Parents worldwide are adding a brand new kind of literature to their children’s bookshelves: personalised storybooks. You simply select your child’s name, physical features and favourite things, and a book will be produced with your child at the centre of the action. One recent title is Kingdom of You: your child becomes the ruler of their own imaginary kingdom, waited on by a magic genie who grants them three wishes.

Kingdom of You perfectly illustrates our postmodern ideal. Meaning and identity are found by looking within, by being ‘true to yourself.’

Kingdom of You perfectly illustrates our postmodern ideal which places the “authentic self” on the throne. Life revolves around finding and expressing your truest self, unshackled from the expectations of tradition, religion, or any other authority. Meaning and identity are found by looking within, by being “true to yourself.”

A Miserable Place to Grow Up

But in reality, the “Kingdom of You” is a miserable place to grow up. Looking inside ourselves for meaning just leaves us feeling confused and disappointed. Having cut ourselves loose from the beliefs, traditions and commitments that bound previous generations, we now drift along with nothing to anchor us, with nothing to guide us except our own fleeting feelings. It’s hard to get your bearings when you have no fixed reference points.

Many of the young people who have grown up in a “Kingdom of You” are struggling to cope with life in the real world. They suffer from record levels of depression and anxiety, and demonstrate a general lack of resilience when they encounter difficulties and setbacks. This is because they have been taught to pursue self-fulfilment at the expense of meaning; to do what feels right, rather than what is right. We have sent them off into the world with no directions except the vague commandment to “follow your heart.”

But true fulfilment comes from looking outside of ourselves to see our place and purpose in the bigger scheme of things. In his book, Well&Good, social researcher Richard Eckersley explains:

Meaning in life is a crucial aspect of human wellbeing. We need to have reasons to live, to know what makes life worth living. For most of our existence as a species, meaning was pretty much a social given. Children grew up in a close network of family and community relationships that largely defined their world—their values and beliefs, identity and place… Beyond the mortal realm, they had a religious faith that gave them a place in the cosmic scheme of things. (p6)

These social “givens” of past generations are now crumbling around us. Eckersley continues (quoting psychologist Martin Seligman):

One necessary condition for meaning is the attachment to something larger than the self, and the larger that entity, the more meaning people can derive. To the extent that it is now difficult for people to form these relationships with God, country or family, he says, meaning in life will be difficult to find. “The self, to put it another way, is a very poor site for meaning.” Meaning and identity require a foundation. (p6)

When we tell our children that life is a “Kingdom of You,” they struggle to find meaning.

A Suspicious Place to Grow Up

In the postmodern “Kingdom of You,” children learn to be suspicious of anyone claiming to hold authority over them. They are taught that authority is just a tool of oppression used by the powerful. Our duty is not to submit to authorities, but to scrutinise and challenge them. Postmodernism does not allow for the possibility that authority can be exercised selflessly, for the good of others; that submitting ourselves to authority can do us good.

Some parents I know have taught their son one key moral principle: “Don’t do something just because someone tells you to.” Their son is quick to question what his teachers say; but he doesn’t seem to recognise that obeying their rules could actually be good for him.

The “Kingdom of You” is a suspicious place to grow up, because no authority can be trusted.

A Lonely Place to Grow Up

The other problem with living in a “Kingdom of You,” is that it provides no basis for genuine community. Postmodern society is just a collection of autonomous, independent individuals living side-by-side. If meaning is found within, then it cannot be shared. We have become reluctant to commit ourselves to any person or organisation for fear that we will lose our autonomy; but what we really lose is a deep sense of belonging.

In the “Kingdom of You,” our only obligation to other people is to tolerate their unique self-expression. A children’s song called “We’re different” sums up the postmodern message:

Let’s make a rule, it’s beautiful.
We’re different, it’s really cool:
Big and small, short and tall, left and right, black and white;
Poor and rich, from there and here, green and blue, me and you …[1]

But this light-hearted ode to tolerance has a dark side. Did you notice that one of the characteristics we are obliged to declare “really cool” is poverty? Unthinking tolerance is a poor substitute for love. Tolerance celebrates difference from a distance; but Christian love gets involved—it seeks to discern and pursue what is good for others, even at its own expense.

Again, Eckersley’s remarks are insightful:

Tolerance, taken too far, becomes indifference, and freedom abandonment. Our power as a people comes from a sense of collective, not individual, agency; from pursuing a common vision based on shared values, not maximising individual choice in order to maximise personal satisfaction. (Well&Good, p4)

The “Kingdom of You” is a miserable, suspicious and lonely place to grow up.

A Better Story of a Better Kingdom

The Bible gives us a much better story to tell our children. It lays a solid foundation for making sense of life—for teaching children their place and purpose within the larger scheme of things. The Bible tells them that they are part of the story, but they’re not at its centre.

At the centre of the Bible’s story stands the true King; our identity and meaning are defined in relation to him. The true King created us for a purpose beyond ourselves: to honour him, to steward his creation, and to reflect his character to others. The true King shows us how authority can be exercised in love for the good of others.

The Bible also describes what happens when people try to install themselves as King or Queen of their own story. Putting ourselves at the centre only ever leads to sadness, frustration and isolation, because it betrays not only our true King, but also our true purpose. We think that rebelling against the King will make us free, but in the end we become slaves to our own desires. Since the very beginning, every generation has experienced the disaster of self-rule.

Putting ourselves at the centre only ever leads to sadness, frustration and isolation, because it betrays not only our true King, but also our true purpose. In the end, we become slaves to our own desires.

But the true King never gave up on his people. He pledged to provide for them, and to lead them with good and wise laws. He promised that one day, he would remove their rebellious heart, and give them a new heart that would submit freely to his loving rule.

That day came when the true King sent his only Son into the world, to call traitors back into his Kingdom. The Son submitted himself to his Father’s will, even to the point of dying a rebel’s death. The King offered new life and a new heart to those who would lay down their self-made crowns and pledge allegiance to his Son.

As Jesus said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16:25)

It is only when we give ourselves over to the Kingdom of God that we find our true place in the world. There, we are known and loved by our good King and Creator; there we are commissioned and equipped to live a meaningful life; there we have the King’s good Word to guide us; there we belong to a community bound together by sacrificial love.

If we want our children to thrive in the modern world, let’s ground them in a better story. In a world that gives children no firm foundation for meaning, morality or community, let’s give them some solid ground to stand on. Let’s not imprison them in the miserable “Kingdom of You,” but help them to discover the joy and freedom of finding their place in the Kingdom of God.

I will open my mouth with a parable;
I will utter hidden things, things from of old –
things we have heard and known,
things our ancestors have told us.
We will not hide them from their descendants;
we will tell the next generation
the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord,
his power, and the wonders he has done.
(Psalm 78:2-4)

[1] By “Let’s Go Play” from “The Best of ABC for Kids 2013”.