Book Review: The Vertical Self

I recently signed up for books from Thomas Nelson. You can see the link below. My first book is The Vertical Self by Mark Sayers. And away we go…

In an age of people being fed up with the Church (mainly younger evangelical types like myself) Sayers sees the main problem surrounding the community of believers to be the individual believers. There are multitudes of confessing Christians, but seemingly fewer disciples of Jesus. The core of his thesis is found early on in the preface:

“There [is] a problem of discipleship. The best way to describe the problem was to say it was a crisis of identity.”

Identity as a disciple has been lost and it has been lost for awhile. In its place, “we play the game of creating and acting out identities” centering on the “new social virtues” of “cool, sexy, and glamorous.” Sayers traces a brief history of how we lost our core disciple-oriented identity to this new caricature of human identity. His delineation is drawn between what he calls the vertical self, contrasted by the horizontal self.

The vertical self is the framework he uses to describe the person properly oriented to the God, creation, and the eternal state. With God as the authority found at the top of the framework humanity can look “upward” to find meaning, purpose, and a sense of self. This then in turn can inform the relationships between humanity, the created order, and finally effect the eternal consequences of the afterlife. In essence, the vertical self is positioned in a vertical posture, constantly looking to God, and will therefore become “more like God.” Understood is the deeper reality of life and the sense of being found in a larger reality or story.

For the horizontal self, these are not true. There is not a sense of deeper reality or looking to become more like God. Rather, the horizontal self is constantly looking side-to-side for affirmation from peers. Sayers describes this process as being analogous to a mirror. We put out a fake identity (either cool, sexy, or glamorous) to those around us, look for their acceptance and yet, they can only decide things based on what we ourselves put out for them to see. They don’t get to our cores because the horizontal self is always dealing with the seemingly peripheral. Unfortunately, this isn’t completely true because we always display our true selves, even when we are attempting to cover them up with a facade.

The rest of the book is his discussion concerning the ways in which the horizontal self has become so rampant in our culture today. Movies, television, music, et al are to blame to a degree but only to a degree because we are the ones keeping them in business. He wrestles with the proverbial question of “Is culture this way because we allow it to be or are we this way because of our cultural influences?” His evaluation of contemporary culture and its ills is a pretty spot on. However, it isn’t anything that most Christians haven’t been rallying against for some time now. He makes good observations concerning the outcomes of the media-saturated Christianity prevalent today, especially the passivity found in most churches because of their “need” to be entertained.

The main thrust of the book comes in chapters 9 and 10. Here we finally come across some of the tips and guidance he offers to return to the vertical self. He says, “if we are to find our real identities, we must rediscover what it is to be holy.” Rightly, he looks to creation and humanity’s place in it. It was refreshing to read a book in which he doesn’t revel in the hope of escaping into heaven at some future time. Rather, he places the value in the creation of God and God’s redemptive plan for it. Not only does creation have value and a plan of being redeemed, but God has willed that we have a participatory place within it all. The peace (shalom) found within creation is what God is restoring to us and through us to the rest of the world.

I found myself constantly wondering about the “How?” of it all and it came in the last several pages. We need to redeem our desires through: bringing them under Christ’s lordship, bringing them under covenant, testing the worthiness of our desires, and testing the fruitfulness of our desires. Lastly, in summary, he says that for the vertical self sacrifice is a must. We must die to ourselves for the sake of Christ and others. The need for public acceptance and the masks we wear are only hindrances in our becoming like God.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to someone who needs to understand the lack of true identity in Jesus found in most churches today. I would point someone to the books he references in it, especially Middleton and Wright’s works. It is a great read for those wanting to get a cursory understanding of Christian identity without reading an in-depth theological or biblical study.


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