Century of the selfie

10 August 2018

It has been criticised as narcissistic. But it has antecedents in the Early Church, says Mark Vernon

PA 

Pope Francis poses for a selfie with children in the oncology department of an Italian hospital, in 2016

Pope Francis poses for a selfie with children in the oncology department of an Italian hospital, in 2016

IS CHRISTIANITY responsible for the selfie? It is a provocative question to ask. After all, self-portrait mobile-phone photos are routinely, often unequivocally, condemned. They are called shameless, indulgent, narcissistic. But are they all bad, or is there a good spirit that propels people to capture images of their smiling faces? Might the selfie even be an expression of the restless desire for God?

Self-snappers can undoubtedly be annoying when they block the way across Westminster Bridge, or stand in front of the Mona Lisa. There is something flagrant about a selfie-stick, too, although people first felt similarly about the telephone. But the selfie is also a cultural fixture: it’s not going away. So what positively can be learnt from it?

More than one academic urges careful thought about the phenomenon. In his book Selfies: Searching for the image of God in a digital age (Brazos Press, 2018), Dr Craig Detweiler, President of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, points out that selfies are often taken in moments of joy and gratitude. They can also celebrate diversity and the present moment.

There are certainly risks, he continues. Some become addicted to life online. A few do physical harm to themselves, like the parents who fell off a cliff as they tried to snap themselves, in front of their children.

“When we post a selfie, we put ourselves out there, into the social stream, to sink or swim,” Dr Detweiler says. “We may subject ourselves to far more judgement and cruelty than is healthy or sustainable.”

There is good in the mix, as well, however. The key is to see that selfies gain their meaning, and run their risks, according to their setting. They are neither good nor bad in themselves. It is the intention behind them that counts. They may be creative; they may be vain; they may be foolish.

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In another recent book on the subject, Selfies: Why we love (and hate) them (Emerald, 2018), the sociologist Dr Katrin Tiidenberg agrees. She argues that making general comments about selfies misses the point. They are always context-specific, and some history can illuminate why that matters.

THE precursors to the selfie are part of what is now called art. Take the haunting Fayum mummy portraits: these naturalist likenesses, painted on the wooden panels of coffins, have been found across Egypt. They date from the turn of the first millennium. The realism of the ancient faces with their large, dark eyes that stare out is striking. Their gaze holds our gaze as we look on.

It is thought that the ancient funerary portraits were, in part, a product of a growing appreciation of the value of the individual. It was becoming clear that ordinary people deserved to be remembered in death, as well as pharaohs, monarchs, and people of social standing. The portraits indicate a democratising impulse. They can be considered not only beautiful, but good.

Leap across the centuries, and think about 17th-century Amsterdam. Here, we find dozens of self-portraits being painted by Rembrandt. He shows himself sideways on, or lost in shadows, or wearing various types of exotic dress. They are now regarded as masterpieces, because they enabled the artist to capture his inner life. They are so widely celebrated because Rembrandt’s capacity to see more in his face enables us to see more in other faces. The self-portraits train us to appreciate someone’s humanity. They nurture our empathy. Again, they are a force for what is good.

Here is a third case. I am a friend of a contemporary sculptor, Guy Reid. He, too, often uses himself as a subject for his work. One example is a life-size crucifix, recently displayed in St Peter ad Vincula, in the Tower of London. It received some criticism because Reid, in using his own image, was accused of being egoistic, or disrespectful. What was missed, though, is a theological point, as well as the spiritual practice behind the creation of the work. To make it, Reid imaginatively stood in Christ’s shoes. In doing so, he was echoing the biblical injunction to take up your cross, besides putting himself in a position freshly to understand the power of the image.

What these examples suggest is that the history of self-portraiture reveals a quest for self-understanding. To put it more theologically, they suggest that, at least in part, a spiritual impulse can lie behind the selfie. It may represent a longing to find the source of ourselves, and to reflect on the nature of our being. The Bible says that we are made in the image of God. The selfie might be an attempt, if typically unconscious, to glimpse that divine setting. It can be about me, but also “me” as a manifestation of the “more than me”. A carefully framed selfie may be an attempt to detect the divine landscape in which I live and move and have my being.

It is an old intuition. Plato argued that we should take care of our image because our bodies are the tangible expressions of our souls: that inner vitality that we spot in a beaming grin or laughing eye. He wrote about bodies not to denigrate them, as is often said today, but to nurture an expansive relationship to them. The goal is to experience them as one element in a chain of being which can lead from everyday experience to the good, beautiful, and true.

