Reformed Articles

A 5 Minute Theology of Selfies

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Rachel Jones | December 13th 2019

When did you last take a selfie? 

Chances are, pretty recently. According to Google, Android users post more than 93 million selfies every day, with the average millennial on track to post 25700 selfies in his or her lifetime (roughly one per day).  

The word “selfie”—simply meaning a digital self-portrait, usually taken on a smartphone—was added to the Oxford English Dictionary as their “word of the year” in 2013. A year later, the “selfie stick” was the must-have gift for Christmas.

Where did the selfie phenomenon come from? Although we humans have been using cameras to take photos of ourselves for as long as we’ve had them, it was only after the addition of the front-facing camera to most mobile phones—made popular by the iphone 4 in 2010—that the selfie became a ubiquitous part of 21st-century life. 

Good selfies

So what’s the appeal? Selfies show us two things that are true about human beings. 

The first is that we are constantly projecting an image of ourselves to the world. An article in The Guardian quotes one specialist, Dr Mariann Hardey, as saying: “It’s about continuously rewriting yourself. It’s an extension of our natural construction of self. It’s about presenting yourself in the best way.” Whether it’s the clothes we wear, the way we speak, or the photos we take, humans can’t help but assume identities and communicate that to the world around us. 

The second is that we feed off the approval of others. No man is an island—we exist in a web of complex social relationships. As Matt Fuller points out in his forthcoming book, Be True to Yourself, we live in a culture that tells us to throw off the opinion of others (“You do you!”)—but the selfie remains as proof that we cannot survive without the opinion of others. 

The Bible affirms elements of these instincts as evidence that point to the truth that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1 v 27). He’s given us the capacity to appreciate and celebrate beauty and to share that with others. At the same time, he’s made us as creatures with bodies. Our bodies are an important part of who we are, so it makes sense that the way we present them to the world is important to us. And we’re designed to exist in relationship with others—hence our desire to communicate with them and receive their approval back with a like or a comment.

Bad selfies

But the selfie phenomenon also points to our fallen nature. Here’s fashion blogger and entrepreneur Poppy Dinsey commenting in that same article

“People like the control selfies give them … You’re deciding how to frame yourself—you’re not trusting someone else to make you look good. With front-facing cameras on iPhones, and so on, you can see the picture you’re taking and frame it perfectly to show yourself off as best as possible—your mate isn’t going to make the same effort when taking your picture. Plus, you can retake and retake without anyone having to know how much vanity has gone into that ‘casual’ pose.”

In one sense, the selfie gives us an opportunity to be “real”—for example, a celebrity can now put out their own “candid” selfies instead of allowing the paparazzi to dictate their image. But they also reveal our compulsion to not be totally real: hence all the retaking, retouching and filtering that goes on. We want to be known, but fear exposure. We have a default instinct towards shame.  

Selfies have been dubbed by some commentators as a symptom of the age of narcissism—but the Bible would tell us that the age of narcissism really began in Genesis 3. Instead of being content to be mirrors reflecting God’s glory, we try to create our own glory through (among other things) our physical appearance, or showing off the exotic locations we’ve travelled to. It’s as if take the glass out of the mirror and take a selfie of the empty frame. 

But the rate at which selfies are taken and posted also shows how fleeting the sense of approval we get from other people is. We take a selfie, post it online, and enjoy a little endorphin high as the notifications roll in. But the high wears off, and so the next day we take out our phones again…

Redeemed selfies

The Bible tells us that it is only when we have the eternal affirmation of God that we can be free from the never-ending cycle of seeking it elsewhere. We need him to make us, and declare us, as whole, right, beautiful, glorious. And in Christ, he does. 

But that divine affirmation was restored to us through a brutal execution:  

[Jesus] had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53 v 2-3)

Jesus was despised as ugly—so that he could make us gloriously beautiful in God’s sight. 

Next time you take a selfie—remember that. 

The ideas in this article were inspired by Plugged In by Dan Strange and Be True to Yourself by Matt Fuller.