January 8, 2013

Instagramming Religion | #nofilter

Instagram is one of the most recent cultural phenomenons to have grasped the ever-shrinking attention span of our time.  With its roster of image filters, it has the uncanny ability to make food look tastier, clouds look brighter, decrepit buildings look intriguing, self-images captured in the florescent glaze of a toothpaste-and-saliva-splattered bathroom mirror look sexier and–dare I say–kids look cuter.

But when all is said and done, Instagram photos are small captures of a bigger picture.  And behind it all, Instagram is driven by a muddled narcissism that says to the world I prefer my filtered interpretation over the real thing.

People who know me and read this are fully aware that this is a self-indictment of sorts.  As I write this, my Instagram stack has topped 1750 images, and counting.

This got me thinking about the way I “Instagram” (I’m using this as a verb) the world around me and even the self image I upload to the world.  I filter in what I want to see more of–sharpening and brightening the warmth, while contrasting, darkening and soft-focusing the myriad of grainy blemishes.  That being said, it’s no wonder an app such as Instagram has become so widely used.

We all “Instagram” (again, a verb) the world around us.  We see this in the way we rely on certain sources of news and entertainment in a subtle effort to ignore dissenting, or discomforting, images and information.  And every time this occurs, we typically ignore more than we accept.  Our visual consciences are perfectly OK with passively scrolling through the cropped 612×612 images, but we would rather not have to look at the more detailed, honest and inclusive 1024×768 picture.

In cognitive psychology, this function is often referred to as “selective attention,” which is defined as ”the process by which a person can selectively pick out one message from a mixture of messages occurring simultaneously.”

Savvy marketing professionals regularly capitalize on the phenomenon of selective attention by carefully crafting images and succinct messages to appeal to our “warm and fuzzy” senses.  By the process of rebranding, an oil company can turn news of an environmental disaster into news of their relief effort, cigarette companies can interpret figures on smoking-related deaths as reduced government spending on public healthcare and housing costs, and Coca Cola can hire Bill Cosby to promote the “better than ever” taste of “New Coke.”

But at the end of the day, the casualty count has risen and people still prefer plain old Coke.

The truth is malleable to an extent.  It can be cropped and scaled in order to ignore minority opinion.  And at low contrast, it’s easy to overlook the boldness of things that are just too difficult to accept.  But in the process, something is inevitably lost.

We Instagram our world, and that consequently shapes how we view each other–what we’re willing to share, and who we’re willing to share with.

The Church is not immune to this phenomenon.  The ever-expanding list of church sects is large enough to rival the size of a New York City phone book.  It’s not uncommon for people to go “church shopping” when looking for the right place to worship and pray–sifting through the menu and weeding out the ones that don’t fall in line with their position on anything from social justice to whether or not women should be allowed to openly pray.

And we don’t even have to mention the panoramic image of the Church’s dark history–blemished by sex abuse, slavery, war and senseless acts of violence–all because someone had the audacity to twist God’s unfailing truth to fit their cropped and scaled agenda.

 Saint Augustine once wrote: “The church is a whore, but she’s my mother.”

This is nothing new for the Church, and it’s something Jesus regularly had to confront.  We see this every time the pharisees flag him down to ask another question with hopes of stumping him.  They we’re fully convinced in what they believed, but what they believed was an altered version of the Truth–it was a list of do’s and don’ts, plagued by religiosity.

 When the pharisees, or religious experts, of His day asked Jesus “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

Jesus replied by saying: “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?  For God said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ and ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is ‘devoted to God,’  they are not to ‘honor their father or mother’ with it. Thus you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition.  You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you:

“‘These people honor me with their lips,

but their hearts are far from me.

They worship me in vain;

their teachings are merely human rules.’”

Jesus hated what the pharisees had done to God’s word.  They had edited it to black and white, filtered it through their limited human perspective, and forced it down the throats of the people, ultimately resulting in widespread oppression and religiosity.  It was for this reason God sent his Son into the world–to save the people from the evil desire to distort the truth and wield religion as a weapon–as a means of oppression, rather than of freedom, as God intended.

By “Instagramming” our beliefs, or forcing through our own constricted frame and filter, our hearts are the greatest casualty.  When we make the church more about what we don’t like or who we won’t accept, than what we choose to love, we miss the bigger, honest picture.

Jesus said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”

— written by Trevor McCurry

[This was originally posted January 7th, 2013 on Cultural Deviant’s Blog]