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The Sacred Gift of Selfies

Craig Detweiler sees spiritual significance underneath the stereotypes.
The Sacred Gift of Selfies

Selfies are blessings from God. At least that’s the contention of Craig Detweiler in his new book Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age. Where others see only shallowness and vanity, Detweiler, an expert on faith and social media serving as president of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, sees the outpouring of creativity and the reflection of a self-imaging God. Pastor and film critic Wade Bearden spoke with Detweiler about the historical lineage of selfies and the spiritual possibilities and pitfalls of social media.

In Selfies, you mention how a handful of Facebook friends told you they would never be interested in a book about “such a superficial subject.” Why write the book, knowing it would face such an uphill climb?

I think our ambivalence, or even anger, regarding the whole concept of selfies is exactly why I wanted to write this book. We feel like selfies reflect the worst of who we are, and yet it’s coming out of us. It’s coming out of our own need for expression, for validation, and our desire to be seen.

Is there a way to redeem selfies? If not, then I wonder if there’s a way to redeem ourselves. If the medium itself is so inherently fallen that we can’t imagine a way of elevating or rescuing it, then maybe we’re in far more dire straits than we realize. Or, maybe our hope in Jesus is limited.

You say: “Rather than seeing selfies as the problem, I approach selfies as the start of a solution.” In another passage, you also wonder how one might receive “selfies as a sacred gift from the original Giver.” How can selfies be a sacred gift?

To me, so much of the crisis in our country and culture is rooted in issues of identity. People are feeling unseen, unacknowledged, and underrepresented. And they’re desperately crying out to be noticed, affirmed, and loved. I see selfies as rooted in our deepest hunger, our greatest longing.

If we don't understand that we are the self-images of God, and we can’t see the self-image of God in our neighbor, then we will definitely attack, deride, and degrade each other online. But if we can step back and realize that the self-imaging God is not that far from this self-imaging tool that has been placed in our hands, then perhaps we can appreciate the opportunity rather than simply maligning what we might have done with it so far.

Throughout your book, you make a point of pausing before pronouncing judgment on a selfie (or any other social media post). Just how complicated is it to make assumptions about someone based on the photographs they take of themselves? How do we develop (as Jesus says) eyes to see and ears to hear on social media?

That’s why I try to place the selfie within a long history of self-imaging. Those who’ve had the means have always engaged in self-aggrandizement—to make their mark on history and leave their image behind. Only in the last few years, with the rise of the cell phone, has that power to both capture and disseminate our image been placed in everyone’s hand. We're at a young place in an ancient artistic impulse.

The current generation does not have exemplars. I’m not sure they always know what a healthy selfie looks like. I guess the book is an effort to bridge that gap between the condemnation they’ve received and the creative impulse that seems to be innately flowing out of them.

In a chapter dedicated to the invention of the camera and its early uses, you write: “Those with the cameras often exerted power over those who could not afford this new technology.” Then later: “The camera phone bypasses previous power dynamics. Social media acts as a leveling agent. Now almost anyone anywhere can control and disseminate their image.” How do you think self-photography can act as a tool for justice or protest in this context?

Not long ago, National Geographic made a public apology for how they had objectified their photographic subjects over the last century.

That’s pretty amazing. They basically said, “We did not treat people with dignity; we treated them as objects.” I think those who’ve been objectified have had to struggle with reclaiming their dignity and their worth. Even films like Black Panther or A Wrinkle in Timerepresent a historic shift where mass entertainment and Hollywood machinery are being devoted to saying, “Look at the many faces of beauty coming from many different continents, many different tribes.”

Smartphone technology is rising, almost simultaneously with an overall consciousness-raising that says, “Have we treated people with equal worth and equal dignity? Have we seen people in the same way?”

If we can perhaps change, or even suspend, our judgment of selfies for just a minute or two, we might be able to see them as people crying out to be seen and heard with eyes that see and ears that hear.

You also explore some of the pitfalls of self-photography. You mention the “happiness effect”—a term Donna Freitas uses to describe the pressure students feel to appear happy—which plays out on social media every day. This also takes place at many churches whose Instagram and Facebook feeds are full of smiling greeters, adults, and children. What should churches make of this trend?

I think social media has given us all a profound sense of performance anxiety. I think we all have a sense of being on stage at all times and projecting our best selves into social media platforms.

While I love the idealized beauty of Instagram, it can be utterly oppressive to students, churches, or pastors who might feel less than perfect. In the book, I essentially attempt to say, “You know what? Adolescents who embraced Snapchat are actually perhaps healthier in their approach to social media than we realize.” They are creating a place to be honest about their off days, to express their less-than-perfect performances and inclinations, to actually laugh at themselves, and to take a little bit of the air out of that performance anxiety.

