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Friday, May 4, 2018

"Selfies" (Craig Detweiler)

TITLE: Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age
AUTHOR: Craig Detweiler
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018, (240 pages).

The invention of the self-facing camera has also invented another word in our popular language: Selfie. On the surface, it seems like some harmless photograph for keepsake. Since everybody's doing it, it should be ok, right? Not so fast. There are more things happening below the surface consciously and sub-consciously. According to author and professor Craig Detweiler, it is something that reveals our conflicted thoughts about ourselves. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook Live, and all kinds of social media apps are able to help us capture precious selfie moments. What they fail to capture is the underlying philosophies or meanings attached to such selfie movements. Enter this book that reflects on the meanings, the conflicts, the pluses and minuses of this cultural phenomenon. With selfies, there is no longer private moments but public. There are no longer just self-image but shared images. Anything we put out there is subject to a multitude of interpretations and criticisms. With technology that are increasingly self-learning and automated, every selfie we take could be automatically uploaded the moment our devices establish an Internet connection. With our increasing array of digital devices, multiple copies could be backed up or shared across different platforms and distributed throughout our social and public spheres. Whether it is to bolster our self-image or simply to have our pictures on some famous landmark, Detweiler helps us ask questions to distill this phenomenon into some fundamental self identity and our endless search for meaning, and more importantly for God.

We learn about identity from both via positiva (who we are) as well as via negativa (who we are not).  It is a search for our self-image as part of our identity crisis. Contrary to what some readers may think, this book is not accusing selfies as the problem. It is using the selfie phenomenon to highlight something deeper and more profound about ourselves. The author calls selfies "as the start of a solution." What is this solution? That is what this book will explain. As an extension to Detweiler's previous book, iGods, this book looks at the selfie phenomenon from a Christian perspective. Some highlights include:
  • Understanding the origins of narcissism
  • Looking back at the influence of the Renaissance in self-portraits
  • How writers search for identity in their literary creative pieces
  • How to read a photograph
  • The psychological perspective
  • Our present cultural environment
  • Augmented reality with social media apps
The author masterfully weaves the past with the present, and with biblical principles as guide, show us the redemptive side of things. It is easy to criticize or condemn the use of selfies. The general attitude adopted in this book is to hold our critiques, and to practice more listening, more observing, more understanding, and more discerning. For underlying each selfie act, there is a person that is loved by God. There is someone in search of self. There is a general response to the restlessness happening inside every human person. We are all in search of God, albeit in different places. Selfies is one avenue that more and more people are searching for God, often without themselves knowing about it. Each chapter ends with questions to consider and discuss, which could be used for both personal and group settings. This is then followed by a "selfie challenge" to help us analyze ourselves and our selfies beyond aesthetics.  

My Thoughts
First, I agree with Detweiler that the selfie phenomenon is an extension of something deeper. What makes Google such a success? Why is YouTube one of the hottest websites on the Internet? How do people navigate the Internet so proficiently? It's the powerful ability to search. With Google, one almost always gets the information one seeks after. Most of the desired music videos, fun clips, news reports, movie trailers, documentaries or tips about anything, could be found on YouTube. Imagine the Internet without a search engine. We would be lost. From mapping destinations to restaurant reviews, online dating to academic research, the Internet is here to stay. Anything could be searched for at anytime, anywhere, and by anybody. If there is one common denominator in all of these, it is the word "search." What are people searching for? Is there a common thread in their search patterns? Perhaps, it is a restless spirit since the days of Cain. Pop culture does reflect the inner longings of the human heart in many ways. Whether we are searching for love in all the wrong places or searching for information to get at what we want, most of us do not seem to be satisfied with what we get. With the invention and subsequent popularity of the selfie, the restless spirit has not stopped searching. Instead, it is searching for the same thing albeit via a different mechanism. In this book, author Craig Detweiler highlights the restless human heart wanting to find fulfillment of the self, through the digital gadgets and mediums. In the Internet world, we are often what we search. In the selfie world, we are what we want to see ourselves in.

Second, we need to be aware of how public our own selfies could become. This could invite all kinds of feedback and criticisms in ways we could not possibly expect. For example, one of the most outrageous selfies taken is Breanna's selfie taken with Auschwitz concentration camp as the background. In one image, it is perceived as mocking the deaths of over six million Jews massacred during the horrific Holocaust. For whatever reason, there is a sense of desire to have our photographs taken in famous places, and to publicly tell the world that we've been there and done that. Why? Detweiler in his article on CNN about Auschwitz recognizes an inner conflict in people taking selfies. On the one hand, are people taking selfies all selfish and insensitive? On the other hand, is there more than meets the eye? Is there something meaningful to be discovered? Truth is, there are cases in which selfies could be deadly. People have fallen from cliffs and tall buildings just to snap a photo up high. They have also been gored to death by bulls; hurt in car crashes; and many different scenarios that place themselves at risk.

Third, I appreciate Detweiler's gentle approach with regard to the selfie phenomenon, not to condemn but to understand. While he states up front about the nature of selfishness of the selfie phenomenon, he reminds us that this is fairly recent although one could argue that selfishness could be lumped together with at least one of the seven cardinal sins: Pride. One word best describes Detweiler's position: A Mixed reception that demands a wise disposition. That means, instead of merely doing what everyone else is doing, ask why? For every temptation to take a picture of ourselves behind anything famous or infamous, pause and ponder if we have taken too many. Moderation is key. Awareness is vital.  If we uncritically throw ourselves into every selfie self-promotion, we may not only stir up self-promotion responses in others, we also elevate our self-importance above God. Understand that selfies are simply an augmentation of our original sinful disposition, which is incurvatus in se "Latin for curved in on ourselves." Hear the warning:
"The greatest danger selfies pose may be not to our bodies but rather to our souls, our psyches, our selves. When we make our private moments public, something volatile may occur, as Princess Breanna discovered. Thanks to social media, our selfies become an occasion for a public referendum. Our friends and followers can now vote on our appearance, adding commentary, even forwarding it on to others. Our private moments veer quickly toward public property, fair game for memes and repurposing in a myriad of ways. While it can be gratifying to feel the affirmation of the crowd, it can also be devastating when our posts fail to generate the kinds of attention we seek."
The need to be gentle in understanding and intentional in indirect resistance is important. Like weeds that are growing together with cherished plants, we do not want to become another additional image of Christians objecting to another modern anomaly. Instead, take a selfie but don't let selfies take charge. Worship God but remember: Thou shalt not have any selfie before the LORD.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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