The Disintegration of Beauty & Truth
How to deal with the Insidious power of the tech companies.
Christians have uncritically embraced “the ways and means practiced by the high-profile men and women who lead large corporations, congregations, nations, and causes, people who show us how to make money, win wars, manage people, sell products, manipulate emotions, and who then write books and give lectures telling us how we can do what they are doing.”
—Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way1
Leigh Stein, a popular novelist, and poet, and self-described “millennial,” wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times in which she lamented the cultural loss of moral authority.
Fed up with social media influencers who do little more than “enrage to engage” their followers, peddle flimsy self-help tropes, and use followers to sell their narcissistic memoirs, Ms. Stein expressed a palatable yearning for reverence, humility, and awe.
I believe Ms. Stein has articulated what many of us feel; that we’ve lost our bearings, not adrift in easy waters, but drawn into a whirlpool at the edge of the world. We find ourselves shouting to one another on the ship, “… the centre cannot hold!”2 while mast and sail crack and rip in chaotic winds.
Our society has lost something special, even wonderful, and is waking up to the fact that when we empty the skies of their awe the consequences do violence to our souls.
The foundations of kingdoms, governments, and cultures either stand resolute or crumble upon the strength of religion. And for millennia, religion was the centerpiece of culture. People lived in the comfortable tension of the mysterious wonder they witnessed in the natural world and the utility required to live their lives.
But when a culture’s religious foundation cracks, people fall into despair.
“But Tim,” you say. “What does beauty have to do with religion. Doesn’t our world need less ‘religion’ and more ‘Jesus?’ Shouldn’t we engage culture by redeeming it? You know, sprinkling God all over it once again, social justice, and living as culture creators? That sounds like a good plan.”
“Ah yes,” I reply. “I can understand beauty and religion seem to have little in common on the surface. But I believe that is due, in part, to how our culture has over-emphasized the world of aesthetics—how things look and how the world of vision makes us feel.
“And yes, the whole concept of redeeming culture sounds tantalizing, I agree. But we cannot redeem anything. We can only seek to be vessels of cultural redemption. We’ve skipped a step in our approach to so-called cultural engagement. We haven’t journeyed to the mountain of God. We haven’t stood in the storm cloud of glory and worshipped.”
Beauty plays a vital role in any culture. I believe religion is essential to the fabric of any culture, while beauty and wonder serve as an index to a culture’s vitality.3 When beauty is not the foundation of our theology we live exposed as Christians who have forgotten how to worship the one from whom beauty comes.
What Ms. Stein really laments is the absence of beauty in a culture that has lost its religion. And this loss was and continues to be precipitated by the power social media continues to play in our lives.
Thoughts for Reflection:
I’m using “religion” here as a positive term that indicates an existing supernatural influence in the world. Until the Englightenment, people operated with what is called a “cosmic piety,” which means they understood the Divine was present in our lives and the created order—even if they didn’t adhere to the Christian faith. And beauty was a core tenant to the cosmic piety. Take a few moments and think how our own culture has fallen from such a worldview. How can we get it back?
Do you feel as Ms. Stein does? What are some ways you can begin to bring awe, wonder, and beauty back into your cultural context, your Church, your student body, or your community?
Do you think our Church/Christian culture suffers from this same problem described by Ms. Stein? If so, why do you think this is so? What role does authentic worship play in keeping our faith strong and vibrant?
Can We Live Deeply in a Surface Society?
In 2012 I co-authored a book titled Veneer: Living Deeply in a Surface Society (Zondervan). In it, my co-author Jason and I looked at three cultural influences we dubbed “the language of culture.” The influences included:
Celebrity - We defined “celebrity” as a combination of Daniel Boorstin and Neal Gabler’s definitions. In his book, The Image Boorstin defines a celebrity as, “A person known for [their] well-knowness.” Neal Gabler amended that definition: “Celebrities were self-contained entertainment, a form of entertainment that was rapidly exceeding film and television in popularity.”
Technology (Social Media) - We viewed social media as a by-product of technological innovation and showed how social media and mass information dehumanizes us: “The collision between consumption and technology has a startling after-effect that burns past the endless supply of consumable products. We have, in essence, altered the reality of the human race. Not only do we see technology acting as a consumption amplifier, we see a second trait start to emerge: humanity transmogrifier.”
