Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

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Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

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Oct 11, 2013

Taking Off Masks: God’s Grace to Deconstruct Social Pornography

Fact: non-Portlanders think Portlanders do nothing more than sit around watching Portlandia and eating Voodoo doughnuts. That’s our reputation. Bacon maple bars and Fred Armisten. What stereotyping, one bemoans. But, stereotypes are often based in reality. In all truthfulness, I’m one of those narcissistic, self-centered Portlanders who do watch a show about his city laughing cynically at himself. And, for the record, if I weren’t dieting, a bacon maple bar probably would be in my hand.

Stereotypes are almost always well earned.

Portlanders are a proud, envious people. One Portlandia episode depicts two Portlander’s sitting at a coffee shop table. One looks up asking if the other had read a certain article in the New Yorker. They had, of course, and the question is asked back about another article. They had read that one too. The banter ping pongs forever. As a piece of social commentary, of course, a slice of Portland culture is dissected—intellectual envy. That conversation actually happens. All the time. And it drives me to be well read. As a result, I’m continuously surprised at how much reading I do—not out of love or desire to learn—but out of raging envy over everyone else’s reading and the hope of looking knowledgeable to everyone I meet. I want to keep up, want to look well read. I want to have thoughts on that editorial expose.

The altar of my literary envy is Powell’s.

Envy fuels so much of our lives. The same principle recently came to play when my friend returned from a month in Africa. Recounting her wild missionary travels, I found myself seething with jealousy over all she experienced leaving me to question if I was living a life crazy enough for God. Hearing her tales of adventure made my tales of mundane life feel so puny. So boring.

Why do I read so much? Why am I jealous of my friend’s travels? I suspect its because internally—right or wrong—I believe there’s some sort of narrative hierarchy in the world. In this mythic hierarchy I’ve emotionally constructed, the one with the biggest and craziest stories wins. This is why we try and ‘up’ everyone’s stories. The most well read person is triumphant.

It’s what I call narrative envy—the envy to have the best story out there.

To satiate our envy, we hoard narratives. We go overboard trying to create crazy stories to make other people jealous just like we were. We commit the sin of narrative gluttony. We turn stories into merit badges—did you read?, did you go?, have you heard?, have you been?

What ever happened to the simple, homebody, who followed Jesus?

A literary scholar by the name of Erving Goffman gave his life to study the complex dynamics of drama, theatre, and acting. His ideas were quite radical at the time. His most widely read volume was a little text entitled The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Within, Goffman discussed how people essentially live as actors in front of a world they believe to be an audience watching them. Aware of it or not, he believed we all perceived the world around us as a big audience that either booed or applauded all that we did. And because the audience can often be quite harsh, we’ll always naturally try and cover over our real insecurities and fears. Thus, we engage in particular behaviors, patterns, and attitudes in order to make impressions of success and confidence upon others to protect our real true inner brokenness. Goffman’s academic title for this is the “dramaturgical conception of self.” We conceive of ourselves as actors. Goffman was right—we often pantomime our way through insecurities and fears, painting a smiley face façade that keeps everyone thinking we know our lines, we know the story, and there’s no chance we will hiccup. This, of course, is exactly why Junior High was horrible for all of us: at that stage none of us had figured out which character we wanted to be yet.

Goffman’s theory about humans posing as actors is proved true with our obsession with Facebook. With Facebook, each of us can put on the mask of their choosing. Now, with all of its social benefits and possibilities, Facebook has two toxic side effects. First, Facebook allows us to put the best side of ourselves into public domain. This ultimately allows us the opportunity to minimize almost entirely the things about ourselves that are ugly and broken, thus, marketing a version of you that is a lie. In other words, we always make our most pretty picture our profile picture. No one that I know puts that ugly picture of you in green spandex and a fanny pack from 5th grade as a profile picture. Facebook allows us to photo shop our lives.

