Is Authenticity Always Good?

Is Authenticity Always Good?

Written on 11/13/2019
Jesse Kane

Written by Jesse Kane

I was ripped off by two garages in the last three months. Each time, I was charged around $200 for a transmission fluid change, but the fluid was only topped off, not changed. The second time, I was alerted that my car was on the verge of a “catastrophic failure.” The technician put on a fantastic show; he paraded me into the garage and made a grand show of the metallic chunks he had sprinkled over my transmission filter. He showed me how black the fluid was, and how he couldn’t flush my system without completely destroying it. I was disheartened but ready to accept what was made obvious to me.

I drove home without a catastrophic failure, and it hasn’t been a problem since. My father and I looked at the fluid and changed it ourselves for half the price. The fluid ought to last for 150,000 kilometres, but it was black immediately after my visits to both of these transmission shops. After my father and I changed the fluid it remained red, as it should. 

I sometimes wonder if religious “nones” (people who say they have no religion) perceive pastors in the same way that I now view many mechanics: as professionals who can use their knowledge of something esoteric and mysterious to swindle people out of their money in exchange for something they don’t need. 

There are religious leaders who do this, to be sure. I’m reminded of a friend who sought counseling from lay leaders at a local megachurch, and was informed after several sessions of forming trust and momentum that, “Hey, we’re friends, but we don’t do this for free.” I imagine that many honest mechanics feel as sick as I do when I hear about people’s trust being abused for financial gain. 

In the face of these actions, I crave to see authenticity. Authenticity initially seems like an incorruptible standard; authenticity is something we desire of both others and ourselves, and it seems to have a natural goodness to it. Authentic personality. Authentic service. Authentic Oakleys. Authentic Cola. Authenticity is the real deal, until it’s not. Authenticity can be fabricated just as easily as a transmission fluid change. Perceived authenticity is actually a horrible way to determine who or what we trust. 

I’m coming to believe that when we describe something as authentic, we must ask to what? Authenticity is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be. Cola can be authentic to its brand, but that’s hardly profound. Cola may even be authentic to the spirit of youthfulness, but that’s just a marketing ploy. In truth Cola is authentically trying to get your money. Similarly, my personality may be authentic, but if it’s authentically true to my most basic and unrestrained desires, what good is that for my participation in society? 

Worse yet, authenticity has been embraced as a virtue of faith. In a relentless pursuit of certainty, we’ve differentiated effective faith from ineffective faith by describing it as authentic or inauthentic. This isn’t a horrible impulse for someone trying to become authentically faithful to Jesus, but it’s confusing when we meet someone authentically trying to appear faithful to Jesus. Cue Instagram devotion selfies and preachers in sneakers. 

One lovely antidote to the malaise of authenticity is life in community. Life as part of a community with a well-defined end to their authenticity makes it more difficult to pull a fast one on them. If you’re only trying to look like a Christian, the people close to you will probably be able to tell. 

This is in some ways idealistic, but it’s no small thanks to my father and a mechanic friend that I was able to discern that I had been duped by these garages. Perhaps discerning truth and authenticity is not done best through the manipulation of an Instagram profile or among people you meet traveling? This age of authenticity may present us with significant problems regarding authority and truth, but by God’s grace we’ve also been given people around us as mirrors who tell us the truth about our own authenticity.