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Identities: A Child, A Cad And A Critic

There is a curious scene in one of the Bad News Bears movies. The Bears on a trip to Houston are at practice one day. Their ace pitcher Carmen Ronzonni is having trouble finding the strike zone. He tells his coach all his different wind-ups—motions he’s named after some of the major league pitchers of the day—are conflicting with each other and causing him to throw balls. The coach says this: "Show me your Carmen Ronzonni.’’

Show me your Carmen Ronzonni. I thought of that line the other day after spending the last week reading some books on identity. Sometimes I think my Tom Glavine conflicts with my Greg Maddux, which conflicts with my Roger Clemens. I have different personalities, different identities at different places. I have my work persona: somewhat serious, calm, truthful. I have my ministry persona: certainly gung-ho but more for the impression factor than the servanthood; strong by the wrong power, sometimes plastic, but sometimes even scaring myself with how I love. I have my friends persona: talkative, not that impressive and sometimes not so honest. And I have my solitude persona: the one God knows the best, the worst. It’s not that I don’t know who I am; it’s sometimes I don’t know which one is me.

It is a strange disease we all share, trying to be who we are in a world where so many things are urging us to be anything but. There is a quotation that begins one of Brennan Manning’s books by E.E. Cummings. "To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best day and night to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.’’

It is, of course by design from Mr. Manning, quite apropos for his book, Abba’s Child. The book is one of three I’ve been reading that deal with identity in some fashion. Manning’s book is the oldest of the three first printed in 1994. Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography by Gregory Wolfe was published in 1995 but its paperback is due out in April. Cad: Confessions of a Toxic Bachelor by Rick Marin came out a few weeks ago. Abba’s Child is not the first book by Manning I have read so I was ready for the frontal assault on my idol-making, sinfulness and utter hatred of myself. The assault comes as part of his presentation, his picture of the reckless, raging fury that is the love of God, as one of his friends Rich Mullins would put it.

I made it a purpose, though, to read the grand Gospel salutation alongside the two other books that I knew would contradict that message. The biography on Muggeridge shows the famed British speaker and critic—and Christian—throughout his life, in his faults and faithfulness. Marin’s book is a 280-page ongoing conversation between Marin, himself, his friends, his girlfriends, his dates and his writer’s mind on his continuing faults in the world of relationships.

Manning’s book is a sojourn by a journeyman of faith into a helpless and eternally hopeful intimate love affair with God. His message is simple like the words of Jesus but yet so complex that it speaks to the gap between us and Jesus—and why He came and died to bridge that gap. The message by Manning is this: "Our longing to know who we really are— which is the source of all our discontent—will never be satisfied until we confront and accept our solitude. There we discover that the truth of our belovedness is really true. Our identity rests in God’s relentless tenderness for us revealed in Jesus Christ.’’

The truth in the Muggeridge biography is about finding out who he is. Muggeridge is faced with many difficult situations early in his life and he always yearns to escape—to be someplace else, to be someone else. But in the end he is leveled with the powerful presence of a loving Father and finds his identity through that.

The message by Marin is equally clear. His book is, of course as the title suggests, the confessions of a bachelor—this particular one a moody, patronizing, odd-referencing writer living in the bowels of New York City. Marin lives and breathes the bachelor stereotype, except for the fact that he writes a book about not just his conquests but his insecurities, his exhausting matchmaker friends and the times, oh so many times, he couldn’t close—a metaphor both for sex and a meaningful relationship.

At times Marin shows some signs of maleness that I would love to emulate. He strikes up conversations that are funny, witty and full of references that only he can and will explain.

He is me. A man who has no concept of redemption, a man with what it seems has no conscience is the same nervous, inept conversationalist that I was at the party I went to last weekend. (He writes again and again about a “move” he makes with his glasses— taking them off like some movie star to get that look from her. I have similar "moves.’’)

But at times he is the man of men – sleeping around just to sleep around, pursuing conversations only for sex, sometimes pouncing after sex like a tiger with some meat in his cage. He makes a second home at a topless bar, even writes a column for a women’s magazine about how they are good for guys.

I suppose I chose the books together as reading partners because I am a bachelor and a child of God—two definitions that are at most times in my life either very complimentary or very at odds. And I am a writer in search of my voice like Muggeridge. All of us search, have searched, lost and have regained our identities at times. Manning expounds a whole chapter on someone he calls "the impostor’’ – the identity we live out when we are far from God, when we think we are not worthy of his love, when we want so much to not be known and really not known by anyone.

He writes on how our identity as Abba’s child is the main, really the only tag we must wear. We can’t wear it with pride but we can wear with adoration – Look my Father loves me! He loves me and that makes me smile! Marin spends much of his book revealing himself to the reader but in the midst of all the honesty, he never comes to the conclusion that I—a much more wiser, thoughtful and softer man (yeah right!)—wants him to come to. That the Gospel is true and it changes everything. It forces us to leave our baggage at the door and enter a new home, filled with a new life, a new identity, the one God meant for us to know.

