Sunday, January 01, 2006

Posing, Not Impressing

Contemporary America is flooded with people posing and mugging for cameras. Everyone now poses; it is almost a reflex. You have big ticket, poster posers: Bill and Melinda Gates along with the omnipresent Bono posing page after page after page in Time magazine in a story about their philanthropic activities (all of which, according to Jesus, should be done in secret and certainly not posed for). Many of my students—none of which are celebrities, to my knowledge—pose for their photos on the class web page. Photos of most Christian “personalities” are highly posed, some even with a rather ungodly “come hither” look about them. Few ever look humble. Television “personalities” are probably the best posers of all, God help them.

But everyone now thinks he or she has the right to be a celebrity—or at least to look like one. So, they strike their poses: trying to radiate confidence or beauty or intelligence or hipness or sensuality. As Thomas De Zengotita says in Mediated, we are all method actors now.

Compare this with a mall and humble photograph of the Christian devotional writer, Andrew Murray (d. 1917), found in a book of his on holiness. We see his profile, his eyes closed, his head tilted down. He seems to be at prayer or perhaps in meditation. He is not posing. He is not saying, “Look at me, aren’t I________.” He is simply being before God, the Audience of One. No pose will impress the Almighty, who sees to the marrow of our being.

15 comments:

Josh S. said...

I rarely pose for cameras anymore. Cameras are fine to capture an event--but when they create (or influence) the event, the line is crossed.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Joshua: Good observation there. Camera's tend to create events, as Daniel Boorstin noted in "The Image" back in 1961.

I am now deleting Ed Darrow's comments, since his tone is nasty and meanspirited and insulting and since he doesn't contribute much by way of civil discourse. Of course, he will interpret this as horrible censorship. If he can post in a more dialogical and open manner, I might reinstate him.

daveterpstra said...

I certainly don't disagree with your main theme of the ridiculousness of the average American's desire to be seen as a celebrity. However, I had two thoughts/ questions:

1. With regards to your comments on Bono, a known follower of Christ, couldn't his usage of his celebrity been seen as similar to the Apostle Paul's statement: "Follow me as I follow Christ." Isn't Bono leading us by showing his example in aiding Africa?

2. Isn't anyone who is publicly known a celebrity? For example, a popular author of books challenging secularism and post-modernity would have a certain amount of celebrity. Isn’t the very desire to attract an audience, even for noble purposes, a desire for celebrity? The question I hear you asking is “how much should even the noble celebrities among us pose?” If you and I saw a photo of a present day “Christian celebrity” in the pose you described Andrew Murray in, wouldn’t we have to question his motives about “posing” in a posture of prayer? Like you said, only God can know our true motives, so wouldn’t it just be easier to look at the camera and smile?

Douglas Groothuis said...

Pastor David:

The problem with Bono (or one of them) is not what he has done for Africa. I have a deep burden for that continent (especially Liberia) myself and do what I can to help. The problem is that he is a rock star, an icon (idol, really). That is really incompatible with humility, the cardinal Christian virtue. If Bono did all that he did and did not put the spotlight on himself, that would be different. But how can he be a rock star and refuse the spotlight? I am so sick of him trying to look cool. We have to put virtue above results. God is not a utilitarian.

2. Being a public intellectual need not mean one is a celebrity, one who is more "well known for being well known" (D. Boorstin) than well known for any laudatory quality, such as intelligence or compassion. Inasmuch as I what I write or say is worthwhile, I want it to be well known, but without sacrificing the integrity of the message or the messenger.

To get a bit personal, in 2005 I refused several requests to be on TV (national and local) about several issues because the venue would not be right. I would be expected to pose, preen, and shout one-liners. I cannot do that and remain true to my calling. In one case, millions might have seen me. But if I am not allowed to communicate truth in love with wisdom given the format, a format that caters to celebrity but makes intellectual discourse impossible, what is it worth before the Audience of One?

Thanks for your comments David. Please keep reading and thinking.

Josh S. said...

