By now you may have heard that Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is “selfie.” Clueless? It’s a reference to a smartphone self-portrait, now shorthand for any self-taken photograph. Pictures used to be taken, and later shown, as a way of saying “We were there.” Now, they are taken and instantly relayed through social media to say, “We are here.”
It’s a good word for our day, as without a doubt, it has become a very “selfie” world. Or as Christopher Lasch presciently noted, ours is a culture of narcissism.
In Greek mythology, Narcissus is the character who, upon passing his reflection in the water, becomes so enamored with himself that he devotes the rest of his life to his own reflection. From this we get our term “narcissism,” the preoccupation with self.
More to the point is the prevailing value of "narcissistic hedonism," the classic "I, me, mine" mentality that places personal pleasure and fulfillment at the forefront of concerns. Or as Francis Schaeffer maintained throughout his writings, the ultimate ethic of our day is the pursuit of personal peace and individual affluence.
As Daumier depicted Narcissus in a series of lithographs on the ancient Greek and Roman myths, the reflection that so captivated his life was not, in fact, an accurate portrait. Thin and gaunt, almost comical in face, H.R. Rookmaker notes that he was a “starving idiot, grinning at his own hollow cheeks.”
Feasting on yourself is a very sparse meal.
So the names say it all: YouTube. MySpace. And, of course, the “i’s” - iPod, iTunes, iMac, iPhone and iPad.
“Selfie” fits right in.
Tom Wolfe had earlier labeled the 1970s the “Me Decade.” In her book Generation Me, Jean M. Twenge writes that compared to today’s generation, “they were posers.” But across all generations, the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre said it best: “Man is the being whose project is to be God.”
Don’t believe it?
Just look at our latest “selfies.”
James Emery White
“Oxford Dictionaries: 'Selfie' is word of the year,” Sylvia Hui, Associated Press, Monday, November 18, 2013, read online.
“‘Selfie’-reliance: The word of the year is the story of our individualism,” Dan Zak, The Washington Post, November 19, 2013, read online.
“Forget the 'selfie': holidaymakers go for 'braggie' photos,” Lizzie Porter, The Telegraph, November 21, 2013, read online.
H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture.
Jean M. Twenge, Generation Me.
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Human Emotions.
Parts of this blog were also adapted from the author’s The Church in An Age of Crisis (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.