Going Viral (social media culture and the inauthentic self)

Gimmicks. It’s hard to accomplish anything in today’s society if you don’t have a few up your sleeve. It’s how we’re programmed, to express our ideas and opinions by marketing them, dressing them up like the latest and greatest round of Superbowl commercials. Cleverly hyper-linking words or phrases to maximize site traffic and increase profit. Fishing for social buzz for the sake of making a product or service known and popular.

And that might be okay for your cupcake business or Etsy page. But I worry about the consumer driven supply and demand mentality inasmuch as it has a tendency to spill over into the way we present ourselves, our ideas, our lifestyles.

Upworthy has always gotten on my nerves. It’s a social sharing initiative, sending out articles and videos about uplifting and positive things (overt political statements aside) to make waves on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, in hopes of becoming viral.

Interestingly enough, when we used to say viral, it was a bad thing. Upworthy will take a video or story and repackage it with an attention-grabbing headline:

I remember the first one I ever saw. It was a video about a kid with some kind of disability. The headline was something like “This boy just died. What he left behind is stunning!” or something like that. It spread like wildfire all over the internet, so much so that if you’re reading this, you probably know exactly which video I’m talking about.

And I want to make it clear, I’m not complaining about Upworthy. Yes, viral videos get on my nerves almost as bad as reposted pictures of white Jesuses holding baby lambs with rainbows in the background with overlaid photoshopped inspirational messages and a tiny Tweety Bird in the corner. But the problem isn’t a couple of rampant “good news” articles. The thing that makes me hesitant to accept that type of social media culture is that inevitably, that way of marketing stories becomes intertwined with how we express our own identity.

Specifically, as a Christian, I know the tendency is always to make myself look better than I am. To present a righteous caricature of myself for the world to see. Facebook especially has changed how we as a culture present ourselves.

I remember when I was growing up. For whatever reason I sat in on one Wednesday night youth service when my sister was in youth group. I remember that whoever was teaching was talking about the masks that we wear. They made everyone tear off a sheet of aluminum foil and press it to their faces, so that a cast would form of our faces. It’s a metaphor that youth ministers love to use, so much so that some times it seems needlessly tired out. But it doesn’t make it any less true.

We hide behind our clever headlines. Most people only see the parts of you that you post on Facebook and Twitter. They only see the mask, the one you’ve constructed and painted, fine tuning every detail so that no one can really see you—the good, the bad, and the grotesque.

That way, you can live however you want and the people you keep at arms length will never have to know. Like Upworthy articles, you present yourself with attention-grabbing headlines to detract from the real fact that everything on the inside is inauthentic, at best.

I’m Stephen Thomas.

A good son.

A good brother.

A good friend.

A good Christian.

Jesus is the only desirable thing in me. Let him be the only thing I desire.

And on and on and on. I can say tidy, good, nice things that feign humility and present me to the world as a righteous man, but if my life doesn’t back it up, it is all meaningless. And my life doesn’t always back it up. And I suspect that yours doesn’t either. No one but Christ is perfect or good.

Paul, in his first letter to Timothy put it this way:

“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” 1 Timothy 1:15

Paul had no delusions at this point in his life about who he was. He said, not in past tense, but in the present “Christ came to save sinners, of who I am the worst.” He wasn’t beating himself up, he wasn’t acting out of a low self-esteem, his conception of God was just that high. He saw himself and his sin for what it was, for the way it stood in opposition to the goodness and love and utter perfection of Christ. In fact, he goes on to say that God could use his badness for the glory of his Son:

“But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the worst, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” 1 Timothy 1:16

He received mercy, in all of his filthiness, sinfulness, emptiness so that Christ could be patient with him. So that people would see this patience and follow Christ, assured that nothing could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

It was Paul’s prerogative to put himself on display as the worst of sinners, so that through his honesty and his overwhelming frailty, Christ could do what he does best and save those who saw him work in his life.

Paul was admittedly the worst sinner in the whole world, but he was the greatest evangelist known to man. He knew his badness and wore it like his own personal scarlet letter, resigning himself and his plans and his pride to the all encompassing passion of God’s plan to redeem the world.

He didn’t worry about marketing himself as a saint, because the only thing he wanted to present as pure and blameless and holy was the Son of God. And he didn’t need to repackage Jesus as something flashy and attention-grabbing, he just had to be honest about who he was and who he served.

I pray that that honesty can be found in my life. I pray that I would not be tempted to try to convince the world that I am a good person or market myself as some excellent Christian through blog posts and Facebook posts. That instead of spending all of my energy on marketing myself, I would point to Christ, who truly is the only good thing about me.

I pray the same for you.

I want to finish by saying that the people who love me best, know me best. Those who I am convinced love me more deeply and truly and radically also know all about my badness. They understand all my selfish idiosyncrasies, know of my sin and temptations. They are people I can be honest with and they love me in spite of myself. In fact, they love me because I can be honest with them. And together, we can all sacrifice our “image” so that the Gospel of Christ can shine brilliantly through the darkest parts of us.

“To the King of ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1 Timothy 1:17



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