Regarding Africa: Often giving traditional “aid” does more harm than good. Bono is a rock star, not an economist. One of the best interviews I have read on this subject is from Kenyan economics expert James Shikwati. Very interesting and worth pondering. Two of the best quotes:

“If the industrial nations really want to help the Africans, they should finally terminate this awful aid. The countries that have collected the most development aid are also the ones that are in the worst shape.”

“Why do we get these mountains of clothes? No one is freezing here. Instead, our tailors lose their livelihoods. They’re in the same position as our farmers. No one in the low-wage world of Africa can be cost-efficient enough to keep pace with donated products.”

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

In defence of Bono, he is conscious of the fact that he is "playing the celebrity game". I would recommend "Bono on Bono" written by Michko Assayas, if you want to find out where he was coming from. Both he and more recently Bob Geldof have made the point that they are speaking out for people who don't have a voice in the corridors of power themselves, and both are conscious of the fact that they are being used - but are prepared to accept that - prepared, if you like to be "made a fool" - so that the voices of Africans can be heard. Bono isn't blind to the fact that there is a danger that he is perceived as supporting Tony Blair and Bush over the war in Iraq - but his priority was to see what he could do about debt relief.

Also, to assume that the organisations represented by Bono are simply about providing aid is to miss the point almost entirely. But when countries are spending more money servicing debt than they are spending on education, there is an issue of justice. And when subsidised western goods are being dumped in the African market at below the price that local producers can afford to produce it for, this is also an issue of justice.

Christians need to be part of the solution, and avoid sneering at those that are trying to help, however much they suspect their motives.

Ed Darrell said...

I meant no mean spirit. I edited to get rid of insults.

Pie in the sky meets ground, complains. Always the case.

I regret to have offended you rather than to have provoked rethinking.

And I still applaud the Gates' for their campaign against malaria. It's a good cause.

Douglas Groothuis said...

Some summary comments:

1. The causes that Bono and the Gates support may be good. However, one must consider the means to the end. As Joshua Sowin posted, Mr. Shikwati, an African economist, says that much foreign aid is really counterproductive, for various reasons. Read his interview.

2. My comments were not meant to attack the concerns of Gates and Bono, but their posturing, their posing, their smugness in appearance, the dominance of the image over everything, their unwillingness to give in secret, as Jesus commanded. That was the point. Many strayed from that, I'm afraid.

Ed, your back--and without an insult. Bully for you!

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

My other comment seems to have disappeared into the e-aether.

1) The photo of Andrew Murray is likely to have been just as carefully chosen for the image it wants to convey as the photos of Gates and Bono. Prof Groothuis, you must have some feel for how images are used - and why God is known through word, not image.

2) DATA, the organisation that Bono represents, isn't fundamentally about aid - it is as much concerned with AIDS and trade.

3) Technogeeks aren't good at polished appearances - even ones as rich as Gates. They spend too much time in front of computer screens to ever be quite natural with real people. And FWIW, Bono is aware of, and has a problem with, his "smug appearance".

4) People doing their good deeds in public receive their reward in full in this life. Well, that's fine - their relationship with God is between them and God, ultimately. But at least give them their reward now, rather than being snotty about what they have achieved.

5) At least they are doing something about the fact that thousands of people are dying a day in Africa because of AIDS, and that millions of people live on less than a dollar a day, rather than ignoring these issues or doing nothing. How much difference have people in theological colleges made? Or universities? Surely it is better to do something rather than nothing.

Douglas Groothuis said...

To Paul/Liz:

I respond to a few or your points.

1. Murray was posed, but not posing in the sense that I detest. There is nothing in principle wrong with photographs of people; there is something wrong with always mugging for the camera. If you will, Murray's was a humble pose, but he was not "striking a pose" to look humble, as far as I can tell. He did not write like a celebrity! There are, however, intrinsic problems with the form of photography. See Susan Sontag, "On Photography."

4. There is no reason to assuse me of being snotty. That is bad form, really. I made a cultural observation. Calling it "snotty" is just ad hominem and carries no logical weight. I will not excuse their photo-arrogance because "it is between them and God." Neither did Jesus. That's why he warned us against it. Poster people become models for others. That's why everyone is posing now, as the book "Mediated" points out. It is a serious problem to be addressed, not ignored.

