One of the most interesting books from my first year of literature studies was John Berger's Ways of Seeing.
Besides the fact that almost half of it was images (interestingly; since in my experience books with such a ratio of images are usually labeled children's books) its insight on different topics was fascinating; especially the section in chapter 7 where Berger discusses publicity images, consumerism, and the modern concept of glamour.
...since reading his book, this concept has been unconsciously marinating in my mind for a long time; every now and then a new thought or idea on the subject gets added into the marinade...and makes me wonder, in finally writing this, if it's possible to serve up everything...
...but let me first present to you John Berger.
According to Berger, 'the happiness of being envied is glamour.'
The appeal of glamour is 'its promise...not of pleasure, but of happiness: happiness as judged from the outside by others.' He also notes that 'Being envied is a solitary form of reassurance. It depends precisely upon not sharing your experience with those who envy you. You are observed with interest but you do not observe with interest--if you do, you will become less enviable....the more impersonal they are, the greater the illusion (for themselves and for others) of their power. The power of the glamourous resides in their supposed happiness...it is this which explains the absent, unfocused look of so many glamour images. They look out over the looks of envy which sustain them.' (Ways of Seeing by John Berger)
I don't now about you, but when I read through Berger's analysis on glamour I immediately decided:
glamour is not a Biblical concept.
Of course, the very word 'envy' should ring a bell--if we haven't already been desensitized by the careless prevalence of that concept today. ("Ooh, I'm so jealous..." "body envy"... even the ambivalent "I covet your prayers," which somehow I could never quite be comfortable with. Why is it so impossible to get me to pray for you?)
But besides that.
As Christians, we are called to contentment, which is an expression of trust in the goodness, providence, and wisdom of God.
As Christians, we are called to be thankful for and humbly learn from those we admire, instead of envying or idolizing them, because we believe that they too, are sinners; they too, are instruments that can be used for God's glory, which manifest His glory.
As Christians, we are called to relate to others on a personal, humble, and selfless way; in a way which brings out the best in both of us, without fear in acknowledging the worst. As epitomized in Christ's relationship with us--His love for us at once embodies the recognition of our worst, and the potential of our best.
Berger's insightful social critique should reveal how many unChristian characteristics there are in a lifestyle and culture like this; the fostering of discontent, envy, and pride (to name a few;) those seemingly small sins which are all the more dangerous because you can get away with them. No one sends you to jail when you gloat over the number of followers you have. More dangerously, when everyone else seems to be envying someone or other, we may never realize that actually, why should we?
In our culture, glamour (and coolness, which after Berger's analysis on glamour should be recognizable as very similar) have become significant influences in how we relate to others as well as how we relate to ourselves.
I don't want to go on a social media rant, but this is so intrinsically linked that it must be mentioned. Our social media immersed culture has been hugely important in developing this mentality. As Berger notes, 'Glamour cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion;' and social media, unfortunately, does a very good job making that 'personal social envy' mainstream.
Social media. I joined Instagram about a month ago, and its explicitly visual nature made Berger's argument on the power behind publicity images even more obvious than say, on Facebook (which every teenager I've met assures me is now the realm for dinosaurs.) There are even hashtags making it easy for you to find specific types of 'personal social envy': #fitspo; #relationship goals; #nofilter; #blessed--! But I don't want to lambast Instagram--I've enjoyed my Instagram experience so far--it's really the attitudes and assumptions that, along with so many other social media platforms and advertising and celebrities and basically so many aspects of our culture today, help contribute to this mentality.
For instance--celebrities. (I've never really liked the phrase 'fangirling' with all its connotations, so perhaps I'm a little biased here.) Berger mentions how the modern concept of celebrities defines them as 'the creature of other's envy.' The impersonal aspect of this sort of glamour, as Berger has observed, should immediately indicate just how flimsy it is; the only reality about it is human nature's predisposition to envy. Whether your celebrity crush is based on personality or good looks, glamour only exists because one is distanced from the reality. The backstage effort that goes into creating a deceptively spontaneous/'natural' beauty, talent, charm. Or even just the ratio of normal human-ness and 'goriness' to the good admirable qualities of a person. (Think the massive disillusion that the protagonists of The Fault in Our Stars experience when they finally meet the author of their beloved An Imperial Affliction. That book was the distillation of the best of Peter Van Houten, isolated from the ratio of his weaknesses or just plain 'normalness' as they experienced when they personally knew him. That distance was necessary for the book to have the effect it did.) The 'impersonal,' as Berger says, is crucial.
Acknowledging there is a place for admiration of great people and great art, and goodness--there certainly is!--where to draw line, how do we know? Gene Edward Veith's quote on one of the characteristics of good literature came to my mind and got added to the marinade of thoughts on this topic: "The best writing--whether 'realistic' or 'fantasy'--tends to involve us in life more deeply...Good literature may give us escape, but it also brings us back, rearmed with insight for our everyday experiences and with a new appreciation for the texture of actual life." (Reading Between the Lines by Gene Edward Veith)
This quote addresses the problem of contentment, which is the consequence of the 'personal social envy' mentality that our culture promotes so enthusiastically and pervasively. What draws us to all these different forms of envy is the underlying common sense (but often very vague) of something good and desirable, that these things evoke. We want something of that--what exactly, how exactly, isn't always clear; often doesn't make sense, seldom is actually true.
For the Christian, true goodness is defined by the person of God, where it begins.
True goodness should inspire us, not cripple us. We should be empowered to appreciate and make use of the lives we are given--with all the challenges, all the messy parts, all the not picture-perfect moments. True goodness should reflect truth, and inspire hope. True goodness causes us to lead outward-facing lives instead of becoming more and more self-centred. True goodness, in other words, points towards its Source.
God has given us richly all things to enjoy. We just need to learn to see Him in them.
As I once learnt through Steve DeWitt, and as Elizabeth Barrett Browning said so beautifully:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries...
(to be continued...)
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are