Staged Lives & Better Stories

Here, I have an idea. I will ride on my worn, vintage-y bike past this worn, vintage-y mural on this worn, vintage-y brick wall. Can you catch me in motion? Make sure my hair is blowing in the wind — no, that’s too much. Oh, no, wait for these cars to drive past so that you can get it from the middle of the street; you have to get the whole mural in the shot. And be sure to get me just before I reach the mural, too. Preferably get me with one leg up and one leg down, so that people can see that I’m pedaling.

Tell the Story

Eighteen shots, a little cropping, no small number of photo filters, multiple caption drafts, and a large paragraph of hash tags later, you’ve got your next Instagram post. Easy peasy.

From monstrous volumes of baby books to the series of pictures on our Facebook news streams, we live in a culture that takes a lot of pictures. We would rather snap several hundred pictures of our parties, events, and vacations and spend a ridiculous amount of money on more storage and better cameras than forget these moments. We line up our families in front of the Christmas tree, try to hold our squirming kids still and keep the chaos at bay for just a few seconds while we pose. Or, more accurately these days, we go to great lengths to make our family pictures look un-posed.

Most of my posed-unposed pictures just end up looking like Leslie Nope trying to look laid back.

Why exactly do we do it? In his blog post about his philosophy of photography, my husband David says: memories, smiles, and warm fuzzies.

But, perhaps we are going about it all wrong, David suggests. The best memories, smiles, and warm fuzzies come when we tell the story of what happened. And we can most honor God when these picture-stories are told in such a way as to evoke a sense of thankfulness to Him for years to come.

Imagine you are traveling and are enthralled with the palm trees or architecture or ocean waves. Or imagine that a summer evening brings to your back porch a breathtaking sunset, and you are sharing a good conversation with a loved one over some home-brewed iced tea, complete with petite lemon slices. What is your first reaction? If you pull out your camera, why? If you plan to post it to a social network, why? What are your reasons for doing so, and what thoughts lead you to that action?

For most of us, I think, the motivations both to take pictures and post them fall far away from the realm of thankfulness — whether ours or that of others.

Staged Lives

Do we take and share pictures because we truly want others to rejoice? To praise God? I suspect that some of the time, we actually want quite the opposite — to make our lives seem valuable, even enviable, to others. Sometimes, we want to make other people want what we have, or to be where we are, or to have cooked what we have cooked, or to be eating what we are eating. Even if most of the pictures I take are absent of these motives, I confess that behind some pictures lies the vestiges of a desire for approval. I may not want to provoke envy, but I do want others to think highly of me.

As a result, and as this blogger so picturesquely pointed out, many of our social networking posts and images become less and less representative of reality. Who would want to see your messy kitchen table, that stain on the carpet, or your unmade bed?

Consequently, despite what we may unconsciously believe, Instagram and Facebook are not for sharing all of life with one another. On social networks, we share only the best of one’s life. Social networks are for days when you’re eating healthy and exercising, not days when you’re binging and watching a marathon of Netflix episodes. They are for the days when your husband or wife does something extravagantly romantic or kind for you, not the days when there is quarreling in your home. Nor are social networking posts even for the ordinary days — when there is neither beauty nor clutter, neither affection nor strife, but just plain old life.

How many times have you rearranged your workspace to look nicer before taking a picture? Have you ever staged a shot, handed somebody else your phone or camera so that they can “catch” you doing something subtly hipster-like? Do you ever take a picture of an area of your home, cutting out the clutter to the left or right of the shot?

“Staging” pictures isn’t necessarily wrong. Rather, the question I want to pose is about motives: What front are you presenting to the world, and why?

False Contentment

Now, imagine you have just seen the 1,000th picturesque Instagram picture from a certain friend or acquaintance. You have seen every aspect of this person’s life over the past year, in all its cropped and filtered glory–perfect spouse, perfect home, Apple products galore, nice car, perfect lawn, perfect office, perfect library — whatever it is that would cause you to become envious. What is your first thought?

