Acceptable in the 90’s
Was it just me or did you find that, growing up in the 90’s, it was rare for your camera to actually capture a moment in a way that did it justice?
I can remember heading to China on a school exchange and being fascinated by the bright lights and cityscape of Shanghai. I snapped away, but two weeks later when I got the film developed, I found my photos were rather less-than-impressive. The British writer Will Self has described how the past was “black and white, jerky, frumpy and lifeless – gelid, certainly, but altogether uncool. Unless it was coloured by [your] own vivid memories”.
Crumbs, how things have changed.
The irony is that back then our photos looked worse than reality, whereas now it’s the case that our photos can arguably look better than reality. And perhaps nowhere do we experience that more tangibly than with Instagram. The blogger Rachel Helen Smith describes the appeal of the app as a means by which our moments and memories are “perfected”. For example, by employing one of its increasing number of filters with the click of a button, “the cuppa on your desk can … become a cinematically chic Parisian-style treat or a vintage-inspired tea party”. It’s essentially bringing air-brushing into the everyday.
Now on one level, what’s wrong with this? After all, if Kim Kardashian can have it done on her photoshoots, why shouldn’t I be able to do it? It’s not that I’m massively distorting the images (although notably there are increasingly plenty of separate apps available that specifically allow you to edit skin blemishes, etc). Equally, technology has allowed us the gift of better cameras that get closer to reflecting the reality of a particular moment. But are there consequences to being offered an enhanced reality?
Unashamedly Instagram sells itself on this enhancement. One of the tag-lines the app has used is pretty explicit:
“Snap a picture, choose a filter to transform its look and feel, then post to Instagram”.
Spot the word? Transform. Ok, so the reality is it’s just an image of ourselves that we’ve transformed. We remain the people we really are, albeit on the other side of the screen. And to some of Instagram’s ‘haters’, this falsity and facade of the app’s filters couldn’t be more obvious. One of my friend put it bluntly when she explained she didn’t like Instagram “because it’s all fake”.
But in a culture like ours, where the individual and self-expression is so highly prized, it’s not just a random image we’re likely to be transforming. It’s our lives and our-selves.
What effect, if any, does living in an (online) world of filtered realities have on us? Are we perhaps becoming more accustomed to it than we might admit? It’s one of those things where the more we do it, the more normal it becomes. And if this is our ‘normality’, then what have we lost from reality?
I wonder if one of the greatest anxieties in the world of Instagram lies in an exposure to brokenness, sadness, and, ultimately, the ugliness of our hearts. It’s a world that inevitably, because of what it enables us to do, encourages both an ignorance and an escapism from the messy realities of life. We become accustomed to a self-selecting ‘reality’, building beautified and filtered online identities and impressions of ourselves. In effect, this is salvation by filter. We’re enabled to hide-away the brokenness of ourselves and our world by covering it up, self-sufficiently selecting the images we want to represent us, before then applying our favourite Instagram filter.
The problem is that this is just a game of ‘let’s pretend’. We all have moments where we’re very aware we are broken people, and where we realise that there is much that is not right with what we’re like inside. And yet these moments of realisation aren’t us ‘not working properly’, they’re us sensing something of the way that things are not right in this world. Our world is an aching world. We might try and block out its groans, whether by sticking our fingers in our ears and pretending not to hear, or by turning the music up so loud it numbs us. “Conceal, don’t feel,” is a nice line for a Disney soundtrack, but as a life strategy for living in a broken world with broken selves, then it basically sucks.
Bent is Still Broken
When we open up the Bible we find that actually this denial strategy is something we’ve been doing since time began. Christianity makes the claim that we’ve each turned our backs on God, the One who made us and the One whom we were made for. This turning away is painted not simply as ‘making the wrong choice’, but rather as a willed rejection of our divine Creator. Pink sang, “we’re not broken, just bent, and we can learn to love again”. But the history of humanity, not to mention our own daily experiences, tells us clearly enough that bent is still broken. And Christianity makes sense of this by revealing that we’re actually broken beyond repair. And at the heart of our predicament is that we have offended and broken relationship with the God who made us.
And just like in the first story of the Bible, our natural response to this reality is to hide. We feel ashamed, and so we cover ourselves in fig-leaves.
