Put Off Your Old Self-Making

An interview with author Tara Isabella Burton on the history of self-creation—and how the habit usurps our need for God.

One of my most recent posts on Instagram is a picture of a loaf of bread I baked. I baked it because I like bread, especially fresh bread, hot out of a 450-degree oven and covered in far too much butter. But why, exactly, did I post the picture on Instagram?

It’s a nice-enough loaf, but I’ve no great baking talent. Part of my motive was simple enthusiasm for work I enjoyed. But some of it, if I’m honest, was about my image—as a writer, as a keeper of my household newly back to full-time work after maternity leave, and as the sort of person you might find interesting at a cocktail party.

There, look, I remember briefly thinking as I hit “Share,” no one can say I’m slacking on the homemaking front. I made bread!

This is ridiculous and vain and embarrassing, of course. But I come by it honestly in an era of self-creation, in which social media has given each of us the opportunity to craft a public image that is objectively artificial yet imagined as a display of authenticity.

That very dynamic is the subject of Tara Isabella Burton’s Self-Made: Creating Our Identities from Da Vinci to the Kardashians, published earlier this year. I reached out to Burton to ask about the theological underpinnings of her book and how the modern urge to self-create comports with Christian faith.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Let’s start with the trio of elevator questions I’m sure you’ve answered on a thousand podcasts by now: What is the book about? Why did you write it? And what readers did you have in mind?

Self-Made is an intellectual history of self-creation, the wider story of secular modernity’s idea that human beings not only can …

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