I Am Not My Avatar

January 22, 2017 No Comments »
I Am Not My Avatar

By Daniel Darling

Last year, Jeannie and Jim Gaffigan announced they were stopping production of their popular The Jim Gaffigan Show, which portrayed a fictitious version of the everyday life of their devoutly Catholic family. Jeannie, the producer of the show, explained to disappointed fans on Twitter their reasoning: “Our real lives, marriage and family provide the inspiration for our comedy and our art and we need to have real life to make art.”

Though fans of the show were disappointed, it was refreshing to hear the Gaffigans’ commitment to family life, prioritizing the real, flesh-and-blood bonds in the home rather than living a projected life on the screen.

There are lessons here for ordering our private lives in the twenty-first century. Every generation since creation has asked the question, Who am I? But today, people maybe asking a different question, Who am I online? Social media and the ubiquitous access to the Internet has turned everyone, it seems, into a celebrity, a brand, an image to be projected. Celebrities have always existed in societies, but today everyone is, in some way, public. Everyone has a brand they are managing. And we must ask ourselves, what is this doing to our soul?

Jesus: Fully Human & Fully Divine

The gospel story tells us that humans are more than spirits, more than mere images or personalities. We are holistic creatures, body and soul. The Genesis account uses poetic language to describe the way God formed those he intended to reflect his image. Moses wrote that God first scooped up dust from the ground and sculpted a new kind of creature, one that would be higher than the animals, endowed with the ability to reason and think and rule and create. Then the narrative describes when God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).

Of course we don’t live in a Genesis 2 world but a Genesis 3 world. The fall corrupted every aspect of human existence, bringing enmity between the Creator and his prized creation. It distorted our view of what it means to be human. We are constantly tempted to turn inward, to worship ourselves rather than the one who made us and to use our power to deny the dignity of humanity to each other. The good news, however, is that Jesus, fully human and fully divine, has in his death and resurrection restored the promise of what it means to be human.

Christians often dismiss or ignore the physical nature of Jesus’ resurrection. In our focus on the spiritual aspects of the gospel, we forget that we have a Savior who was fully human. There is a reason, though, that the gospel writers emphasized Jesus’ post-resurrection scars (John 20:24-31) and his eating of food (Luke 24:41-43; Acts 10:41). Jesus was not a disembodied spirit. And neither are we. The gospel is more than simple spiritual piety. It is the restoration of all things, body and soul. We are moving toward our full humanity as coheirs of the kingdom of Christ.

What does this mean for the way we see ourselves in the twenty-first century? The Christian story gives us resources to help steward the way we interact online. It allows us to reject both the Luddite impulse to withdraw from public conversations and the narcissistic impulse to project images we think will buy us more love.

We can do this because we know we are not simply disembodied spirits and we are not projections of ourselves. Jeanie Gaffigan instinctively realized this. She knew that more important than projecting images of a fun and well-ordered family on the screen is the cultivating of a fun and well-ordered family in real life. She understood what many of us fail to understand: our actual lives are our actual lives.

That’s Not Who I Am

This cuts two ways. There is the temptation to dismiss our angry tweets and Facebook posts as “that’s not really who I am.” But Jesus reminded us that out of the abundance of the mouth, the heart speaks (Luke 6:45). The words we tweet in anger come from somewhere; they come from within; they are words we own and for which we will be judged on the last day.

Quite often I will meet, in person, people I’ve “known” online for many years through their writing and their social media interaction. I’m always struck that the loudest, most argumentative folks on the screen are often the most docile in person. There is, I think, a temptation for us to playact online, as if our Twitter or Facebook or Instagram profile is a character in a story we want told.

The good news of the gospel reminds us that we are loved by God, not for the avatar we project, but for who we really are. Jesus didn’t come to save housewives with perfect homes, students who faithfully do their devotions by sunlight, or quick-witted middle-aged dads in minivans. Jesus came to save broken, flawed, incomplete sinners.

Getting people to love us because we obsessively cultivate a perfect image might create a temporary fan base with fleeting affection, but it won’t fill the gaping holes of loneliness that exist in the dark of night, when the iPhone battery dies and the glow of the screen dims. The longings we have to be adored are the fruit of our fallenness. We have turned inward to worship ourselves. These longings are also a reflection of our disconnection from our Creator. We long for the intimacy we experienced in the Garden.

Jesus offers us both the fulfillment for these longings in himself and a better vision of our own humanity than the one we try to project online. We must say no to the seductive whispers of the enemy, who promises us temporary kingdoms of influence and affection, and lean in on Christ’s promise of his future kingdom.

We can do this in subtle ways, by prioritizing our flesh-and-blood relationships more than our online interactions. We can resist the urge to document every aspect of family life to prove to the world that we are good mothers and fathers and instead spend time actually working on being good mothers and fathers. We can invest in the real-life communities to which we are called rather than overinvesting in the perceived audiences we hope to build.

This doesn’t mean we retreat from the digital world, but we engage it knowing that social media is not all of life and only a means by which we live out our responsibility as God’s redeemed image-bearers. It means we resist the temptation to see ourselves as less than we were intended to be. It means we don’t find our satisfaction in flickering pixels. It means we see the full humanity of those online with whom we disagree.

We are not, after all, avatars. We are people.

Daniel Darling is a freelance writer in Hermitage, Tennessee.

Sidebar: Before Posting Online

Before you post something online, ask yourself:

• Why am I posting this?

• Do I think that by posting this I will be made more complete?

• What am I sacrificing in flesh-and-blood relationships by spending time on this image or this post?

• Who might I be hurting by posting this?

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