One of my most recent posts on Instagram is a picture of a loaf of bread I baked. I baked it because I like bread, especially fresh bread, hot out of a 450-degree oven and covered in far too much butter. But why, exactly, did I post the picture on Instagram?
It’s a nice-enough loaf, but I’ve no great baking talent. Part of my motive was simple enthusiasm for work I enjoyed. But some of it, if I’m honest, was about my image—as a writer, as a keeper of my household newly back to full-time work after maternity leave, and as the sort of person you might find interesting at a cocktail party.
There, look, I remember briefly thinking as I hit “Share,” no one can say I’m slacking on the homemaking front. I made bread!
This is ridiculous and vain and embarrassing, of course. But I come by it honestly in an era of self-creation, in which social media has given each of us the opportunity to craft a public image that is objectively artificial yet imagined as a display of authenticity.
That very dynamic is the subject of Tara Isabella Burton’s Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, published earlier this year. I reached out to Burton to ask about the theological underpinnings of her book and how the modern urge to self-create comports with Christian faith.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Let’s start with the trio of elevator questions I’m sure you’ve answered on a thousand podcasts by now: What is the book about? Why did you write it? And what readers did you have in mind?
Self-Made is an intellectual history of self-creation, the wider story of secular modernity’s idea that human beings not only can but should create themselves. By that, I mean not just that they shape their own destinies or change their social circumstances but that the cultivation of one’s own personality in accordance with one’s desires is basically the way that we are human.
And I see this as a religious story—a story that moves from the idea that we are created by God for a purpose beyond our immediate understanding toward one where we create ourselves and our own purpose. So, this is a theological story.
I wanted to write it for a variety of reasons. As a teenager, the idea of living life as art appealed to me, but it’s something I’ve increasingly come to critique. Then I did my doctoral thesis at Oxford on the theology of self-creation, looking at 19th-century French dandyism and decadence against the backdrop of secular modernity.
But in my professional life, I wrote much more about the modern internet. When I was a religion reporter for Vox, I wrote a lot about the “spiritual but not religious” and the idea that everyone’s making their own religion—which was the topic of my first nonfiction book, Strange Rites. [You can read CT’s review of Strange Rites here.]
So when I was looking for a follow-up project to Strange Rites, I started thinking that the obsession with personal branding that we have today—the way we’re all expected to tell our own stories and sell ourselves in the attention economy to a greater or lesser degree—that all of this idea of self-creation is actually part of the same story, part of the same idea that we exist to cultivate and perfect ourselves and live our “best lives.”
And the ideal reader I had in mind is someone asking, Why is everything so weird now?
I think all my work, to a greater or lesser extent, deals with that question. I wanted to appeal to readers, secular or religious, who have a sense that something is up—something is strange—but don’t necessarily have access to either the historical narrative or language to describe what’s going on.
You’ll have a long and productive career answering that question. In this book, though, I found it interesting that many—maybe most—of the people you profile would’ve been professing Christians, and that includes contemporary figures like Kim Kardashian and Donald Trump.I’m not asking you to render judgment on anyone’s soul, but I am curious about how you think these self-makers thought about their self-creation in relationship to—or maybe in tension with—their faith.
Without speculating on anybody’s particular soul, I think historically speaking, the self-made ideology has not necessarily been antireligious, but it has been anticlerical—because so much of this narrative, particularly in the Renaissance and then the Enlightenment, is understood to be contra the Catholic Church in particular.
This is reductionist both in terms of the figures I’m writing about and in the actual Catholic position, but the understanding of the theology is something like, God created everything, including human beings, in their particular place. What we are socially—our relations to one another—are part of that creation.
Part of Renaissance thought, and Enlightenment thought even more so, was a rejection of this external authority telling us what to do, how to be, how to live our lives. The self-creator is someone who rejects the authority of these external figures and instead follows his own desires in order to be truly free. Freedom is understood as freedom from society, and the Catholic Church takes on, in this narrative, the role of the big bad tyrant.
A central tenet from these figures, from the Enlightenment onward, is the idea that the self-creator is a kind of god or demigod, a divine or divinely powered figure. And as that narrative moves closer and closer to the present, the self-maker becomes someone who makes himself a kind of god.
