This is the first post in a series about how we Christians twist Christianity towards ourselves.
The selfie. Ubiquitous on social media, subject of many a diatribe, and a common practice of others. Previously referred to as a “self-portrait” by art history for hundreds of years, we’ve decided two syllables are better than three. But more than just shortening the word, the selfie is allowed to be low-brow. After all, “self-portrait” sounds a bit intimidating and time consuming.
For the selfie, one turns an outward camera inward. And most cameras (some people call them “phones” but let’s just call it what they are) undo the problematic flipping-the-camera-around-thing by including a front facing camera, assuring the artist of the best possible shot.
Now this isn’t a tirade against selfies. I could talk about our culture’s narcissism, celebrity selves, and ironic hiding from ourselves by obsessing over ourselves, but this is not that post. I don’t have a problem with selfies, really. But I think the selfie is a great metaphor for something that Christians can get into, something that is damaging to our soul.
In the selfie, we use an instrument to take our own picture. Like the selfie, we can use instruments that were originally designed to look outward, and turn them inappropriately inward. One of these areas I see commonly “selfie’d” (please, let’s use that verb) is community.
We rabid individualists use community for our own ends and when that community doesn’t immediately give us what we want we look elsewhere. Or maybe we’re so consumed with “getting community right” we rarely actually participate in community. Both of these are damaging to a church (a community shaped by the gospel). Bonhoeffer writes in Life Together:
…the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
We can be so busy taking the temperature of the pool that we fail to jump in. This is a form of selfishness. We want everything to be perfect for us (we might say “for others” but we don’t really mean that) that nothing ever gets off the ground. Or the other typically selfish route is more plain: you are only there for what you want to get out of it and fail to contemplate what you’re called to give. That’s vampiric. Perfectionism and vampirism kill community.
Community might be the biggest roadblock to living out the gospel in our western context. Community requires us to give, sometimes more than we receive, to submit rather than grab for ourselves:
“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
These characteristics—compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiving others—are only understood in relationship to others. And not in some lame see-you-once-a-week way, but in deep connection to each other. This isn’t community for individualistic ends, this is something more. It is an earthly reflection of heavenly truths. We, together through Christ, are beloved by God.
How absurd is it then for us to take an instrument meant to point to something as great as God’s love for us, and turn it around to point towards ourselves. By not living in true community, we are selling ourselves short, not to mention others that are called into community alongside us. We aren’t meant to be perfectionists or vampires, we are meant to live our lives in a community that will bristle and encourage and disrupt and excite. We will be wronged, we will wrong others. We will forgive and forgive others. We will be taken for granted and lifted up when we’re low. There is a risk to living in a real community like this, and it’s tempting to contort community into some kind of spiritual selfie. But if our gospel communities are shaped by the word of Christ that dwells deeply in us, it is worth the risk.
Put down the front facing camera and jump in.