Identity can be a complex thing. For the first three decades of my life, I thought I was half-African. Only then did I stumble into the fact that I’m half-Asian. You see, it turned out my biological father isn’t who I thought it was. And so I’m mixed-race, but not as I imagined. Sometimes, identity can be not what you think it is.
You can imagine, there’s a story behind all of this. I can tell of a mum who overcame huge challenges, including not giving me up. And of my (it-turns-out) adopted father who without fanfare took on a mum and her young boy. But for all those years I ticked the wrong box on the ethnic minority surveys. Hopefully I haven’t skewed too much government data down the years.
I’ve often said it sounds a bit like a plotline from an episode of Eastenders or an Afternoon Play on Radio 4, depending on your cultural preference. Which is another thing about my story. Class has played its part too: a single mum, a council house, a failing comprehensive school. Yet one way or another I made my way to Oxford University. (I later imagined this must be what getting a letter from Hogwarts feels like. I have a fondness for Harry - he had no idea either.) There I studied - and still love - English literature. Oxford taught me how to communicate in a new sphere of life. It also educated me out of speaking the “language” of my working-class family. Very Pip in Great Expectations, I know. But sometimes identity does creep up on you. And then wrong-foots you.
Class has played its part too: a single mum, a council house, a failing comprehensive school.
Then there’s the “internal” story we tell ourselves. When I was seventeen, thinking about applying for university, I sent some papers, and arranged a mock interview to help me. At the end, my interviewer looked over his glasses at me and said, “Well, Paul, you’re better on paper than you are in person”. It’s a description that has always stayed with me - that is both true and, occasionally, I hope, not true.
So I often puzzle over hearing people talk about “my identity” as though it's anchored around one thing. I tend to think there’s a complex mix that makes up who we are. In my case, there’s race, class, family, education. There are many other factors, no doubt. Yours may include the place you’re from, the experiences that shaped you. Sometimes I think I’ve grasped who I am. Sometimes I’ve been at a loss.
What I haven’t said is that I’m also a Christian. And for me, it’s a Christian understanding that helps frame the many, often confusing, layers of who I am.
One of things the Bible tells us at the very start is that every human is made in the image of God:
“Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness …
So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
In the Bible, being in God’s image is not about just our brains or just our emotions. Rather it’s a status that is given to us by God.
We’re told that humans, male and female, have a unique relationship to God. Nothing else God has made is described this way.
What exactly does it mean, though? People often reach for particular characteristics that seem to set us apart as humans. Many of these are what is valued by a particular culture. “What sets us apart must be our capacity for love”, or “it must be our extraordinary creativity”, or “it’s really our facility for language”.
In the Bible, being in God’s image is not about just our brains or just our emotions. Rather it’s a status that is given to us by God. Humans are given a role to steward and govern the world God has formed, on his behalf. Nothing else relates to him in the way that we do. We’re the pinnacle of his handiwork. We’re creation’s VIPs.
Genesis was written into an Ancient Near Eastern context. It’s a work written by a highly skilled literary artist. And one who was aware of differing cultural and political narratives around at the time. The idea of being in someone’s image, even the “image of God”, would have been known. But scholars explain that a person who might be thought of as “in god's image” was a monarch. So a king or queen might make that claim - or might have that claim made about them.
But in the Bible, every person is made in God’s image. All humanity is royal.
And because that status is a gift to all humanity, no one is without it. So all ethnicities or colours. All classes, castes, or backgrounds.
It’s not based on some ability or skill or proficiency. So all levels of human ability or disability. All levels of human faculty or frailty.
Why might this matter so much? It means that underneath everything else, I know who I am - I know my origin. In the last century, Francis Schaeffer wrote: “If anything is a gift of God, this is it - knowing who you are”.
And that’s all the more valuable if you feel your identity is less clear than you’d hope. God’s view of us does not depend on the shifting sands of how we define ourselves. He’s the frame or foundation for how I understand who I am.
Francis Schaeffer wrote: “If anything is a gift of God, this is it - knowing who you are”.
I think this also makes sense of one of the Bible’s greatest claims. That Jesus Christ was God who became human. It’s called the incarnation. You might think of it as just the fairytale of Christmas. But what if it was the most coherent truth you might encounter? The truth that could help you make sense of yourself?
The Bible’s story is that we were wonderfully made in God’s image. But right at the start of Genesis that image was fractured and broken by humanity’s rebellion against and breaking-fellowship with God. We’re fallen, we went our own way.
Now we’re a curious mix. We’re now no longer the radiant image of God we were supposed to be. Yet we’re not so far from him that his image is gone entirely. It’s why we humans can be a strange blend of glorious brilliance and terrible darkness. The mirror is cracked but the reflection isn't completely obscured.
You could say that from that very moment in Genesis, humanity needed someone to come and restore the image of God in us. We’d need a better human than we proved to be.
Of all the things Christianity claims, it says Jesus came to be the image-restorer. To be what we could not be. To re-forge the mirror.
Of all the things Christianity claims, it says Jesus came to be the image-restorer. To be what we could not be. To re-forge the mirror. To show us the humanity we can still be - by uniting with him in faith.
We’re all trying to piece together the story of who we are. I was a brown boy trying to make sense of where I fitted in. Sometimes I think I have a handle on it. Sometimes I’ve discovered I really don’t.
What Christianity tells me is that God didn’t think it was beneath him to take on a human identity, with all its complexities.
I can describe myself through my race, my class, my family, my education. I don't know what it might be for you. They are all important, sure. But at the same time, those things aren’t ultimate. That I'm made in God’s image, is. Could it be that's what would help make sense of things for you?