Other Ancient Greek philosophy schools focused on the self for not dissimilar reasons. The Stoics, for example, realised that the divine pulse, the Logos, can be known in a person’s inmost being (Comment, 11 August 2017). Becoming aware of that requires the cultivation of personal virtues through “spiritual practices”. Self-reflection, self-examination, self-control became their watchwords.

EARLY Christians felt something similar. One of the things that distinguished the new religion from older, pagan practices was an emphasis on the value of the individual. Christianity provided an “ontological foundation for ‘the individual’”, the philosopher, Dr Larry Siedentop, explains, in Inventing the Individual (Allen Lane, 2017). The incarnation showed the followers of Jesus that they, too, might find access to the divine from within themselves. “On that day you will realise that I am in my Father, and you are in me and I am in you,” wrote St John (14.20).

It led to an intensification of self-awareness in the first Christian centuries, as people monitored their inner lives to understand how they were, and were not, aligned with God. St Paul’s famous remark about doing what he would not do, and not doing what he would, is a case in point (Romans 7.19). Only by understanding himself could he begin to put on the mind of Christ.

The same possibility led the second-century philosopher Justin Martyr to argue that individuals have free will. It was a Christian discovery and innovation. Then, in the third century, Tertullian introduced an early version of the notion of individual rights.

There were also the martyrs, the word coming from the Greek for “witness”. The accounts of these noble deaths were clearly constructed so as to show that they were “in conformity with the gospel”, as the Martyrdom of Polycarp from the mid-second-century puts it. In fact, the stories told can now seem indulgent and contrived. Martyrs would wait to be betrayed, as Jesus was; they would publicly predict their endings, as Jesus did; and — in the case of Polycarp — ride into the city on a donkey.

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Martyrdom became a self-conscious attempt to imitate Jesus — to be remembered in the same frame, you might say. The truly gory details of how they died were recorded to make a public display of their passing, too. They were virtuous “selfies”, and set a confessional ball rolling that can be traced across the history of Christianity right up to the modern practice of giving public testimonies. What are personal faith stories if not edited versions of a conversion favourably portrayed? Like the selfie, you need the context to understand the meaning and judge the intent.

It led some to condemn the martyrs. Clement of Alexandria argued that they risked squandering the gift of life. Some, today, feel manipulated by testimonies. But, again, the trick is to learn discernment. It is perhaps why the Pope posed in a selfie with a pilgrim (Press, 20 December 2013): the image captured something of that individual’s journey and goal.

Alternatively, a selfie might be a great leveller, as the Priest-in-Charge of St John the Baptist, Corby, the Revd Paul Frost, discovered when he took a selfie with a bride and groom which found its way into the newspapers (News, 18 September 2015). “He made us feel calm,” the bride said.

THE upshot is that the next time you see a selfie, it may be a chance to pause the judgement and wonder whether this is an expression of self-searching, of human solidarity, or, just possibly, of kinship with God. Rather than see selfies as a problem, Detweiler advocates seeing them as the “start of a solution”. If they seem extravagant, misguided, or perverse, then perhaps that is only because of the misguided ways in which people have always searched for God.

I think that there is something in this advice. It is part of a positive case for the selfie, and the Church could learn from it. Rather than react against the perceived “individualism” of the selfie, it could be a moment to become less uneasy with the ways in which individuals today seek the divine outside of church circles. The selfie could be like some other pursuits, such as mindfulness and “peak experiences”, which have also been called narcissistic.

Dr Tiidenberg shows that selfies are a practice. They are part of what people now do to “become and belong”. As people take selfies, they can learn how to foster the upsides and avoid the downsides. “We need to remember to find or carve out suitable, safe spaces for sharing them, and avoid accidentally slipping into ‘performances’ meant for other audiences,” she says. That might lead to a self-appraisal of the motivations behind all sorts of things in life, from what we need to what we seek.

To put it another way, the selfie need not feed a moral panic. There are some grounds for worry — although, often, the worry is as much to do with the anxieties of those doing the condemning: a loss of authority or simple ignorance. My guess is that there is more going on. The selfie may be a sign of yearning. It might yet be regarded as part of a long tradition that, discerned aright, reveals the stirrings of the Spirit.

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His book A Secret History of Christianity will be published next year by John Hunt Publishing.

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