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Circle 1: a.) build a brand of self b.) de-center self
On the church of self—and fresh way forward
Jesus straightened tilted hearts in the people who submitted to his authority. But unless you qualify for an AARP membership, you’re probably not interested in authority in present day America. At least if you’re a Millennial or a member of my cohort of Gen X cynics and skeptics. The word causes many of us to grimace; there is a visceral reaction to terms like “the authority of scripture” and “church authority.”
It is a uniquely American irony that famous (or Instagram-famous) people become authorities, moving into a role of guide in our life. American authority tends to be earned by looking hot in an activated charcoal mask, tweeting something viral, or shredding it on the guitar.
The Church of Self
Social media gives us a chance to build authority with or without accreditation, historical context, or prudence. The church of self is projected on the Instagram feeds of health-wellness-spirituality influencers—usually women, using the same template as inspirational coaches to encourage us—as the writer Leigh Stein talks about in her buzzy NYT op-ed. Deep down, we know the reasons Instagram influencers are engaging with us are complicated, and include a shaken and stirred concoction of both others-focused encouragement and their own self-aggrandizement.
Stein, who is not religious, writes in her piece, “We’re looking for guidance in the wrong places. Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?”
Social media, whether we’re religious, spiritual, or none of the above, has a particular pull. Everybody has a pulpit, and many influencers secretly want to be an authority without being called one—or, at worst, take real responsibility for their influence. But the gospel calls us to de-center ourselves, even on social media. To get there, I think we’re going to have to come to terms with authority.
Jesus was the ultimate self de-centerer. He told people after he healed them to not talk about what happened until the right time. He shamed and humiliated himself, stabbed in the side and hung to death in the open air. This is not failure for show. There would not be an Instagram influencer Jesus. The body and blood would not seep through the iPhone screen.
In the gospels, a picture is painted of Jesus trying to be obscure in crowds. His parables were unclear and dream-like. Still, he became a phenomenon. People were coming out from the countryside to see him in droves. And a lot of them were there for the spectacle.
Jesus wanted people to follow him to the point their own lives were turned inside out. When believers de-centered themselves and followed Jesus, they gained spiritual friendship and embodied community.
A Sea of Micro-Authoritarians
Social media influencers have democratized fame and made it populist. Now, we’re swimming in a sea of micro-authoritarians who are messy like us, have been there like us, and wear Madewell denim like us. They are not the pastors of our youth.
But oversharing does not lead to virtue. There is no nutrition in self-curation. An online growth strategy can work up the mythic algorithm for a little while, until people get bored. Then, our favorite influencer starts shlepping products in sponsored posts.
On a personal note, I’m implicating myself here.I’ve been honest about the reasons why I’m on social media. My own participation in this broken system is not lost on me, and I’m trying to walk a fine line in a complicated space.
A Little of This, a Little of That
When we begin to sense that we’re caught in the current of the market, maybe a little dissonance stirs up. The mythology of capitalism says we are the ones who make our own choices in a free and open marketplace. We are our own keeper, and get to construct our identity by buying products and choosing the brand allegiances that make us who we are.
Is that how we treat religion now? (Do I sound like your granny yet?) Take some of this, but less of that. We’ve been raised in a world that tells us we are allowed to decide for ourselves, and that feels good. A lot of us like calling shotgun on independence in the market, self-reliance in decision making, and the general badassery that comes when we think we’re in control. Or at least I do.
Some of us go further. Maybe we want to keep pushing and unraveling away from Christian practice and church until the nebulous shape of something new is created. Maybe we want a world where there is no longer any organization disseminating information about the right way to live and believe. We believe that a living community can replace the old religion: That the cracks and crevices of our afflictions can be filled with the sweet sap of belonging to each other. That we can pull apart everything until a fresh, green shoot springs up.
We probably can. At least for a little while. But what I believe we can’t do is create the life story we want without failing ourselves and each other. And I can’t make up a story more beautiful and de-centered than the gospel story.
Instead of rebuilding self, we can choose to de-center self. This work is a magnet pulling towards the life and posture of Christ. Realizing we need to de-center because we’re not the best authority of our own life—hopefully before we burn out—can be incredibly destabilizing. Then, it is wildly liberating.