Consumption - The modern rise of consumeristic culture we tracked back to the fifteenth and sixteenth-century Europe. It was a time when producers created goods that gave meaning to particular people and exploited the purchasing tendencies of the masses.4 Modern printing and the use of cotton served as the backbone to the rise of consumeristic materialism.
Jason and I wrote Veneer in 2010. It was published in 2012. Now, nearly ten years since it hit bookstores (what are those?), much of what we decried in those pages has come to pass. And though it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back as prophets, this reality saddens us. The reason we wrote the book was to warn any who would listen: don’t give in to the shallow language of culture but, instead, seek a deeper way of life.
We now live in a veneered world. Recent political elections, a global pandemic, and myriad cultural upheavals have all contributed to a cultural elixir that uses the “langauge of culture” to disseminate disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric from all political parties, the media, and the powerful elite.
What is true? What is real information? What is false? What is based in opinion? How are we to think?
On the surface we see our phones and apps and computers as tools that help us make a better way of life, a better society. We believe what commercials tell us without questioning the use of our ubiquitous tools.
But we’ve been duped. We’ve forgotten that the medium is the message. And what is that message? The message boils down to money and power.
We think we can form our lives around these tiny machines and the digital ecosystems they promulgate without any kind of negative impact. But we forget that the information and images we digest through our phones is the new way we receive and give our cultural education.
And the companies that dictate how we use their apps and devices are not passive participants. Instead, we find what many thought all along: that there exists the presence of an insidious intent behind the digital veneer.
Thoughts for Reflection:
Do you sense this veneered world in your day to day life? Do you feel the constant pressure to compare yourself to others or the need to always be checking your phone so you don’t feel left out?
Beauty is much more than the mere aesthetic in our world. In Christian theology, beauty works like a foundation. Why? Because God is Beauty itself. If God is Beauty itself, what does this reality mean in a world starving for beauty?
Have you found yourself caught in the onslaught of negative and ugly rhetoric spewed everywhere on the social platforms? Do you find yourself participating in it, or wanting to find a way out of it, even to end it?
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Living Large in Our Surface Society
Facebook knows Instagram is addictive to young adults and can be especially harmful to young girls. They tune the app to emphasise celebrity lifestyles and looks. This creates a digital ecosystem where young girls and women get addicted to an atmosphere that promotes physical comparison.
“When I went on Instagram, all I saw were images of chiseled bodies, perfect abs and women doing 100 burpees in 10 minutes,” said Ms. Vlasova, now 18, who lives in Reston, Va. Around that time researchers inside Instagram, which is owned by Facebook Inc., were studying this kind of experience and asking whether it was part of a broader phenomenon. Their findings confirmed some serious problems.”5
This kind of corporate behavior is not okay. But because the company operates behind a digital facade that few understand or can penetrate, and because their business model faces little regulation, tech companies can do what they please.
Facebook knows Instagram creates despairing feelings related to body image for young girls and women, and they don’t care.
“Thirty-two percent of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse ... Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves.”6
Think about this; more than 40% of Instagram users are 22 and younger. The company views this demographic as vital to its economic growth, now valued at over $100 billion. Facebook routinely downplays the negative effects of the app in public discourse and has done nothing to address these issues.
But how do they target the young or any of us for that matter? Through our personal data. Each person connected to Facebook's apps represents monetary value in the form of personal information.
We know this, but do we care? And do we care what they do with our profile information?
Data mining is no longer unique to tech companies. This new economy, which focuses on collecting and selling personal profiles, is now used by a myriad of companies; from insurance companies to political groups.
What is their desired outcome? To predict and even determine your behaviour as it relates to commerce and consumption.
What is the connection between this broader act of data collection and Instagram's negative addictive effects on the young?
By isolating the young (and old, alike) with rising hours of screen time, Facebook affects their behaviour: spending habits, content consumption by way of algorithmic direction, and personal identity.
So, how do we get control back and protect our youth?