Of course that would be too easy of a solution, too easy of a diagnosis for him. And it is of course sometimes too easy of a solution, too easy of a diagnosis for me.

That’s where Muggeridge is so applicable. He became a Christian in college. But even in that experience he struggled for the majority of his life to find that peace which is promised in the Gospel—a peace that is the root of all identities in Christ. Muggeridge offers not the saintly life we all desire. But he offers the journey into a relationship of faith that cannot be dismissed as mere religiosity.

His faults and failures are not part of a systematic self-debasing that appears in Marin. They are part of accepting his authentic self, as Manning phrases the term.

Manning writes, "Accepting the reality of our sinfulness means accepting our authentic self. Judas could not face his shadow; Peter could. The latter befriended the impostor within; the former raged against him.’’

So even as Muggeridge struggles to offer a cohesive faith, he offers a faith nonetheless. Manning, even in his own failures, strides forward with the story of a faith that gives that peace, that creates the identity.

This is sometimes why when I read Marin’s outlandish actions, I laughed. It so reminded me that if not for God I could be a misguided, self-centered, sex-crazed single man making my career through words.

This is how Marin describes his life: "This is the Russian roulette you play chasing a different woman every week. Not that you’ll get AIDS or some incurable (disease), but that an impersonal, emotion-free encounter will suddenly turn deeply, dreadfully intimate.’’

Marin is not so much searching for his mate in the book as he is searching for the one relationship he was meant to have – the one with his creator. It is a relationship where the fear of the dreadfully intimate won’t be acknowledged.

He is not so much looking for an identity. I believe if he was asked, Marin would say he knows who he is, so much that he writes about it well. But I mean to say he is looking for his authentic self as I sometimes search for mine. Manning, too. The self identified with God.

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Marin doesn’t surprise me when he writes about his encounter and thoughts about an affair with a married woman – thoughts which she ends abruptly: "It seemed I wouldn’t be having an affair with a married woman. Just as well. I embarked on a nobler pursuit. Stewardesses. "Stews.’’ No, flight attendants – they seemed to me the ultimate prize for a man with no final destination.’’

I expected Marin to try out someone else’s garden eventually. Marin is, as he writes, a man with no final destination – so he makes a lot of stops. Sure he says he is looking for a wife, some children, but in the depths of Rick Marin, he’ll never be anything but what he describes in the book – a toxic bachelor. (Ironically we now learn he is getting married this summer to the woman he leaves the reader with at the end.)

But it was surprising when Muggeridge has an affair – more than one actually. The downward turn to such a move began though with these words by Muggeridge: "Some years after I’d been married to Kit, when we were first in Manchester, I suggested she should go to town for a few days. She didn’t want to go, but I pressed her. ‘Go and enjoy yourself,’ I said. ‘Have an affair.’ I suppose it was just my crooked way of preparing the ground for having an affair myself.’’

The failures were surprising but as I read Manning alongside Muggeridge they became less so. Surely the act of such a sin is not without its due abhorrence. But as such a man obsessed with sex like Muggeridge it is hard not to imagine then him always lurking for affairs. It is part of his identity – a part that needed the healing touch of his creator.

But that identity as a sinner is not self-destructive as it is with Marin. Muggeridge has something else in his authentic self that balances, even overpowers that sinning self.

Like Muggeridge, Manning is certainly not without his faults. A decade into his ministry he becomes an alcoholic. And he is often confronted with the popularity he has gained through his ministry. But the faith he offers, like Muggeridge, is authentic because of the faults, because of the faults that have been disturbed by a powerful heavenly grace. This is the missing ingredient in Marin – redemption.

We each four are different people. I am not elderly, nor married, nor an alcoholic, nor Catholic like Manning. I am not a Columbia graduate school alum, nor a writer with witty references, nor ever on the payroll of the New York Times like Marin. And unlike Muggeridge I have never been a television personality comparable to William F. Buckley in the States.

But we all are in the fight of a lifetime – one that e.e. cummings knew well.

Muggeridge, Manning and I, though, we have the secret weapon in that fight which is really already won. We know the one who knits identities, the one shapes faces, the one who plans good things for those who love him.

We know the mystery in finding the one God has laid out for you—the heartbreak that comes along with it, too. We know where the false self hides, where he lives when he comes out, and where to go when we want to kill him. We know because we are known, known by our identities—Abba’s child.

[Matthew Boedy is a 23-year-old journalist at The Augusta Chronicle in Aiken, S.C. He is a Young Life leader and avid reader.]

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