And that’s what Instagram can default into: just another fig-leaf, albeit a bit more elaborate and glamorous, that we use to cover up and filter away the realities of this brokenness. Rarely do we take photos of frustration, photos of monotony or sadness. Rarely do we see death or decay. Such is our desire to cover-up and beautify that it’s rarely that we even use #nofilter.
Is it not that we’re suppressing the truth of life? It may look pretty, but there’s got to be something wrong when our definition of acceptable human existence becomes smiling at a camera, enjoying life in a world of filtered hues. As Shauna Niequist notes, we’re driven to “offer up the sparkly milestones but not the spiralling meltdowns”.
Salvation by Filter
So what? Even if we admit we’re not perfect, isn’t it a bit morbid to dwell on the ‘bad bits’? Who wants to see a screen full of that, unless its a two-minute segment on the news to make us feel better about our own situation?
But part of the problem is that what we’re doing is double-edged. Not only are we concealing our own fallenness, by selecting and filtering. As we do so we’re simultaneously also undermining the wonder of the Christian gospel.
Here’s what I mean: by acting as if we’re all sorted, we’re effectively communicating that we don’t need the mending that we ache for. We’re saying we can get by, ultimately without God; “we’re-ok-by-ourselves-thank-you-very-much – after all, just look at our lives!” Again, it’s salvation by filter.
Maybe you’re thinking, “come on, it’s only Instagram, it’s just a bit of fun.” After all isn’t it blindingly obvious that it’s not much of a salvation the moment we take our eyes off the screen? Don’t get me wrong, I love the app as my Facebook newsfeed will testify (sorry about that everyone – haters gonna hate). But as I’ve reflected on how and why I use it, it’s made me realise I can be captivated by the version of my life it allows me to projects.
Filtering as a Denial Strategy
Perhaps that’s why we’re so often inseparable from our phones, turning to them almost – what’s the word? – religiously, allowing them to puncture into our everyday activities and relationships. Are we actually in denial that this community of beautiful people in a beautiful world is but a filtered façade?
Instagram offers us ‘good news’ for our brokenness, but it’s not a transformation that lasts. It promises the world we all want and we all need, but really it can’t help us as we encounter the mess and disorder, the sin and suffering, that exist all around us and inside us.
In contrast, as we open up the Bible we’re invited to view the world in a way that could hardly be described as filtered. Rather than concealing brokenness, the Bible illuminates it. And it pulls no punches in saying that we’ve all got a part in the blame. We might not like this account of ourselves, but every time the wind blows, every time the mess of the world leaks onto our screens, then we’re going to realise that we’re just wearing fig-leaves.
Transformation from the Inside-Out
But the Bible also shows us that God doesn’t leave us in our mess. Yes, the Bible’s story is a love story, but it’s a love story because it’s also a rescue story. Rather than giving us what we deserve, this God looks on us instead with grace, undeserved kindness. Knowing full well what we’re really like, he still chooses to gives us his Son, Jesus. It’s a rescue from our self-made brokenness as Jesus willingly goes to a brutal death to bear the divine punishment that should have been ours. All so that we might be forgiven and re-made from the inside-out.
That’s transformation. Not only that but he promises to transform our world too, declaring, “I am making everything new!” His seal on that promise is Jesus’ resurrection in 33AD, breaking through death and decay into a new existence with not a filter in sight. And that’s all possible because the heart of the problem – our human hearts – has been dealt with.
But in our filtered world, none of that will seem necessary. Instagram is too often a world where the make-up’s always perfect, where the sunsets are always amazing, and where there’s always smiles on our faces. And that’s problematic, not for “Christianity,” but for us, because as we look around, we’ll never think we’re broken.
I’m gonna keep snapping, filtering and sharing. And yet I’ve resolved to do so mindful that it’s all too easy to settle for the delusion. After all, no one likes to be told they need fixing. But think about it: no one wants to filter forever either. The question has got to be which offer of transformation will we put our hope in, a world where mess is simply filtered out, or a world where God confronts us and brings the change we ache for?
If you enjoyed this, you might like How Instagram Shows We Were Made to Praise.
If you’re really keen, check out this sampler of some thoughts on Instagram and Social Media, Filtered Grace – I’d love your input on whether it hits the spot.