Posted by Laura K. Cavanaugh
Yesterday, guest blogger Matt Cavanaugh introduced us to the “false reality” of ideal body image often portrayed in the media. Culture has so much to tell us about who we are, but not all of it is true. In fact, some of it is actually physically impossible. Consider the unrealistic proportions of the Barbie doll, airbrushed makeup advertisements, and fashion models with eating disorders.
But culture tells us more than what we should look like. Romantic comedies tell us relationships are all about that first spark of infatuation. Magazines and entertainment news tell us who matters and how to imitate them. Advertisements tell us how we should look, who we should be with, and what we must purchase in order to have the life we deserve.
Culture tells us who we should emulate, how to interact with others, when to break up with our significant others, what we need to own in order to be important, who it’s okay to hurt in order to get what we want, how many sexual partners we should have and by what age, who’s opinion matters more, where we should buy our clothes and our cars, which zip code we should live in, who our friends should be, and so much more.
And that’s okay. Sometimes, culture has it right. But often, culture perpetuates an impossible standard and faulty ideals that are not only unhelpful but also unhealthy, especially in the media. These standards and ideals create a false reality in which we must accept a false identity in order to survive and thrive.
So what do we do? How do we pursue healthy, holistic body theology amidst all the false messages from culture and the media? Here are four easy steps:
1) Know God. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33).
2) Know yourself. No matter who we are, what job we have, how much schooling we received, whether we’re married or single, kids or no kids, homeowners or renters–at bottom we are God’s children, covered with the blood of Jesus and clothed with righteousness. Our identity is in Christ, so to know Christ is to know ourselves.
3) Identify the messages you receive through culture. Instead of simply accepting everything at face value, ask yourself what this commercial or movie or news program is really trying to tell you about who you are and what you should want or need. Identifying the message breaks its power over you and enables you to view the message from a safe distance.
4) Ask yourself if the particular message from that commercial agrees with what you already learned in step 1 and step 2. If the answer is yes, then great! Accept the message. If the answer is no, then there is no need to pay it any attention. Simply acknowledge that it is a false message, and do not accept it. You have already broken its power in step 3, so you are in control. Choose to ignore the false message and go on with your happy life.
Okay, so maybe these steps aren’t quite that easy. Knowing God takes a lifetime. Knowing ourselves takes a lifetime. How can we ever get to step 3, much less step 4? Yes, it’s a process, and yes, we will all be imperfect at it. But the important thing is to have the awareness that there are messages we are receiving through culture and the media and that not all of them are true. The more we use step 3 and step 4, the more we will realize the need for more of step 1 and step 2.
Let’s have a practice run, shall we?
1) What do I know about God? God cares about the poor. God is trustworthy and my provider. Jesus said it is easier for a camel to fit through a door in the city gate that is only big enough for a person to walk through than for a rich person to fit into the kingdom of heaven. Jesus told the rich young ruler to give up all his wealth.
2) What do I know about myself? God cares about me when I am financially unstable. I can trust God to provide for my needs like the lilies and birds in the field. I will be happier and more fulfilled by following Jesus’ example of ministering to the poor and oppressed than by acquiring material wealth.
3) I watch The Pursuit of Happyness. One message I identify is that if I work really, really hard and never give up, I will get the job I always dreamed of and live in financial security for the rest of my life. Or, financial security = happiness. Or, achieving the American Dream will make me happy.
4) I measure step 1 and step 2 against step 3. The Pursuit of Happyness is a good movie, and I enjoyed watching it. But I don’t have to accept every message it gives in order to enjoy the movie. I accept the good that it has to offer, and I leave the rest. It’s true that working hard and never giving up are valuable character traits. I will accept that message. It’s not true that financial security will make me happy, so I will not accept that message.
Cultural discernment and media literacy cannot be achieved in one day, or one week, or even one year. It’s a lifelong process, but as we acquire more knowledge and wisdom from God, we will gradually free ourselves from the lies we have been believing, and as more of God’s truth informs our identity, the more wisdom and discernment we will gain.
Start small: Next time you watch a commercial, ask yourself what message is being presented, and test that message against what you know about who God is and who you are in Christ. You won’t catch every lie you receive in a day, but maybe you’ll catch that one.