Mine: “That must really be what his/her life is like. And it’s disgustingly great.”

If an Instagram feed or a Facebook profile can shatter your contentment, it is a terribly fragile contentment. Comparison does not kill contentment as the saying goes; comparison kills false contentment. It is pride dressed up in contentment’s clothing, a precarious sort of contentment that is built upon one-upping others. This contentment is built upon one’s location in the hierarchy of whatever values you prize most — a peaceful life, a lucrative career, a perfect marriage, a clean and well-decorated house… a hipster life perpetually soaked in the best of VSCOcam’s filters and drowning in a sea of vignette.

A Better Story

Why do you take pictures and post them on social networks? Do you intend to build others up, or do you intend to build yourself up? Do you desire to pursue thankfulness in your heart and in others’, or would you rather be the object of others’ envy?

And why do you browse pictures that other people post? Do you intend to praise God for what He has given others and celebrate with them, or do you look around at what He has given you and wish you had more, silently bathing in ungratefulness?

If you struggle with envy or wanting to be enviable, there are better stories to be heard and to be told.

Some people combat these struggles with the fact that Genesis 3 is still a reality between clicks of the shutter. Yes, Romans 1–3 is true about any life; people in pictures are still sinning and falling short of the glory of God in the unseen margins. But Paul does not say, “I have learned in whatever situation to be content… I just imagine other peoples’ lives overrun with sin, and I feel better about myself,” or even the extra-holy, “I abstain from Facebook.”

Paul had just finished telling the Philippians to rejoice in all things, to bring everything before God in prayer, and to meditate on things that are true, honorable, just, etc. Paul’s contentment came from following his own advice, and from relying on Christ, no matter what kind of dishearteningly perfect social media posts that might come his way.

Ah, that nebulous exhortation, “Rely on Christ.” What does it mean to rely on Christ in the field of social networking?

If thankfulness is the goal and you’re starting at zero, begin by asking Him. When you see somebody else’s perfect family picture and you can’t seem to muster the ability to respond rightly, go meta. Pray and ask God for the strength to rejoice with them. Remember how God has blessed you — write a list, even. When you take the perfect family picture, first praise Him, take inventory of your motives, then post it. Consider your brothers and sisters in Christ and place a high priority on their needs and well-being; seek to encourage them with the words you post along with your picture. Give God the glory, not yourself — and not in a fake way, either. If you question whether or not you mean it as you write it, that’s probably an indication you should wait to post it. After all, your social media posts do not have to happen ASAP. I mean, there’s even a hashtag for that (#latergram).

Remind yourself of the stories behind others’ pictures and posts, even when they have not endeavored to do so: God really blesses broken humans, even despite their sinfulness. Battle your envy and wanting to be enviable by rejoicing in a generous God who takes humanity’s rubbish and hands them blessings in return. Frame others’ pictures and your own with the bigger, better story of what God is doing in all creation. We can’t deny that social media presents the temptation to trust in the things of this world, to put our hope in pictures and what they can give us. Social media also gives us a unique opportunity to put our faith instead in the perfect picture God is creating.

Here is the true story about the kind of God we have: He created us to be perfect images, flawless pictures of His glory. We marred our faultless portraits with sin, shredded our reflections of the Most High.

“You know what happens when a portrait that has been painted on a panel becomes obliterated through external stains. The artist does not throw away the panel, but the subject of the portrait has to come and sit for it again, and then the likeness is re-drawn on the same material. Even so was it with the All-holy Son of God. he, the Image of the Father, came and dwelt in our midst, in order that He might renew mankind made after Himself, and seek out His lost sheep, even as it says in the Gospel: ‘I came to seek and to save that which was lost.’” —St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

God’s solution for a vandalized, ruined portrait is to be re-painted — so God came to earth as the perfect God-man, to portray His glory once again. Through death on the cross, Christ purchased His broken images and is restoring them to reflect their original glory, His glory, once again.