Craig Detweiler on New Book ‘Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age’

Selfies are blessings from God. At least that’s the contention of Craig Detweiler in his new book Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age. Where others see only shallowness and vanity, Detweiler, an expert on faith and social media serving as president of the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, sees the outpouring of creativity and the reflection of a self-imaging God. Pastor and film critic Wade Bearden spoke with Detweiler about the historical lineage of selfies and the spiritual possibilities and pitfalls of social media.

In Selfies, you mention how a handful of Facebook friends told you they would never be interested in a book about “such a superficial subject.” Why write the book, knowing it would face such an uphill climb?

I think our ambivalence, or even anger, regarding the whole concept of selfies is exactly why I wanted to write this book. We feel like selfies reflect the worst of who we are, and yet it’s coming out of us. It’s coming out of our own need for expression, for validation, and our desire to be seen.

Is there a way to redeem selfies? If not, then I wonder if there’s a way to redeem ourselves. If the medium itself is so inherently fallen that we can’t imagine a way of elevating or rescuing it, then maybe we’re in far more dire straits than we realize. Or, maybe our hope in Jesus is limited.

You say: “Rather than seeing selfies as the problem, I approach selfies as the start of a solution.” In another passage, you also wonder how one might receive “selfies as a sacred gift from the original Giver.” How can selfies be a sacred gift?

To me, so much of the crisis in our country and culture is rooted in issues of identity. People are feeling unseen, unacknowledged, and underrepresented. And they’re desperately crying out to be noticed, affirmed, and loved. I see selfies as rooted in our deepest hunger, our greatest longing.

If we don’t understand that we are the self-images of God, and we can’t see the self-image of God in our neighbor, then we will definitely attack, deride, and degrade each other online. But if we can step back and realize that the self-imaging God is not that far from this self-imaging tool that has been placed in our hands, then perhaps we can appreciate the opportunity rather than simply maligning what we might have done with it so far.

Throughout your book, you make a point of pausing before pronouncing judgment on a selfie (or any other social media post). Just how complicated is it to make assumptions about someone based on the photographs they take of themselves? How do we develop (as Jesus says) eyes to see and ears to hear on social media?

That’s why I try to place the selfie within a long history of self-imaging. Those who’ve had the means have always engaged in self-aggrandizement—to make their mark on history and leave their image behind. Only in the last few years, with the rise of the cell phone, has that power to both capture and disseminate our image been placed in everyone’s hand. We’re at a young place in an ancient artistic impulse.

The current generation does not have exemplars. I’m not sure they always know what a healthy selfie looks like. I guess the book is an effort to bridge that gap between the condemnation they’ve received and the creative impulse that seems to be innately flowing out of them.

In a chapter dedicated to the invention of the camera and its early uses, you write: “Those with the cameras often exerted power over those who could not afford this new technology.” Then later: “The camera phone bypasses previous power dynamics. Social media acts as a leveling agent. Now almost anyone anywhere can control and disseminate their image.” How do you think self-photography can act as a tool for justice or protest in this context?

Not long ago, National Geographic made a public apology for how they had objectified their photographic subjects over the last century.

That’s pretty amazing. They basically said, “We did not treat people with dignity; we treated them as objects.” I think those who’ve been objectified have had to struggle with reclaiming their dignity and their worth. Even films like Black Panther or A Wrinkle in Timerepresent a historic shift where mass entertainment and Hollywood machinery are being devoted to saying, “Look at the many faces of beauty coming from many different continents, many different tribes.”

Smartphone technology is rising, almost simultaneously with an overall consciousness-raising that says, “Have we treated people with equal worth and equal dignity? Have we seen people in the same way?”

If we can perhaps change, or even suspend, our judgment of selfies for just a minute or two, we might be able to see them as people crying out to be seen and heard with eyes that see and ears that hear.

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Source: Christianity Today