Dan McAdams. The Redemptive Self. New York: Oxford, 2005.
Dan McAdams is perhaps the world's leading personality psychologist, so any new book by him is eagerly awaited. His latest offering is The Redemptive Self (Oxford, 2006) and, in most ways, it lives up to the tradition of fine and innovative scholarship that he has brought to our understanding of the human person.
McAdams has been at the forefront of efforts to apply narrative theory to the study of personality psychology. During the 1980s, a number of psychologists began an attempt to apply narrative concepts to the description of human development and thinking processes. These efforts were only marginally successful until the publication of McAdams's fine book The Stories We Live By (Guilford, 1993), which provided an excellent theoretical framework and methodology for narrative research in psychology. His theory and research methodology have become a gold standard for the field.
Narrative theory in psychology and also in the hands of hermeneutic philosophers like Paul Ricoeur attempts to show how people construct their identities through storytelling. Theorists like McAdams argue that life stories are constructed from personal and cultural materials gathered during childhood, and that they are assembled for the first time during adolescence when we begin to form our identity as a person. These are stories about us that are designed to be told, both to ourselves and to others. Our ideas about the story and its audience say a lot about the kind of people we are and our vision for life.
In this new book, McAdams takes his formidable narrative skills and applies them to the topic of generativity. First popularized by the developmental psychologist Erik Erikson in his great book Childhood and Society (Norton, 1963), generativity is the human need to support, care for, and pass something of substance on to a younger generation. Erikson thought that generativity was the primary task of middle adulthood and that it had much to offer both the person and the culture that supports them. With a few notable exceptions, such as some work by Don Browning, generativity has been a neglected concept, and McAdams's narrative perspective seems a good one to bring to the topic.
After an excellent review of narrative theory and the concept of generativity, McAdams gets down to business and asks: What are the characteristics of narratives that are constructed by highly generative people? McAdams believes that this answer may vary between cultures, but that American generative narratives tend to be stories of redemption, "a deliverance from suffering to a better world" (7).
According to McAdams's research, the redemptive narrative of generative people is one of essential optimism. It typically begins as the person observes that they are born with special blessings in the midst of a world with much suffering. The person feels that they have a special calling to help. In their story, they surmount many obstacles, draw benefits from their struggles along the way, and eventually make a difference that leaves behind a legacy. A set of values and beliefs acquired during childhood provides an essential part of the system that helps guide and motivate them in their work. One variant of the redemption narratives is the healing and recovery narrative. This narrative tells a story of a good inner self that is in combat against a sometimes untrustworthy world, but that with the right plan can achieve almost anything, including the ultimate goal of redemption: personal self-actualization. Here redemption begins to sound like the triumph of the therapeutic.
One chapter in the book deals with the religious roots of generativity, and here McAdams comes up with results that will be surprising to some. Psychologists have a long established habit of bashing organized religion as the keeper of dogma and authority, arguing that the individual who breaks free on a lone spiritual journey is the model of health. McAdams found, however, that highly generative people typically have strong ties to organized religion and tend to do less questioning of their values and beliefs. In the language of the sociologist of religion Wade Clark Roof, they are religious dwellers as well as seekers. McAdams also points out a large mass of scientific evidence demonstrating that both generativity and religious involvement are positively related to a wide variety of desirable psychological states and better physical health. He leaves mostly unanswered the question of whether religious redemption narratives might differ in some fundamental way from other types of narratives. The strength of great psychological theories is their ability to see common patterns, but their weakness is the tendency to overlook small but fundamental differences amidst the commonalities.
McAdams asks how the black experience in America might lead to different kinds of redemption narratives. He finds higher levels of generativity among blacks, as well as other advantages like stronger social networks. The black individuals he studied had redemption narratives that were similar to those of whites, although he also found some differences. Blacks spoke more often of early dangers and opponents to their progress, and the need to overcome setbacks to progress. There was also a lingering pain from early harsh experiences in many stories.
How should we view these American stories of redemption? Here McAdams's book turns from psychological analysis to social commentary. He provides a strong critique of the optimism in American redemption narrative. Or in his own words: "I come now not to bury the redemptive self, but I do not wish to idolize it either" (243). He points out that American redemption narratives have an internal contradiction: redemptive heroes are individualists who want to exercise agency over others, yet at the same time they want community and to be part of a collective effort. The narratives are also potentially stories of arrogance or naivete, where the redemptive actor assumes that any problem is solvable by them, and that problems not solved can be trivialized. Worst of all, redemption narratives can be used as a justification for violence in the service of some greater good. American culture strongly supports the redemption narrative, making it difficult for both the narrator and the audience to tell when a heroic redemptive story is completely fiction.
After the deconstruction of optimistic redemptive narratives, one turns to the last chapter in the book looking for an alternative redemption story. Here the reader will be disappointed. We are treated to some good reflections on the lack of meaning inherent in some radically postmodern views of the world, but otherwise we are left empty handed. McAdams has no answer to these problems because psychology, postmodern or otherwise, cannot on its own provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life. We must look beyond science to find this.
What might be a Christian response to the prospects and problems of the American redemption narrative? Certainly many in the church would share McAdams's skepticism about an individualistic healing and recovery narrative that ignores both our personal brokenness and the possibilities for trust in those around us. It is also easy to join him in criticizing the temptation toward arrogance or even violence that can be found in beliefs about the inevitability of redemption and our power to achieve it. History is littered with secular and religious examples of these failures.
Christian redemption narratives are ultimately about hope. Psychologists like C. R. Snyder argue that hope is about our ability to set goals and achieve them. However, the Christian vision of hope is not about getting what we want. It is an attitude that life and the world are in good hands. For Luther, hope is more oriented to the expectation that God will be with us in the midst of difficulties, and that there awaits us a new life with God that will be more than we can imagine. This vision is not a call to passivity—certainly we cannot accuse Luther of that!—but it is a call to trust. It asks us to keep things in a broader perspective, and to trust that the outcome of things is safely in the hands of a God who can be trusted. Patience becomes a virtue along with energy. As Erik Erikson noted, this basic trust in the world helps us overcome a host of developmental challenges and avoid a life that lacks confidence and connectedness to others. It is the basis of an authentic redemption narrative.
James M. Nelson,