This summer a relative put aside resistance and got his first smartphone, soon after sending us a picture of himself taken with his phone, captioned: “My First Facie.” Initial mirth over this mistaken terminology—“facie” instead of “selfie”—gave way to conviction that his was, in fact, the much better word.
That strange new-ish cultural form the selfie is usually a picture of the face, sometimes captured in an odd expression, sometimes decorated with the presence of others or an interesting backdrop. It is a pose, a mask. It is certainly not a picture of the self.
The self is much too elusive to be captured by a phone snap. And the self as a thing, an identity, seems almost necessarily a religious category. Many writers have pondered the self, but late southern novelist Walker Percy’s words rise to mind most readily, in his whimsical treatment of the lost self in the cosmos.
Why is it, Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos asks, that you can “learn more in ten minutes about the Crab Nebula in Taurus” than you “presently know about yourself, even though you’ve been stuck with yourself all your life?” The self, even our own, or especially our own, is hard to see. We try to see ourselves by looking–in the mirror, in a picture–but hardly can. Percy lays bare the difficulty with reference to a few common experiences: “You have seen yourself a thousand times in the mirror, face to face. No sight is more familiar. Yet why is it that the first time you see yourself in a clothier’s triple mirror—from the side, so to speak—it comes as a shock?”
Or this: “Why is it that, when you are shown a group photograph in which you are present, you always (and probably covertly) seek yourself out? To see what you look like? Don’t you know what you look like?”
What could we possibly want with a lot of ephemeral pictures our own face? Selfies are by us and for us. Elements of selfie-taking include showing off, trying to show others the kind of person we want them to envision us, in a glamorous place, or wearing something nice, or with a celebrity. But the compulsion to take selfies seems very secondarily about to showing off someone else. More, they are efforts to see who we are. Many such attempts get instantly deleted out of refusal to believe that is how we really look. But we persist in taking them, because we still haven’t seen what we’re after. It is hard to figure out what the self looks like.
Percy’s odd but wonderful book starts with a quiz for the reader to identify himself with a bunch of options (the “scientific and artistic self,” the “role-taking self,” the “standard American-Jeffersonian-high-school-commencement Republican-and-Democratic-platform self,” etc) but presses on this point. The self can only really know who it is in relation to someone else, and not just a fellow creature. In what Percy describes as the “Christian (and, to a degree, the Judaic and Islamic self),” the self “sees itself as a creature, created by God, estranged from God by an aboriginal catastrophe, and now reconciled with him.” In contrast, the “lost self”—the one the book assumes many readers resemble—is left amidst the “fading of Christianity as guarantor of the identity of the self” and has become dislocated, so that self, “Jefferson or no Jefferson, is both cut loose and imprisoned by its own freedom.”
In this light the pictures we call selfies bear an urgency: who am I? can you tell me?
Christians, generally speaking, are or should be interested in these questions, but among groups in American religious history, few match the self-scrutiny of the colonial New England settlers we call Puritans. Because for a time Congregational churches in New England required prospective members to give an account of how they came to think themselves saved, surviving church records preservesome of these testimonies. A fine collection of these is gathered in Michael McGiffert’s God’s Plot, which presents the private spiritual reflections of Cambridge minister Thomas Shepard along with testimonies from many in his flock. These documents are remarkable for a number of reasons: for words from the lives of mothers, farmers, sailors, servants, students; for illustration of the ways laypeople interpreted the Word as preached; for signs of the shaping of a new identity. Not least, though, they show individuals’ keen interest in an understanding of themselves, the “inner man,” or “man of the heart.” The conversion narratives show men and women trying to answer the mystery most often by looking inside, and most often what they find inside is not pretty or share-worthy. One man “saw no hope of help” in his condition. Another confessed that “I saw an emptiness in myself.” One woman admitted migrating to New England because “I thought I should know more of my own heart.” Another said, “I found myself ignorant…I found my heart dead and sluggy.” “I found my heart altogether dead and unprofitable…I saw myself indeed in a miserable condition,” admitted another.
Many features of these narratives deserve reflection, but two seem most relevant here. First, while these confessions have a dour tone (and I admit I picked some for that reason), they were articulated in the context of great good news, the speakers’ conviction that that self-knowledge was part of a process wherein they discovered grace. And that discovery of grace helped place them not only in a heavenly sense, but in some very practical, earthly ways helped to establish their identity. Second, these were not private self-assessments but speeches informed by others’ words, examples, interactions; “shared” out to their “friends,” the testimonies revealed what was internal, personal, significant. While there is some anachronism in using the term, these are type of presentation of the self. These are real selfies.
But those casual snaps of ourselves, and those tedious off-center, peace-sign-gesturing portraits that middle-schoolers take of themselves and send, those are not selfies. Those are facies.
Agnes Howard teaches history at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, specializing in early America.
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