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June 21, 2012

Scott Benhase: The 'me' epidemic

In last spring’s issue of “The Hedgehog Review,” Thomas de Zengotita writes about what he calls “the flattery of representation.” He writes: “We have been consigned by it to a new plane of being, a new kind of life-world, an environment of representations of fabulous quality and inescapable ubiquity, a place where everything is addressed to us, everything is for us, and nothing is beyond us anymore” (emphasis added).

Zengotita contends that ubiquitous media flatter us with attention. We get our own personal mobile ring tones and our choice of individualized media when we go online. In this age, life is designed to focus on us and for us. As social media leads to social movements like MoveOn or the Tea Party, it thrives because it creates the illusion that each participant is indispensably at the center of the movement.

The reality, of course, is different. Each participant is actually being manipulated to accomplish a particular group’s agenda. Is it any wonder then we have the political climate we have? Each legislator is saturated by this flattery, so why wouldn’t he or she expect to get exactly what he or she wants with no need listen to another’s point of view or to consider compromise? Why compromise when we believe the world really should be our oyster?

Media, and particularly, advertisers have always known that flattery sells. For example, an Oldsmobile ad a few years ago promised that when you turned your Oldsmobile “on” it would then “turn you on.” Oh my! Or, the Reebok ad that promised that if you wore their sneaker then it would let “you be you.” Even the U.S. Army decided it needed to flatter to bump up enlistment, so they promised that you could be an “Army of One” or you could “be all you could be” if you joined up (my hunch is that drill instructors at boot camp didn’t confirm that).

Flattery for the sake of manipulation has been with us for a long time. What is different now is that such flattery is hyper-realized with so many more media inputs in our lives, all of which flatter the inner-narcissist in us all.

If Zengotita observes our present age accurately, and I believe does, then the church has an enormous challenge in terms of communicating the gospel of Jesus -- because the gospel of Jesus is fundamentally not about us. The gospel tells us we’re not the principal actors on the world’s stage. We’re bit players, at best character actors, in the drama God is unfolding. The world isn’t about our desires and preferences. It’s about what God has done and is doing in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. That’s a tough sell to people who’ve come to believe that life should only really be about what they want.

In a world where everyone is “special” and demands to be catered to, the gospel must seem a foreign language.

We’ll be better character actors in God’s drama when we resist our inner-narcissist and humbly serve, not our will, but the will of God who sent Jesus to redeem the world.

Scott Benhase is the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Georgia.

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