In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes: “What are the gods of beauty, power, money, and achievement but these same things that have assumed mythic proportions in our individual lives and in our society? We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and [...]
In his book Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes:
“What are the gods of beauty, power, money, and achievement but these same things that have assumed mythic proportions in our individual lives and in our society? We may not physically kneel before the statue of Aphrodite, but many young women today are driven into depression and eating disorders by an obsessive concern over their body image.”
I have met more than a few young ladies who have struggled with eating disorders and other issues. I talk to young men who obsess with everything from working out to video gaming to find something in which they excel in order to gain acceptance in a culture unforgiving to those who do not fit in. In “Image Is Powerful,” a TED Talk, professional model Cameron Russell unpacks our culture’s obsession with superficial beauty. Watch the video yourself below, from which I will make a few observations.
What are we to make of such an obsession with the outward, the superficial, and with an overindulgence of surface beauty?
First, let’s not overcompensate by becoming slobs, which would provide yet another issue we would have to confront. The response to such a superficial culture would not be to say that beauty has no place. While not obsessing with it like our times, the narrative of Scripture recognizes physical beauty (see the examples of Joseph, David, Sarah, and the lover in the Song of Solomon, to name a few). But the Bible also warns us of the vanity and temporary nature of beauty (Prov 31:30). We should be careful to value in our churches — and in our student ministries in particular — more noble matters, like a love for Christ, character, a heart for people, and the development of the talents and gifts God has given to each to reflect HIs glory.
This leads me to a second thought, that our focus should be less on the physical beauty of a person and more on their uniqueness in the Imago Dei. Some have been given physical beauty, and they should not be ashamed of that. But they should realize how subjective beauty is. Russell notes how little she actually had to do with becoming a model. “I won a genetic lottery,” she says, one that our society at this point in history values ”Tall, thin, white skinned” models. Observing the 2007 study of a PhD student who counted 677 models, only 27 hired were less than 4% or nonwhite, she demonstrates the bent toward the majority culture (another superficial reality). There have been times in history when more than plump maidens caught the eye of fashion the way almost ridiculously slender models do now.
How much more beautiful is a person with a heart to love the broken, a life given over to Christ! There is a resplendent, captivating beauty to a young couple who leave family and ease for a life given to a faraway land to reach people who live in spiritual darkness. A regenerate sinner coming out of the baptismal waters, a single living chaste in a sexually crazed culture, or a senior adult who has prayed faithfully for a reviving work in his church, these all display a beauty beyond the exterior of one’s epidermis. I find it to be a thing of beauty to see a young person — regardless of outward appearance — expressing a growing heart for taking his or her talents and using them for God’s glory.
Third, understanding this obsession in our culture can help us in reaching it for the gospel. We will not likely change the focus on surface any time soon, although we can certainly give a biblical reorientation to Christ followers and call them to forsake the idolatry of external beauty. But we can also use the yearning of a person to “fit in” via their appearance to show them the beauty of Christ. A follower of Christ working in a salon, for instance, can develop relationships with her clients to help them see that while their hair color or style may be overly important to that person, it offers an opportunity over time show the beauty of Christ and the security of His acceptance. If we can look beyond the surface of beauty to see the insecure person underneath, we can minister Christ’s love.
Describing how she has come to understand who she is cannot be determined by seeing what she looks like in a fashion shoot, Russell states: “These are not pictures of me, they are productions. That is not me.” Yet she recognizes the completely unearned benefit she receives, saying, “I get free things because of the way I look, not who I am. Others pay a cost for the way they look.”
She honestly answers a question models hear all the time: “What is it like to be a model?” Her reply, “What we never say is, ‘I am insecure, because I have to think about what I look like every day.’” But she admits, “Models are the most physically insecure people on the planet.” What if we help to show the security found in Christ to the insecure young person struggling with physical appearance? What if we show the driven businessman caught up in the trap of success the the freedom of the grace of Christ, or confront the fear of death in the senior adult with the hope of the restoration? In each case we can move beyond a given surface issue to minister the gospel.
Finally, we can be careful how we talk about these matters ourselves. It strikes me that a show like American Idol, which has its own issues from a biblical perspective, can nevertheless offer a hint of insight. Judges overlook the assortment of physical appearances of its contestants — some intentionally bizarre — for the sake of the greater attention given to the singing, or more hopefully, the artistry of the individuals invloved. If a reality show can get past appearance to some modicum of art, I think we who follow Christ could offer a more meaningful alternative to a culture of superficiality than the Christian subculture (speaking of superficiality) or some tangent like the prosperity gospel that hides the beauty of Christ in a self-centered, superficial worldview. We can talk more about the transcendent, the eternal, and the more meaningful beauty the gospel offers. So many pop songs today talk about living for the moment, acting like it is our last night or we are going to die young or some other aspect of immediacy. This feeds a superficial mindset intent on today with little thought of either the consequences of such short-sightedness or the opportunities of the future.
I sat on a plane years ago with a tall young lady I assumed was a model. Turns out she was a PhD student at Duke. As I talked to her I found someone who had run from the insecurity of her beauty and the assumption of people that she would naturally pursue modeling. But she refused to be an “airhead, blonde model.” She responded to this pressure by going to the opposite end of the spectrum, to be known as an intellectual with a Duke PhD. Yet she confided in me her fear that as she neared graduation, her degree prepared her to sit in a laboratory to conduct research. But this was the last thing on earth she wanted to do. She really just wanted to be a school teacher for elementary children. She had a church background, but that seemed only to add to her confusion. How many young people do we unintentionally push away from a passion for Christ by not helping them to see that regardless of their appearance, academic ability, artistic ability, or athletic prowess, knowing Christ and following Him is more glorious than any of these?