I think the most explicit example of this is a line from Stewart Brand, an early techno-utopian pioneer, big in the ’60s’ counterculture, whose ethos, he says, is, “We are as gods, and we might as well get good at it.” Technological power allows a kind of divinization of the self. I think we need to take that seriously, theologically.
When I write about the importance of going to church, having that life together in an embodied community, I often get pushback that amounts to You can’t tell me to do that. My faith is just as good if I do it on my own. This rejection of authority you’re describing feels a lot like that.
Absolutely. It’s something that I find really interesting in both Christian culture and, particularly strongly, in the secular culture of New York, where I live: this idea that doing something that’s not in accordance with how we feel, with our desires, is automatically alienating and wrong.
I think there’s probably some small measure of truth to this: If we have a fundamental desire for the good and the true and the beautiful, and if these are elements of our ability to apprehend God, then a certain kind of internal reflection can be part of how we might apprehend truth.
But at the same time, human beings are very bad at (a) knowing what we want and (b) wanting things that are good for us. We are self-deceiving creatures.
And this is so much a part of literature that I find it very bizarre that there’s not a pervasive cultural sense of self-deception. Instead, it’s like, Well, if you feel this, your feelings are valid, and you should listen to them.
Let me return to the question of Christians self-making from a slightly different angle. Is this a mindset that could only develop in a Christian society, as an outgrowth or perversion of Christian ideas about individual human value and personal sanctification in Christ? Because it’s intriguing that this is a Christendom phenomenon, that it didn’t simultaneously develop in other societies that didn’t have that same Christian cultural foundation.
I think that’s right. In Christian thought, we find the theology of the Incarnation, the literal resurrection of the body, the dignity of each human being—which is not reducible to our circumstances, the biographical details of where and how we were born, our nationality or ethnicity or gender.
Theologically, I would say self-making is related to these Christian ideas about being made in the image of God. Better historians than I have made the case that what we think of as liberalism is deeply rooted in Christian views of the dignity of the person.
But at some point, in and after the Renaissance, I think your language of perversion of good is really useful here. Because at some point, the idea that God “became man, that man might become god”—as the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition puts it—turns into We should just be gods. Like, Get rid of that other stuff. We should just be gods.
Skip to the good stuff.
Yeah, exactly. Get there faster. The idea that there’s some tension between our givenness, our createdness, and our creative power—and that this tension speaks to a truth about humanity that is revealed in its fullness in the Incarnation—becomes this cultural narrative of human transcendence in which we go after what we want and chase money or chase appearing a certain way.
I’m interested in how you personally think about self-making in two senses. First, as a Christian, because we have so many biblical passages about putting to death the old self (Rom. 6:5–7; Eph. 4:22) and things like those famous lines from the Heidelberg Catechism: “What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong … to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.”
But then also, as a writer. I experience this as well—we’re practically under contractual obligation to our publishers to self-make. There are very few nonfiction writers of our generation who get away with skipping all the personal branding stuff.
I hate it. It’s bad for me. My ideal for my career is to not have to do any self-promotion that is not talking about a book.
I think talking about interesting ideas is interesting. That’s something that I genuinely enjoy. But more broadly, all the things we are increasingly expected to do as writers in an attention economy—hawking your book and getting blurbs, being in the right places, networking—that expectation, I think, is really, really spiritually unhealthy. I am never less spiritually healthy than the month after a book of mine comes out.
I’m doing my best to find ways to check that. I have a bazillion blockers on all my devices in the hopes that there are parts of the day that I don’t have any internet access, and I can no longer access Twitter on my iPhone.
But I think that if there is any good to the horrific requirement to self-create, it’s that more and more of us are aware of what an unrewarding slog self-creation for profit is.
Privacy and being offline—these are luxury goods now. And I don’t think they should be luxury goods, in that you shouldn’t have to be rich to be able to unplug. But we are perhaps seeing the benefit of not having to do this all the time. I think there’s a growing, conscious sense of trying to protect some aspects of time and life from the panopticon.