Identity in Action: Christian Excellence in all of Life
Perry L. Glanzer is a leading thinker and scholar on matters of Christian college student formation. His frame of reference as an ethics and higher education professor at Baylor University informs his scholarship alongside his global education experience. In many ways, Glanzer appears to be a student of Steven Garber, whose book The Fabric of Faithfulness offered a compelling argument for the connection between belief and behavior.1 Glanzer looks more specifically at the identities that students develop in college and how to be excellent in each of these identities as they are informed by their moral beliefs.
Glanzer explores college student identity formation from a theological, practical, and ethics logic. Identity in Action is written to Christ-seeking college students and young adults as well as to their mentors, educators, and caretakers. Many scholars addressing college student identity development have done so through the lens of student development theoretical models, primarily psychosocial theories. These theories posit that as students encounter challenges or developmental tasks, they are faced with key questions that must be resolved.2 Part of the process of growing in one’s various identities in college involves developing new ways of thinking as well as new skills. Much of the current research and emphasis in student development is on racial, ethnic, gender, and sexual identity development. Glanzer broadens the conversation about identity to include social roles, beliefs, and interests alongside demographic characteristics. He also places an important emphasis on “thinking morally about identities” (19). He argues that the essence of excellence as Christ followers is considering our identities in relationship to God and to the metanarrative of God’s word.
The first three chapters seek to position the reader in the truth of Scripture and to remind us of a foundational rootedness in Christ. He makes an important distinction between following God’s commands or “Fall control,” which represents the bare minimum of moral direction, to true excellence and kingdom orientated restorative living, which he defines as Christ centered identity excellence (50). As humans, our temptation is to stake our identity and worth in our accomplishments, our relationships, and how others view us. Yet our worth lies in our position as God’s beloved image bearers, made to be in eternal relationship with Him and with other believers. Glanzer argues that our motivations for identity excellence must come from an understanding of where our true worth resides.
Glanzer spends the majority of the text exploring ten critical identities that students often develop in college and what it looks like to develop excellence in these ten areas. He argues that knowing how to be excellent in one identity does not necessary translate into excellence in another identity. He also emphasizes the importance of “deliberate practice” (64) that requires intentional instruction and effective models. The author explores four key social identities including being an excellent neighbor, friend, enemy, and romantic friend, as well as six personal identity elements that require effective stewardship including being a student, as well as stewarding our gender, our bodies, our possessions, our race and ethnicity, and our commitments. In each chapter, Glanzer cites Biblical commands and examples of excellence in each identity as well as personal examples that highlight a successful identity in action.
One of the most compelling chapters in Identity in Action was the somewhat unexpected look at how to be a good enemy, since most college students would deny having enemies. Glanzer reminds the reader that disciples of Christ are bound to make enemies, however “we become most fully human” when we extend mercy to our enemies since that is the model of love Christ demonstrated (110). Not only did every key person in the Bible have enemies, but many prophets, apostles, and disciples were martyred for the faith. In a post-Christian society where faith in God and adherence to orthodox beliefs can automatically stigmatize young believers, equipping students with the tools and mindset to become excellent enemies is increasingly important.
The final chapter examines the continuous work involved in identity prioritization. Glanzer states that we frequently must choose between identities competing for our time and attention, and that effectively making these tough moral choices is one of the primary keys to identity excellence. The text is both practical and inspiring. Too often students put off considerations of effective stewardship of their identities particularly in the realms of finances, being a good neighbor, and vocational exploration, until after college at which point unhealthy practices and self-focused habits can be difficult to reverse and reform.
Identity in Action provides a clear picture of human identity as an immutable value derived from our position as image bearers of God, alongside a call to enrich and steward our identities by seeking excellence. As Christians we are undoubtedly called to dwell on excellent things. Paul reminds us in Philippians 4 that what we choose to think about shapes our behaviors and if we consider praiseworthy, excellent things, this practice will result in a life that cultivates the peace of God. We also know that we are broken people and it is in our brokenness where God ultimately meets us. Psalm 51:17 states, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Glanzer’s focus on identity excellence is Biblical and inspiring. A brief discussion of holiness alongside excellence might bookend the discussion serving as a link between our brokenness and our pursuit of excellence. The adjective qādôš, “holy,” means sacred and refers to God and what belongs to him, and the word appears over 500 times in the Scriptures. As we seek God’s holiness and what is faithful, good, and righteous we become more like God and as a result more excellent.
Today’s Christian college student culture is rife with students who are simply not making a connection between their moral beliefs and their daily decisions. This reality is evident in the epidemic of drug and alcohol abuse, the individualistic lenses through which many students view the world, and in the crushing pain, loneliness, and anxiety that drive many students to self-loathing and self-harm. These realities are present in both the secular and Christian college student populations. The era of moralistic therapeutic deism coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist in 20053 has taken on new proportions in 2021. Today, many Christian young adults not only see God as uninvolved and silent, but they also experience constant noise from secular media and an onslaught of cultural messages that consistently “blur the boundary between truth and falsehood.”4 So not only are many young Christians not hearing from God, they are also living in what Kinnaman and Matlock describe as “Digital Babylon.” Glanzer graciously offers evidence that truth is indeed available and accessible, and it is relevant at every level from relationships with roommates, to stewarding the gifts given to each individual, to dealing with our enemies. Glanzer offers a practical vision for Christian living that is so critical in the current clutter and confusion that defines not only contemporary secular culture, but also contemporary Christian culture.
Time and again in Identity in Action, Glanzer references insights and wisdom on how God wants us to live that he has gleaned from key spiritual mentors and involvement in the church and the broader Christian community. Sadly, the evangelical church is not particularly attractive to young people right now. In the wake of the recent reckoning of the white evangelical church’s complicity with racism, discussed extensively in Tisby’s The Color of Compromise,5 alongside a general plummeting trust in institutions, outlined in Levin’s A Time to Build,6 Christian college students are distancing themselves from the people and institutions that have the most capacity to help them grow and strengthen their faith. Glanzer reminds us that our participation in Christian community is critical because it shapes how we consider and live the life God wants us to lead (46). We cannot experience identity excellence in a social vacuum. Glanzer attributes much of the wisdom that shaped his life and that informs Christian excellence to key Christian mentors that he accessed by saying yes to participating in faith-based small groups, church groups, and key Christian relationships.
College students, their parents, educators, and youth pastors will not want to miss the wisdom that is woven into each chapter of this book. Glanzers’ practical, Biblical, and engaging presentation draws the reader into a robust and relevant conversation that can shape the way we think about critical matters like relationships, race, and stewardship of our time and our bodies. The discussion guides provided in each chapter will be particularly compelling for small groups seeking to grow in a wide range of habits and practices that honor God.
Cite this article
- Steven Garber, The Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007).
- Nancy J. Evans, Deanna S. Forney and Florence Guido-DiBrito, Student Development in College: Theory, Research and Practice (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1998), 32.
- Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, (Oxford University Press, 2005).
- David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock, Faith for Exiles: 5 Ways for a New Generation to Follow Jesus in Digital Babylon (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019), 25.
- Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019).
- Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions can revive the American dream (New York: Basic Books, 2020).
Great insights, Dr. D’Amour. We have used this book in our new student course this year, and the students have responsed very well to it. Identity in Action has kept them engaged and has inspired the best group conversations that I’ve seen in years.