This leads to a second problem—that version of ourselves that we float into public domain is a lie; the lie of the perfect life. Facebook is social pornography. It allows you to do what Goffman says you always want to do; put on a mask to impress your audience. Now that might be theatre, but it isn’t reality. No one’s life is as pristine as his or her profile suggests. The real problem is that others look at your ‘perfect’ life and get depressed because their lives are actually broken. In fact, psychologists have actually began to speak of a phenomenon called ‘Facebook depression’ that stems from this—onset depression from seeing other people’s pictures, profiles, and perfect status updates and believing you are missing out. I noticed this the other day. There were all of these pictures of activities (parties, weddings, dinner parties) my friends were doing without me. I got sad because they all happened without me. I realized I wasn’t the center of their life. I felt angry, sad, and alone. 

Kids are killing themselves over this stuff.

Let me illustrate. The dream model today has what is called a “thigh gap”—a gap between the thighs even when one’s feet are together. The thigh gap, experts say, is both dangerous and nearly impossible to attain. Through the medium of social media, which becomes a visual marketplace for what people are eating, how much weight people are losing, and how perfect everyone’s life is, young people don’t know the difference between reality and hyperreality. Young people go to great lengths to fit in even if it hurts them. A number of recent stories in the newspaper have described how young girls are becoming borderline anorexic to achieve the “thigh gap” like the pictures of Facebook. Young people who are attempting to get the “thigh gap” in hopes others will pay attention to them. When a young person sees someone else’s skinny body, their only response is to try and reproduce it even if it is grotesquely unhealthy.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that pictures and images “hold us captive.”[1] There’s a truth to that. In a sense, every image is a kind of peer pressure. It is a kind of dare. It is a recommendation. Every image questions whether we’re ‘in’ or ‘out’.

Which is why porn ruins marriages. I’ve lots of qualms with pornography, but none greater than this: pornography sells a lie. Once we’re captured by pornography, sex loses its sacred creativity—we just do in the bedroom what we saw on the screen. Furthermore, porn portrays a version of human sexuality that’s never actually fulfilling or possible. Real sex isn’t glossy. Real sex doesn’t always have a happy ending. Sadly, people think what porn portrays is actually possible in real life. It isn’t. And since it’s never found in their marriage, they go on a quest to find it ‘out there.’ It isn’t out there. I dare anyone who claims porn is fine because it doesn’t hurt anyone else to say that with a straight face to the fatherless in my church whose dads left mom because sex wasn’t exciting anymore.

I think God is inviting us to participate in a new economy of stories—an economy where the ancient, biblical secret of “contentment in all things” rules. (Phil. 4:11) At this table, I’m given permission to freely engage and rub shoulders with the other in a great exchange of rich narratives and experiences without presumptively and lustfully being driven to need, own, and conquer others stories. At this table, my boring old life is okay. Life’s redundancy and normalcy, which so often mark my experience, are gleefully sanctified and welcomed just as they are as the guiding gifts of God’s love to me before the creation of the world.   

In this new economy, I am fulfilled by my story. Thus, the only way to fix that humming depression is to stop incessantly looking at Facebook, get off the computer, and invite a friend to coffee. That’ll set you straight. People always look great on Facebook but are really screwed up in real life. I promise.

I think God invites us to bring our boring old selves to the Kingdom of God. We can have narrative contentment—practicing thankfulness for every story God has given us as a gift from above.

But that’ll never make it onto Portlandia.

[1] In his Philosophical Investigations.



Books I've Written

Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology

Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis

A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience

Messy: God Likes it That Way

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Dead People I Read

Aimee Semple McPherson



Basil the Great

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Martin Luther

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Theresa of Avila

Vincent Donovan

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Top 10 Books Ever

#1 Theology and Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (Jürgen Moltmann)

#2 Church Dogmatics (Karl Barth)

#3 Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Witness, Ethics (William McClendon)

#4 Scandalous Beauty: The Artistry of God and the Way of the Cross (Thomas Schmidt)

#5 On the IncarnationDe Incarnatione Verbi Dei (St. Athanasius)

#6 Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Leslie Newbigin)

#7 Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (William Placher)

#8 Personal KnowledgeTowards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Michael Polanyi)

#9 Desiring the KingdomWorship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (James K.A. Smith)

#10 Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Miroslav Volf)


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