”

This necessarily goes far enough to include notions of “finding your unique identity.” In a chapter called “Unconcerned,” Jankovic writes:

It is far from my responsibility and life’s work to create and curate myself. For the Christian, the question of “Who am I?” is actually just another way of asking “Who is He?

No, Jankovic didn’t just go Joyce Meyer on us. Rather, we are to find our identity in Him in large part because He does not change and we do. When we find our identity in attributes like youth, singleness, independence, or a particular career, anything such as physical deterioration, a spouse, children, and job changes inevitably will take us away from “ourselves.” So the world then tells us to “find yourself,” and the crisis will manifest externally. Spousal abandonment, suicide, and poor financial choices all can be symptoms of this false sense of “finding yourself.”

In contrast to this, a Christian who is pursuing the glory of God is not threatened by changes. Because we are becoming ourselves through responsive obedience to God, we do not need either ourselves or our situations to be settled, because our whole lives are fixed on God, and He will not change.

Obedience

The second word is obedience. A primary illustration of this is what Jankovic calls “planting flags,” which is “moments of overt recognition that what you are doing, you are doing for the glory of God.” This could be small things like dealing with a kid who refuses to go to sleep throughout the night (such as right now as I’m trying to write this portion of this review!) or wrestling with grievous past sins. It’s about everyday obedience in even the smallest things. In doing so, we not only glorify God but we also better find our identity in Christ because we are made more like Him.

Because we are made in the image of God, it is not difficult to see that increasing in our knowledge of Him is increasing in our understanding of our selves. How do we become more and more like Him? Through worship we obey Him, and through our obedience, we worship Him. It follows that those same things, obedience and worship, make us more and more like ourselves. Obey God to be yourself. Worship God to find yourself. This is the plain teaching of Scripture, which makes it so strange that many Christians have never been taught this basic truth.

This happens to stand in sharp contrast to my previous book review, as I’ll explain below.

Additional Insights

I want to take a chance to highlight how You Who relates to issues we’ve addressed here at Things Above Us as of late. One concerns the book review I wrote previously, and the other concerns the issue of personality tests and pop psychology.

Wakanda Warriors Untie!

In my four-part review Kat Armstrong’s book, No More Holding Back, I noted a certain motif whereby the ideal Christian woman is likened to a warrior such as those from the movie Black Panther or from the Wonder Woman franchise. This was further manifest in an article in Christ and Pop Culture — which Armstrong cited — that asserts, “The women in Black Panther are the best representation I’ve seen of God’s intention for His daughters.” In part 2 of my review, I wrote:

I fear that this warrior motif seriously risks placing an undue and unbiblical burden upon women who actually do want to live quiet lives of humble and faithful service: the kind of women we men don’t praise and admire enough, and the kind of women who indeed “Fight the good fight for the faith” (1 Tim. 6:12), “Put on the full armor of God” (Eph. 6:11), and do so without asking anyone to notice or interpreting these verses in such a way as to violate other portions of scripture.

Rachel Jankovic would probably have something to say about this specifically regarding the aforementioned point on obedience. Perhaps in an effort to enhance our identity (going back to that first problem), we might find that normal, boring obedience just isn’t enough.

This little mind-game of ours reveals a major misleading assumption: we think great obedience and exceptional performances are generally driven by discontent with the normal and the everyday. We think any person who accomplishes exceptional things for the kingdom must have graduated beyond the regular obedience in regular life to be allowed to enter the more hallowed ground of obedience that matters. […] Forget fiddling around trying to deal with this lame attitude I am having today; there are bigger forces of darkness to quell! I’m going to change the world, not wrestle with my own sin nature!

Ouch. Jankovic nailed this one, and we should all take notice.

The note I wrote when I read this.

Personality Tests and Purpose

Back in June, my TAU colleague Michael Coughlin posted concerning the enneagram, one of many personality tests that have found popularity in the evangelical church. In my time at Dallas Seminary, the test of choice was the “DISC” personality profile. We took a test for it early on, received a 50-page report about it, received a fancy presentation, and had to refer to it several times over the course of our spiritual formation program. And, of course, no seminary wants to be known as one that fails to place its graduates into ministry positions, so there’s plenty of emphasis on figuring out our identity and ultimate purpose.

Jankovic writes:

Some want to help you find this calling. They believe that this trip will be everything you ever wanted in your life and all the purpose you obviously need, so they set themselves up as mini travel agents. They will help you decipher your personality and your gifts, and they will attempt to book you a journey that starts where you are currently standing and takes you to the beginning of a life with more purpose. Their general idea is that all your history and your trials and your natural inclinations are clues to what God has been making you for.

For one, this is a grand recipe for doubt. What if I misinterpret something in my life? What if I get through four years of seminary and still don’t know what I’m going to do? This grand promise of purpose sounds a lot like Sarte and Maslow, doesn’t it?

The Elephant in the Room

Disclaimer: I did not just say that Douglas Wilson physically resembles an elephant.

Going into reading You Who, I knew that its publisher, Canon Press, was a branch of Douglas Wilson’s ministry in Moscow, Idaho. What I didn’t know is that Rachel Jankovic is Wilson’s daughter. This is another one of those “Do I tell the reader at the beginning or at the end?” deals. But the end made the most sense here.

Douglas Wilson is well known for having promoted Federal Vision theology and is a regular target of criticism on social media. No specific mention of Federal Vision appears in You Who, nor does any glaring mention of postmillennialism or the non-elect being members of the family of God. One particularly long, negative review alleges that Federal Vision permeates the entire book. With such a strong emphasis on obedience, it’s understandable if someone might feel bogged down. If anything, what Federal Vision could cause the work to lack is Christ’s active obedience, which Federal Vision denies. You Who thus could have benefitted from a reminder that Christ’s active obedience, not ours, is what God sees in our final standing with Him. At the same time, You Who has no implication that our justification is predicated upon our temporal obedience, and I detected no conflation of justification and sanctification.

Then again, Federal Vision hasn’t really been “my fight” here on the dispensationalist side of things, so I’ll leave open that you might find something that I missed.

If you have a positive or neutral opinion of Douglas Wilson, or you can separate your negative opinion of him from Rachel Jankovic, you’ll likely enjoy You Who. It’s a necessary call to ordinary faithfulness in a world that falsely tells women that they have to do “big” things, build platforms, and even preach from pulpits.

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