5. Sure, they are doing some good. I already wrote that in a post here. Moreover, women and men from my "theological school" (Denver Seminary) are doing good around the world: in Uganda, in Liberia and in Albania--just to note three recent graduates in my program. And they are not posing for anything. Our school has also sent many people to help Katrina victims.

Paul (probably - maybe Liz) said...

Okay, sorry - I said too much. Probably because Bono is kind of one of my heroes (though not role models) - though there is ultimately only one hero worth having.

I did not intend "snotty" to be ad hom. However, there is a note of "another celebrity attention seeker" in your blog, which failed to address any of what Bono (or Bill Gates, for that matter) are trying to achieve, and goes no further towards considering their motivation than OK or Hello! might if it did a photo shoot. In other words, you seem to have reacted negatively to the poses "equal and opposite" to the positive reaction that you assume Bono/Gates were trying to evoke. The poses ultimately aren't relevant - it's just the colour stuff that the story is written around.

I'm also sorry for the implied slur against your seminary. However, evangelical Christians (and I include myself and my church in this) tend to be inappropriately slow towards social activism - perhaps out of fear that the gospel would be lost - and it was a consciousness of this that led to TEAR Fund being set up in the UK. If every Christian had the heart of Shaftesbury, Fry, Barnardo, Wilberforce, Martin Luther King etc then one wonders whether solid evangelicalism would be the marginalised community that it is today.

Again, sorry for going too far.

gimmepascal said...

I think Dr. Groothuis makes a great point when he says: "God is not a utilitarian."

He is not trying to discredit the good that Bill Gates or Bono is doing. Rather, he is pointing out the effect that their posing has on those viewing their photographs. Let me explain. Many people (especially the younger generation)see someone cool like Bono advocating for Africa or Aids or something, and they start to think "Hey, it's kind of hip and cool now to try and save Africa." It becomes a new trend and everyone buys a nifty bracelet or bumper sticker, and pretty soon millions of young people begin talking about how the old people could have ended world hunger 50 years ago if they had been as serious and compassionate as Bono.

And then, yes, a lot of money and awareness is raised, so why would we fault Bono or Bill Gates for posing as the coverboys of altruism? Maybe they did use their image and power as a marketing technique, but it got people involved, right?

But that's just the problem. We have people sending money and advocating for Africa only because it seems to be the cool thing to do. Most people have not even developed a worldview in which there is a moral obligation to care about Africa, and I bet if you asked many why they want to save Africa, their answers would be quite weak.

God is not a utilitarian, and he calls us to take up our cross to serve Him and His cause with humility because it is what He calls us to do, not because we can wear cool sunglasses like Bono while doing it.

Regardless of whether or not Hollywood or anyone else is advertising for saving the world, Christians should be giving and striving outside the limelight, in order to please God, not men.

*Note: I'm not trying to bash Bono here, I'm just reiterating Groothuis's point that he is often a poser. But he's all legit on his album "Joshua Tree."

Susan said...

It is nearly impossible to know the true motives of those exalted to the culturally coveted postition of "visibility," but that is exactly the point.

Our culture is well-trained to axiomatically assign credibility to those, who pose.

Douglas Groothuis said...

GimmePascal and Susan are on target. We need a worldview and a lifetime capable of producing moral fruit that lasts far beyond trends and photo-ops. Much of the aid sent to Africa does not help because of the chaotic cultures there (tribal hostilities, corrupt governments, etc.). My African friends tell me this, as does my research. Africa needs genuine, full-orbed Christianity: it must be taught there and lived there.

Barefoot Guy said...

I love Andrew Murray!
His stuff has impacted me in such a deep way, I don’t think I even understand it. I have read most of his books and have been so encouraged by his personal walk with Jesus. He was something special.

I am a musician and AM has inspired many of my songs. I would be honored if you would check out my music on my site. All my music is free for download. Anyway, I just thought that I’d share.

Thanks,
-Sean
________________________
www.SeanDietrich.com
“All my music is free for download.”