Churches that have a well-scrubbed Facebook or Instagram feed may be setting both themselves, their parishioners, and potential visitors up to get on that perfectionist train, even though the preaching might say, “It's not about performing. We don't have to be perfect, and Jesus died so that we might not feel that pressure to fulfill all forms of righteousness.”

Selfie culture, in your words, “encourages us to seek mountaintop experiences.” Recently, I was at Yosemite National Park, and I watched a woman climb over rocks and boulders to the edge of a cliff to get a better picture of herself. How do you interpret this quest for day-to-day adventure, especially as it relates to the sacred moments we usually experience within our personal lives and within the life of the church?

I think the greatest danger is probably summed up in the phrase “Do it for the ‘gram.” Was the whole climb of the peak really about doing it for the photo that would be posted on Instagram? Are we ordering our food thinking what would be the most photographable? Are we scheduling our social outings thinking what would be the most impressive to brag about? The “humble bragging” on social media is a nefarious game to start playing with yourself and your friends.

The happiness effect kicks in when we look online and say, “Everybody else’s life is so great. Look at their vacation. Look at their hike. Look at their achievement.” Then we start measuring ourselves over and against that. We get really depressed, really fast.

We’ve bought into a kind of a false social contract of projecting our idealized selves rather than confessing our greatest aches and pains. Communities that are built around peak experiences are going to be in trouble as soon as the first valley kicks in.

Selfies is designed to give people permission to wait in those valleys—and perhaps even take photographs that reflect being fallen, fractured, hungry, longing, and lonely.

I would want our selfies to reflect the full range of the Psalms. You have Psalm 23, full of comfort, a green field and still waters. But what about the Psalm that precedes it, Psalm 22 [“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”]? How do we express forsakenness, and is there room to express forsakenness on social media? Affirming people’s selfies can be a way of saying, “I see in your efforts to capture my attention that you may be a little bit hungry, lonely, or forlorn. Rather than condemn you for your self-promotion, can I enter into the isolation that may be gnawing at you behind it?”

Speaking of mountaintop experiences, I recently reviewed 24 Frames, the last film by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. In the movie, Kiarostami brings personal photographs to life in order to encourage audiences to immerse themselves in these scenes. We often think of selfies or photography as inhibiting our ability to live in the moment. But after watching 24 Frames and looking at some of my past photographs, I began to realize more and more the power of photography to extend a memory—rather than detract from it. How do we find a balance between wasting the sacred and perpetuating it?

That’s a beautiful question. The overall encouragement of the book is to see selfies not as something separate from God but inherent in our relationship with God.

It can be a form of prayer. It can be a form of praise. It can be a form of marking moments with God that we want to remember. Maybe they don’t need to be shared; maybe they actually should be private. To what degree can our smartphones become a form of journaling, of self-reflection? Can it aid us in remembering where we were, of who we are, and whose we are?

It’s interesting, in the Bible, to mark certain junctures in people’s lives where they were instructed by God to erect stones, to create an , to mark the struggle. I feel like, for the next generation, they will have those things in their photo streams—but only if they also take the time to go back and look at that photo stream, mark those moments, reflect upon those moments, and say, “Where was I in relationship with God at that moment, and where am I now? How has God been faithful through that journey?” Or maybe, “What photograph do I need to take right now in response to that photograph that I took then?”

When people often talk about the negative side effects of technology, the most popular and obvious solution is telling others to put down the phone, limit social media time, and so on. Yet there times and situations when we simply have to use it. What practical steps can believers take to be more responsible on Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter?

I think the concept of digital discipleship is still emerging. These are young technologies. We’re talking about a decade, really, that we’ve been thinking about these questions. I think we’ve barely begun to understand how to care for our neighbors (and ourselves) via these tools.

Selfiesis a theological anthropology. It’s a challenge to say, “Wait a minute, who am I with this paintbrush in my hand that has instant publishing abilities?” Just because I can reach everyone online with what I want to say right now doesn’t mean I should. But I’m not sure people have been taught that you can take a social-media fast.

I'm not sure they’ve been given permission to say, “You might need a digital Sabbath each week.” Maybe that’s what Sunday is now, a chance to say, “I’m going to put the phone down and kind of get into a different rhythm and look for different prompts in my life.” Because our clocks are connected to our phones, we probably haven’t thought about the fact that they tend to be the first thing we see in the morning and the last thing we see at night. Instead of checking in with God, we’re checking our notifications and our updates. We need to figure out a new way of praying the hours, in sort of an ancient Christian rhythm, while holding (and then putting down) these devices.

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