Your Given Name by Robert Erle Barham


Your Given Name

Robert Erle Barham on the Cure for Any Identity Crisis

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde first appeared in January 1886, and Robert Louis Stevenson's tale still unsettles. Stevenson tells the story of Henry Jekyll, a physician and scientist who discovers a means by which he can indulge his darkest impulses consequence-free, at least for a time. In the last chapter, "Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case," we get the doctor's explanation first-hand: Speaking of "Edward Hyde" and "Henry Jekyll" as two aspects of his personality, Jekyll recounts how he savored the liberty he enjoyed as his alter ego, thanks to the creation of a certain drug. Yet he is surprised to find that Hyde is the self that emerges unbidden and is finally inescapable.

Victorian potions may seem quaint, but one doesn't have to look long for parallels in the use of contemporary technology. We, too, can enjoy secret depravity. Reports about online behavior confirm what one might suspect; namely, that the anonymity afforded by the internet allows us to indulge our inner Hydes. Even the name "troll," which is used to describe those who practice online cruelty, calls to mind Stevenson's villain.

Along with its examination of desire and self-destruction, Stevenson's classic dramatizes the instability of human identity. Despite trying to choose his better self, Henry Jekyll finds that he is an unsteady composite of Jekyll and Hyde. Like other "secular parables" (to borrow a phrase from Karl Barth) that address the self and its relationship to community, moral choice, and desire, Stevenson's classic points us to the fascinating nature of identity. These days, categories of identity in the public square gravitate toward a familiar hub of definitions that seem insufficient. More pressing than that, however, is the existential aspect: concerns about identity play out in one's family, work, and memory. And the stakes are high. Answers to the question "Who am I?" can sustain or cripple someone.

Hydes, Saints & Kings

One of the benefits that I enjoy as a literature professor at a Christian liberal arts college is the chance to study imaginative explorations of identity. These include Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, in which Fate rebuts the self that Oedipus has demonstrated, and seeks to demonstrate still; Homer's Odyssey, in which many-minded Odysseus takes on various identities as he deems expedient in order to get home; and Stevenson's work, in which Henry Jekyll attempts to both indulge and quarantine his baser self.

While literature abounds with unsettling portraits of human identity like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it offers ennobling and redemptive pictures as well. For example, in Edmund Spenser's allegorical poem The Faerie Queene, Redcrosse Knight receives a vision of his destiny while recovering from imprisonment and despair. What's more, he gets a new name. A holy man named Contemplation tells him,

For thou . . .
Shalt be a Saint, and thine owne nations frend
And Patrone: thou Saint George shalt called bee,
Saint George of mery England. . . ." (x.61)

The gift of his true identity is restorative. It establishes Redcrosse as the patron saint of England, and it assures him of his kinship with those who inhabit the New Jerusalem.

C. S. Lewis employs a similar strategy in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In this story, the four Pevensie children are told that two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are prophesied to rule over Narnia. After the battle with the forces of the White Witch, the children assume their destinies as "King Peter the Magnificent," "Queen Susan the Gentle," "King Edmund the Just," and "Queen Lucy the Valiant."

Works like The Faerie Queene and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are stirring in part because they point us to Scripture's message about human identity. Scripture tells us who we are—from God's image-bearers in Genesis to recipients of "a new name" in Revelation. We are "children of God," "a new creation," "a temple of the Holy Spirit," "heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ." We are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession." We are saints and kings, yet we still struggle with sin. We don't do the good we want to do, and we practice the very evil we don't want to do, as Paul puts it.

Robert Erle Barham is Assistant Professor of English at Covenant College in Lookout Mountain, Georgia. He and his wife Amy live with their son Robert in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and are members of Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church.

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more on literature from the online archives

20.6—July/August 2007

The Anglo-Saxon Evangel

The Beowulf Poet Was a Shrewd Christian Apologist by Douglas Wilson

30.5—Sept/Oct 2017

The Unforgotten

on Costly Grace in Breece D'J Pancake's Flyover Country by Casey Chalk

24.1—January/February 2011

Secular Grendel

Ruminations on the Monstrous Envy of the Soul-Devouring State by Anthony Esolen

more from the online archives

32.5—September/October 2019

Make Men Pious Again

2018 Conference Talk by C. R. Wiley

21.6—July/August 2008

The European Disunion

Benedict XVI on the Crisis of Faith & Reason by Samuel Gregg

19.4—May 2006

The Relatively Good Book

on the Liberal Protestant Bible Translation by B. J. Hutto

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone