A Theology of the Selfie

Originally Posted in Unpleasant Accents // June 24, 2015

The vanity.

The posing.

The infamous duckface.

Such is the prototype of the ever-notorious selfie. But this is not just fun and games. These images have fed into the stereotypes of our youth — supposedly brimming with greediness, sloth, and entitled behavior. The selfie is therefore not merely another trend.

It has become the Anti-Icon of the Millennial Generation.

But what exactly do I mean? I’m not defining “icon” in the way we speak of celebrities or American apple pie. The Church has icons of her own, particularly in the East — a tradition of paint, wood, and gold passed down through the centuries. They, however, do not exist solely as objects of art.

The icon is an aid, a catechesis, and a reflection of the Christian life. The Church Fathers recognized this in the Second Council of Nicaea (A.D. 787) insofar as “the incarnation of the Word of God is shown forth as real and not merely phantastic, for these have mutual indications and without doubt have also mutual significations.” And Eastern Christians like Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev continue to stress its relationship to the Life to Come on a “theological, anthropological, cosmic, liturgical, mystical and ethical” level.

The selfie — as Anti-Icon — must accordingly be its opposite. Its guidance is neutral, its moral aim not inherent. Its content may be beautiful yet become vain at its worst. And it certainly portrays not the Incarnation of God. Rather, it only reveals mortality — the flesh and bone of Man.

In writing this, I do not mean to say that we should completely condemn all selfies. It’s as absurd as banning mirrors from a clothing store or barring self-portraits from a museum.

 Even so, this demonstrates the power of the image in the Age of the Internet. It is true that the canvas reflects the trends of any society. (And lolcats are exempt from this as much as a Botticelli painting.) But in a world driven by memes, follows, and shares, it’s no wonder that many elders assume we think only in terms of viral popularity.

So, what, whom, or Whom are we reflecting anyway?

Man undoubtedly reflects the Image of God (cf. Genesis 1:27). Yet, in this culture, do we merely reflect the times? What society thinks of us? What one thinks of society? Do they show anything about the way we view ourselves? How is God reflected in the mundane, and does the mundane continue to reflect God?

Or do they hint that our thought is too caught up in an individualistic point of view to even care?


P.S. As I was writing, I stumbled upon this review of Father Antonio Spadaro’s Cybertheology. This looks like a good starting point for anyone who wants to go more in-depth into this topic (although I’m not sure if Spadaro covers selfies per se!).