Communicating You (Part Three)
Since its inception, “facebook” has seen over two hundred million accounts created. The personally designed sites are completely customizable. Users are able to craft a personal profile, compile friendships, post pictures, broadcast songs, and stay “in-touch” with ideas and people. Within the seemingly innocent cyber soil of customization and individualism, the seeds of false image creation take root. The Internet is the new street corner and the new synagogue where saints and sinners are allowed to knowingly and unknowingly make their image a god.
At this point it is important to reemphasize that my desires do not lie in the suffocating fields of thorny legalism. Solutions to cultural nebulosity rarely grow out of abstinence and withdrawal. The answer, in this case, is not disengagement by deleting all online community involvement. However, the enticing waters of freedom are just as debilitating as the proverbial field if one has not first learned to swim. As a swim instructor for many California summers I have learned that not-yet-swimmers must clearly understand their limits and the water’s power before they can truly be released without reservation. It is my contention that teens and adults alike are swimming in the dangerous, muddy streams of social networking websites lacking an awareness of their true identity, which has led to the habitual broadcasting of created false image.
The possibility of incongruence within the invisible walls of the Internet and that of the streets in first-century Jerusalem are closely intertwined, and share the same ultimate end. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ behavior unmistakably discloses the futility of their repetitive actions. In the same way, if liberty to create a personally designed false image is regularly exercised, fruitlessness is certain. Users of facebook, myspace, eHarmony, and Second Life constantly manufacture self-images that are preferred and not actual.
The unsuspecting country music theologian, Brad Paisley, vividly captures the heart of this propensity for image fabrication in his 2007 hit single Online. He sings as a man who is sorely lacking in every area of American success and beauty: Online, I’m out in Hollywood / I’m six-foot-five and I look damn good / I drive a Maserati / I’m a black-belt in karate / And I love a good glass of wine. Obviously, this is the extreme (or, perhaps, not so extreme in some cases) manifestation of false image creation. As he sings, I’m so much cooler online, he celebrates the freedom found in the fantasy of cyber community, allowing this character to turn the disparity of his reality into the perfect image of his imagination. Paisley describes the seed that can grow into a life-sucking weed of unrealized prosperity and we must heed the warning signs.
With this idea in mind, Dietrich Bonhoeffer responds in accordance with Romans 12:2 by stating that, “either man models himself on the god of his own invention, or the true and living God moulds the human form into his image.”
The danger revealed in Bonhoeffer’s words, is eternally significant, but our awareness is tragically absent. Users are pumping out images of themselves daily on these sites, virtually enjoying the lives they wish they could live. As they are investing in fleeting fantasies of self, opportunity for true self-discovery is displaced. The god of human invention is self. In fact, Time Magazine’s 2006 Person of the Year was You. The cover displayed a pristine desktop computer and within the issue’s pages, all the ways the Internet allows self to be promoted were majestically applauded. This Person of the Year offers a window into the masked reality of the “lord”, which we serve.
Even if users are not blatantly lying in stereotypical Brad Paisley fashion, there is still the danger of editing one’s true identity. Unsightly photographs can be deleted, difficult people can be eliminated from “friend” lists, wallpaper and themes can be carefully chosen, and profiles can be tailored to reveal only desirable qualities. This is not a promotion of an authentic self, but an abridged, edited, touched-up offering of preferred perception.
Pursuing truth and reality is always beneficial. For “to deviate from the truth for the sake of some prospect of hope of our own can never be wise, however slight the deviation may be.”
An image abounding in temporal success masquerades as hope, in the form of being accepted and personal definition. We deviate from the truth when we parade a personal image to the world that is focused on self, especially when that self has been brushed up more than a Vogue cover shot. The danger of fantasy and escapism within the bounds of social networking websites is real and culturally savvy Christian must be mindful.
Whether we are aware of it or not, happy about it or not, or submissive to it or not these online communities open the gates of opportunity for users to direct and construct a desired self-image that is often far from the reality of our intrinsic, albeit marred, nature. Furthermore, we should not think that the danger is limited to the confines of these Internet communities. False image creation appears in the subtle forms of half-truths, crowd pleasing, and church attendance. All-too-like the Pharisees, churchgoers gage their spirituality through simple, unremarkable presence at church services. Are you a Christian? Yeah I go to church.
Whether for personal gratification or corporate appeasement, this dangerous guile of evil is alive in the prevalent waters of contemporary culture. We trespass into the land of idolatry and are beckoned to accept Luther’s Larger Catechism, that suggests that every sinful misstep is a breaking of the first commandment and a pursuit of earned righteousness. Thus our sin of false image creation is not a new form of missing the mark, but looks hauntingly similar to the golden calves Israel manufactured. Regrettably, this transgression is not static; the sin of false image creation responds to our ignorant submissiveness by flowing into the art of communication.