Columnist Ross Douthat wrote a response to Facebook’s insidious targeting of young women. His solution? Limit Instagram to adults only. He writes:
“The rise of big tech and social media presents a series of difficult, perhaps intractable problems for Western societies. Our internet behemoths are effectively immense media companies pretending to be neutral platforms, feasting on the revenue that once sustained the old media ecosystem while disclaiming normal forms of editorial responsibility.
“Their key products are agents of decentralized suspicion, generating information overload and feeding both populist paranoia and centrist hysteria. Meanwhile, their leaders run transnational pseudo-governments, exerting traditional political powers — cultural censorship, political banishment, the structuring of vast marketplaces — without clear lines of political accountability.”7
To solve this growing problem with tech giants and their unchecked power …
“… You need to create a world where social media is understood to be for adults and the biggest networks are expected to police their membership and try to keep kids under 16 or 18 out.”
I disagree with Douthat.
Turning this thing around does not start with limits. It starts with self-governance.
With you and I governing our own time on screens and apps. It begins with getting real with the youth of our communities, churches and our own children and explaining the real dangers associated with scrolling the app incessantly.
We, as adults, must teach ordinatate affections. We must teach children and young adults the proper things to love and adore so that when faced with something as diabolical as the tech company’s products, they can see through them for what they are.
"But Tim," you say, "what does this have to do with beauty and truth?"
"Ah yes," I reply, "I thought you'd never ask."
In the postmodern surveillance state, Truth is controlled by the powers that dictate the content consumed. Users feel they act and speak freely, forgetting their phones, profiles, and "likes" enable Producers to surveil and target them for various outcomes.
Truth dictated in such a way removes any traditional objectivity and forms the Truth of the powerful. In this case, the powerful are tech companies and those who align themselves with them.
Beauty suffers the penalty it has endured for much of the modern era: desecration.
When those in power reduce objective reality to a truth of their own concoction, they invite desecration of the sacred.
What is our hope in light of all this?
A holy pursuit.
Hope lies in the pursuit of The Beauty Chasers. In you and me.
The great foil of tech companies and their minions is a return to the simple, beuautiful things of life. It’s practical things like:
a simple walk in the woods or around your neighborhood
limiting your phone's influence on your life
getting outside and reminding yourself and others of the reality facing us each day in the created wonder.
Beauty nourishes. It does not tear down with addictive qualities.
Let's stay vigilant, friends, and find new ways to spread the glory of Beauty and Truth to a world desperately in need of a walkabout.
Thoughts for Reflection:
Take a few minutes for self-evaluation. Do you spend an inordinate amount of time scrolling or interacting on apps like Instagram and Facebook? What are some real parameters you can impose on yourself to curb usage? Have you ever taken a digital media sabbatical? If so, what did you learn? If not, consider doing one.
Do you agree with Douthat that we need to make social media for adults only? Or does this just fuel their desire to be on the apps? Do you agree with me that we need to begin with self-discipline and teaching ordinate affections first? If you disagree with us both, what is your solution? Feel free to leave your comments below.
How do you feel social media corrupts the beautiful, the true, and the good in our culture? Please leave your thoughts in comments below. Get with your small group, a friend, or your homeschool co-op and discuss ways you can begin to better educate our youth with regard to phone usage and social media interaction.
Let’s Talk About Beauty & Culture
I’m offering a two-part workshop on “Beauty & Culture” this month through a new online community I’ve created. We’ll discuss topics like the one here with social media and the value of our cultural education.
Beauty directs our attention and our affections to God. When we as the Church bring beauty back as the jewel of our theology, our faith expressions and cultural engagement change.
I hope you’ll join me for these workshops! I’ll be offering practical tools and live streams on a monthly basis.
Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007), 8
W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.”
Russell Kirk, The Intemperate Professor and Other Cultural Splenetics (University of Louisiana press, 1965), 154-163.
Grant McCracken, Culture and Consumerism (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), 11.
Georgia Wells Seetharaman Jeff Horwitz and Deepa, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show,” Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2021, sec. Tech, accessed October 14, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739.
Ross Douthat, “Opinion | Instagram Is Adult Entertainment,” The New York Times, September 28, 2021, sec. Opinion, accessed October 14, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/28/opinion/instagram-social-media-children.html.