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Idols, Icons, and Facebook

Technology shapes us. But how we use technology shapes it, too. We make of our technology an idol or an icon. Our gaze—our intention—helps determine what the technology becomes.

Facebook has quieted a bit since Ash Wednesday. Many of my friends abstain from the site for the forty days of Lent. My own Lenten fast is non-technological, as my social networks are largely a professional tool. But as the season draws to a close this weekend, I've pondered this strange shape Lent takes in our world, and whether it "counts": it's not as if social networking was on the minds of church fathers as they instituted the traditions in which we live.

We fast at Lent, temporarily giving up some good created thing in order to seek comfort in the Creator. In the Lenten fast, we re-order what we love, bringing our chief end into sharper focus: to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. And so when we re-institute that good thing into our life after we celebrate the resurrection, we enjoy a taste of the feast that is to come in the resurrection—with the reminder that we are not there yet. We must knock down our idols to see beyond them.

The postmodern philosopher-theologian Jean-Luc Marion writes of the idol and its opposite, the icon, in his book God without Being. The idol, he says, is something that reflects our gaze back to us. It tantalizingly offers an image of something divine, purporting to give us—the viewers—all we need to know about the thing it portrays. So our gaze stops at the idol and proceeds no further than it; we ascribe to that idol-object qualities that are only true of the thing that it represents, and so we become fixated on it.

Marion juxtaposes the idol with the icon. The idol pretends to be a vision of the divine, and thus does not encourage us to move beyond itself; in the icon we are provoked toward a greater vision of the divine, toward something beyond us that is also beyond our control or understanding. The ultimate icon is Christ: in Colossians 1:15, Paul describes Christ as the image (the eikon) of the invisible God. Christ came to earth to point us toward God: "If you have seen me, you have seen the Father," he told his disciples. And furthermore, we sense, through the icon, a presence gazing back at us, pulling us.

Marion's framework is phenomenological, which is to say that what makes something an idol or an icon is, really, the viewer's intention and gaze—an idea that helps explain the church's endless hand-wringing over the issue of images in worship. Surprisingly few idols are intrinsically bad: it's what the viewer makes of them that is the determinant. So the glutton idolizes food instead of seeing it as a gift of the creator; the doting parent idolizes her child; the bookworm or couch potato seeks not to delight in good stories, but to escape from his own reality into another's. Even idols of antiquity are virtually indistinguishable from mere sculptures created by skilled artisans for aesthetic enjoyment.

Marion's paradigm has been useful in class discussions with my art history students this semester. We're studying how Christianity has shaped visual art (and vice versa) and pondering how, for instance, the way the museum setting shapes its viewers might change the nature of religious art. We're also thinking about how icons and idols function in contemporary art (a question Daniel Siedell explores beautifully in his book God in the Gallery).

But Marion intended the idol/icon framework for more than art and images. He was thinking of concepts and ideas, too, and there's a multitude of applications here. After all, most of us don't spend eight hours a day staring at works of art. But many of us do spend much time staring at our computer screens all day. And in more thoughtful moments, many of us live in uneasiness about the technology that "rules our lives." Some of us even write angsty tomes about how dangerous technology is, how it's changing our world, ruining our lives, melting our brains—you get the idea.

Yet what Marion's framework helps us see is that technology itself is likely not the culprit. Of course, it is true that technologies of all sorts—from the printed page to the telephone to the computer—change the ways that we humans relate to one another and to ourselves. Yes, our brains are probably being altered by the speed and fragmentation of today's technology.

Technology shapes us. But how we use technology shapes it, too. We make of our technology an idol or an icon. Our gaze—our intention—helps determine what the technology becomes.

Facebook is a good example of this. Whatever you think of Mark Zuckerberg, his brainchild can prove immensely useful for those of us who want to stay connected with others and facilitate our offline lives. Some of my students, for instance, use Facebook as a way to set up movie nights or study groups. Some use the site to interact with professors, posting links for topics related to class discussions to our walls, transforming us from mere front-of-classroom lecturers and paper-graders to full human beings, with families and interests of our own. To misuse Marion's framework slightly, they see Facebook as a way to reach toward many presences beyond themselves.

It seems to me that few of my students mistake individual Facebook accounts for their owners, nor do they see their "Facebook friends" as "real friends." But that doesn't hold for everyone, and recent studies suggest that teenagers can be at risk for depression if they spend a lot of time on Facebook, perhaps because they see witty status updates and beautiful pictures and assume they don't measure up. I think it's fair to assume that this is not just a problem for teenagers: for some, Facebook is an end in itself, synonymous with "real" life, and so the gaze stops there. For the idolatrous gazer, the site becomes a place to spend hours peeking at others' lives, obsessively constructing one's own identity to be as cool as possible, fantasizing about the lives of others, without any real effort to root those online activities in the offline, embodied world.

It's convenient to argue, as many have, that all these things are technology's fault. That takes the heat off us, the users. We are merely objects on which the agent acts, only marginally responsible for what happens. The only way to deal with that is to buck the system, pull out, get rid of the Facebook account. Shun the technology and it can't do bad things to us. Right?

No, of course not. Anything can be an idol. And these tendencies are hardly spawned by Facebook: it's just another way to let human nature out. Getting rid of the computer doesn't mean something else won't take an idolatrous place: a job, a hobby, a person. It is much harder to partake rightly in a good thing, or even a neutral thing, than to shun it altogether. There is much to be gained from the strength of the ox.

So perhaps, this is what some Facebook fast-ers sense—and rightly—when they decide to stay away for Lent. And so, my prayer is that they will return with a renewed vision for what a technologically-mediated thing can be when the user sees it not as an end in itself, a time-waster, but as an icon: a pointer toward many presences. Perhaps the one who disciplines his gaze will be pointed even further, toward a great Presence who isn't graspable, who resists boxes, who manifests himself in imago Dei and seeks to draw us in.

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Alissa Wilkinson Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in NYC, and chief film critic at Christianity Today. ... read more »

Posted in Philosophy, Religion, Tech.

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