Review: Identity in Action

Identity in Action, Perry L. Glanzer. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2021.

Summary: Addresses the various different identities college students must negotiate and proposes a model of Christian excellence in these various identities.

College students must negotiate a variety of identities in their campus experience. Race, sexual orientation, and gender identity are the object of much public focus. But there are also a number of other identities one engages in everyday life that are no less real–academic work, friends and family, romantic relationships, one’s stewardship of time, talents and resources including one’s own body, and one’s civic identity. With all this, the question comes of how to juggle or prioritize these identities–all are important to who we are as persons.

One of the assertions the author makes is that colleges and universities offer little help in figuring this stuff out. For the author, Christ is central to this matter of identity, and this work assumes people who are Christ followers. He contends that Christ followers are new creations, restored from the sin and brokenness of human rebellion. He beautifully uses Fantine’s words to Cosette about her and her prostitute mother from Les Miserables: “She has the Lord. He is her Father….In his eyes you have never been anything but an innocent and beautiful woman.” But our identity is more than a “me and Jesus” thing. We are part of Christ’s body, and Glanzer considers this our most important human identity, and a place that forms us in loving virtue.

All of this lays the basis for what he advocates as “identity excellence” in our various roles. Subsequent chapters of the book work this out in our various identities with neighbors, our work as students, as friends, with enemies, as men or women, in romantic relationships, in stewarding our bodies and time, in the use of God’s gifts of money and possessions, in our race and ethnicity, and our loyalties to family and country. From work in collegiate ministry, I would agree that these are among the top student concerns.

The chapter on being a good neighbor helps ground other chapters on dealing with friends and enemies and focuses on how one may be excellent, regardless of the behavior of others. I did find it surprising that he would take on the matter of enemies. Yet this seems important because there is an idealism that denies the possibility of having enemies and leaves one ill-prepared when this arises. The counsel on stewardship, beginning with one’s body and his words about alcohol abuse on campuses and its connection with sexual assault is worth heeding.

I was more mixed in reading the chapters about “ladies” and “gentleman” and about romantic relationships. While I would affirm the emphasis on character and Christ-likeness, and challenging campus hook-up culture with chaste behavior toward one another and old-fashioned “dating,” I was concerned about the focus I saw on lingering gender stereotypes, for example “the strength, ambition, and character of men” versus “feminine beauty and the splendor of God’s glory.” This was more evident in the chapter on romance:

A real man on campus must have the courage to be counter-cultural. He must use his strength wisely and pursue a woman with patience, self-control, and agape love. The true woman scandalously withholds her love for the man noble and faithful enough to win it. She must demonstrate confidence in God’s love to sustain her in the midst of the desire to be loved, and she must demonstrate patience and self-control as she develops a romantic friendship” (p. 140).

I’m thankful that the author calls for patience and self-control on the part of both. At the same time the man is described as one who “pursues” who has “strength” and “courage” while the woman “withholds” as she is being pursued, she needs to be sustained by God’s love in her “desire to be loved.” I think many women who have struggled with patriarchy in the church would be fearful that this counsel is setting them up for a patriarchal marriage.

I’m also surprised that these chapters seem to act as if LGBTQ+ students do not exist when approximately 20 percent of Harvard and Yale students identify as LGBTQ+ and 11 percent of students at Christian colleges identify as non-heterosexual. Needless to say, for the Christian student who does not identify as heterosexual or cisgender, the silence of this book speaks loudly. Granted, almost anything that might be said may be contentious, but some word for these students seems necessary in a book on identity.

There are a number of good things in the chapter on race. In particular, the author traces his own growing racial awareness, the way both the country and the church are implicated in race. He cites his own institution of Baylor as an example of systemic racism in its historic discrimination against black students. However in moving so quickly to the avoidance of bitterness, the practice of forgiveness, and holding up the example of a black man who joins and serves in a white church, I suspect many students of color will be put off. Where is there room for godly anger at four hundred years of oppression, where is the unqualified repentance by the white church for the ways we are implicated in that oppression, and where is the counter example of whites submitting to black leadership?

The work concludes with the question of how we deal with conflicting priorities between our identities. I appreciate that the author didn’t offer a formula but urged the pursuit of faithfulness to Christ, attention to his words, and being yielded to the leading of the Holy Spirit, in community with other Christians. While we would like a GPS or a formula, what Glanzer describes rings true with experience. There is much wisdom like this throughout this work, my critique of several chapters notwithstanding. It may save the student who wants to follow Christ much grief and position that student for great growth and delight in the person he or she is discovering themselves to be through the critical years of college.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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